Being in the 4th year of a Psychotherapy course, this is an area that was completely new to me as of three years ago. It’s now a field that I am incredibly interested in and have used with some clients.
Scientists now have more evidence than ever before focusing on the intertwined & special relationship between the mind and body. We see this with the link between gut health and mental health with stress being a major contributing factor. We now also see it with the very real physical manifestations of stress and trauma on the body —neck or back aches, tension, heart palpitations, trembling, pain —particularly trauma that hasn't been fully processed or even acknowledged by the person who experienced it. How many people sit at their desks at work and feel aches and pains? And how many of those people have experienced trauma in their lives? Perhaps the most extreme cases being terminally ill cancer patients who have experienced unexpected remission, often citing the release of emotional stress or trauma as one of the key factors in their healing.
This has led some people to speculate that unprocessed trauma gets "stored" not just in your subconscious mind and memory but throughout your physical being and that, in addition to more traditional modalities of counselling and therapy, some sort of physical stimulus or touch may be helpful in releasing it. Could this be why, for instance, some people start unexpectedly crying during a massage or acupuncture session for no apparent reason? Researchers, psychiatrists, and healers have given their take on why something like this might occur, whether trauma can, in fact, be stored in the body, and the safest ways to go about releasing it.
First, you need to understand that trauma affects everyone at one point or another. It does not have to be a catastrophic life event such as war and can be emotional situations such as the loss of a loved one or less ‘obvious’ emotional situations. Research suggests 70% of adults have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. Perhaps losing a job can trigger trauma too and there is much more appreciation these days for micro-traumas, sometimes cumulating over many years. The problem is that the negative psychological and physical effects of any type of trauma don't always go away or resolve on their own.
The way you manage these "emotional releases" is important. And whilst crying can be cathartic for some, unearthing buried emotions and memories could be frightening for others. Others agree that massage, yoga, and acupuncture can be great but only if you have a way of containing the emotions and triggers that might come up.
Some therapists are a fan of eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) and somatic body work, both of which work with the trauma stored in the body and don't simply plaster over a traumatic experience or your thoughts and feelings about it verbally—which can be ineffective and sometimes even re-traumatising.
With EMDR, specialist guide patients through guided eye movements while asking them to recall certain events and then shifting their thoughts to more pleasant events, which is meant to dampen the power of past trauma. Somatic body work, named Somatic Experiencing, was developed by psychologist Peter Levine and is a body-oriented therapy that assesses where a person is stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze responses and provides tools to resolve these physiological states. Both EMDR and somatic experiencing have been shown in studies to be beneficial for the treatment of trauma and PTSD.
To also help you get to the bottom of unexpected emotions that may crop up, something like journaling and writing down what comes to mind when you experience these emotions may be helpful and have been shown to reduce stress taken in to our every day lives. By writing down experiences people can bring out these emotions and express them at least on paper if nowhere else. If a trauma occurred early in life, it may take a while for us to connect these feelings with these events because they may be buried very deeply.
So to recap…
- Physical manifestations of trauma very much exists in our bodies and there is research to back this up
- Having some type of emotional release during a massage, acupuncture treatment, or yoga class is common
- There is recognition that a lot of this is non- tangible or measurable things for study so is very instinct and experience based
- We can say that some of these techniques such as acupuncture, massage etc. may help rebalance the autonomic nervous system, which could become imbalanced due to a traumatic event.
- We can also speculate, with somewhat less certainty, that bringing the nervous system into balance and countering some of the bodily tension that is associated with trauma may help certain emotions or memories resurface.
- Having an emotional release in and of itself isn't necessarily beneficial if you don't know how to handle these emotions and memories. Depending on the severity of the trauma, they may need to be carefully unravelled and processed with the help of a therapist and or a trauma-focused therapy such as EMDR, somatic experiencing or similar. And once they are processed, the effect could be massively beneficial for mental health.
And ultimately there's no one right approach to processing and healing from trauma. Just as there's no single diet that works for everyone, there's likely no single approach to healing or releasing trauma that's right for everyone. Being freed of stored, unresolved trauma is certainly not as simple as booking an acupuncture session and may need so much more.
We're also incredibly complex creatures and as much as it’s important to look after our physical health, how we look externally and how we feel physically, it’s also important to work with our minds, our inner bodies and the sub conscious. We are now seeing a movement towards the non-tangible and starting to really piece together and form the link between our experiences and the sub conscious and in turn our bodies.