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Trauma’s Effects on the Body

By Kristine Ives, CCASA Blogger

I recently sat down with a physical therapist, Christina Attiken, who makes a point of connecting the physical complaints that land someone in her care with the emotional undertones that perpetuate their pain. She explained that most people with any sort of chronic pain or illness tend to have a strong emotional correlation. Instead of relating to the physical pain as something separate and disconnected from our emotions, we can use it as a tool that helps guide us into greater levels of healing. This will allow physical pain to become a guiding source rather than something distracting.

One of the biggest things Christina evaluates for is a person’s level of safety within his or her own body, which is often affected by traumatic life events. The ultimate trauma is anything that causes someone to disconnect from themself. The medical model sometimes serves to further this disconnect by focusing only on specific parts of the body rather than a holistic view of the self. By concentrating simply on symptoms, the medical model can miss the root causes that may be steeped in emotional responses to trauma. While chronic pain (whether it be hip, shoulder, back, pelvic or anything else) can be traced to our alignment and how our neuromuscular system is functioning, if we have deep emotional pain, changing our mechanics may not be enough to fix the physical discomfort.

This leads to the question, what do we do about it? How do we help people in physical pain with correlating trauma and emotional disconnect feel whole again? One of the keys is movement. While therapy and medications can be helpful interventions to heal trauma, it appears that movement can be a different, adjunctive kind of medicine. If you look at a child, you will see him constantly moving, even if it is just the tap of a foot or the swinging of arms. Trauma tends to lock us in and reduce our movement. In the wild, we see an animal freeze in response to a threat but it will physically shake the fear off and continue on its way. Humans tend to get stuck in the freeze response and the trauma can cause us to contract our bodies unless we release it. When we freeze, we will physically contract and this becomes a posture that feels safe to us. This tends to manifest with rounding our shoulders, leaning forward, or keeping our legs bent up closer to our body, which continues the pattern that once helped us. Unfortunately, being in perpetual contraction only serves to increase physical pain and keep us from feeling grounded.

When we remain in a contracted position, this becomes our new normal and our reference point of what feels safe changes. This ultimately directs us further away from what we genuinely desire to feel. This leads to our reference point of what feels safe to change, which ultimately directs us further away from what we genuinely desire to feel . Fixing our body mechanics through medical interventions can be useful, but until we retrain our bodies to feel safe and comfortable in open, more natural postures, we will remain in contraction and thus continue to experience pain. Movement recommendations include going for walks, jumping on a trampoline or dancing in the comfort of our own home. These movements will remind our bodies of how they were created to work by calming our nervous system and realigning the muscle groups and structures that have been altered through changes in posture. It can take awhile for our bodies to completely revert to healthy mechanics, but healing is possible.

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