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Does Trauma really get trapped within our bodies?

Trauma is a response to a life-threatening incident (or series of incidents) such as sexual assault or natural disaster, that often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a safe, and predictable place. Exposure to stressors like racism, discrimination, or emotional abuse (to list a few) might also result in trauma. When someone goes through a traumatic event, whatever that might be, they can enter “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” mode, which is the mind’s way of helping the person survive. That response is supposed to be temporary but, for some people, it can last, leading to long-term mental health effects like depression, anxiety, mood changes, flashbacks, nightmares or trouble sleeping, and social isolation. A person might also experience dissociation—feeling disconnected from their body or emotions—as a way for their brain to cope with the stress of trauma. Sometimes, different combinations of those symptoms can stick around, causing a major disruption in someone’s day-to-day life. That might qualify as a trauma and stress-related disorder diagnosis, like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Can trauma literally be stored in muscles and bones? The idea of trauma in your body is pretty new. That theory was relatively unheard of outside the scientific community until psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, popularized the idea when he published the research behind, "The Body Keeps the Score" in the early ’90s. Embodied trauma, or when someone has unexplainable physical symptoms that are assumed to be caused by past traumas and who can’t verbally express what they’re feeling or talk about their trauma; sometimes experience physical symptoms associated with that trauma. Trauma survivors experience seemingly unexplained issues like migraines, rashes, and stomach issues, and later realize they could be processing some kind of traumatic event from their past. What researchers do know is that the amygdala, hippocampus, and other areas of the brain save emotional and sensory memories (including stimuli you might see, hear, smell, taste, or touch) that can subconsciously influence what people think and how they act in the future. Strong emotional memories—like trauma—seem to be stored “even more robustly in the brain than other types of memories." The amygdala impacts other parts of the brain and memories suggests that amygdala activity spikes during emotional times, which can lead to memories that are higher quality and easier to remember. Traumatic memories are stored in the brain. But here’s where the mind-body connection might come into play: Neurons from your brain send signals all over the body, making everything intimately connected. That means if someone has a memory of their trauma or the memory is triggered, that might spark physical pain or discomfort in places like the hips or whatever body part might be associated with that trauma. Trauma may not literally be held in that specific body part, but that brain-body connection is a huge reason why people might feel the need to stretch it out. There's no one place you can point at and say, ‘This is your trauma memory, and it's right here,’ or ‘It's in your hips,’ or ‘It's in your arm.’” Some do have lasting physical pain caused by their trauma, which serves as a painful reminder of what they went through. If someone experienced a sexual assault, they might experience pain in the area in which they were attacked. For some, it actually feels like it did at the time of the trauma, so that makes it especially robust and vivid and very upsetting. It’s also possible that your body can get stuck in its fight, flight, freeze, pr fawn response after experiencing trauma. And that continuous release of stress hormones can wear down your body. People with multiple adverse childhood experiences (like abuse and neglect) or C-PTSD are more likely to have health issues, such as heart disease, depression, and substance misuse disorders, as adults.

Can yoga or other physical activities reduce anxiety or stress that results from trauma? Movement-based activities like yoga are solid coping tools that can help someone tap into their body and, in turn, help manage their emotions. Yoga, mediation, or other physical activities can reduce anxiety or stress that results from trauma. Regular sessions of trauma-sensitive yoga plus group psychotherapy are linked to improved PTSD symptoms. Yoga therapy, in addition to psychotherapy, can help trauma survivors, who are often disconnected from their bodily sensations and can experience anxiety and increased stress levels. These approaches to healing have been going on for thousands of years. We’re just finding words to share it. This isn’t the same thing as stretching out the trauma. There should ideally be some therapeutic component that helps people work through the trauma that’s stuck in their memory, and the practitioners are also licensed therapists who can use research-backed methods to assist with exactly that.

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