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Article  •  29 April 2022


5 key ways to re-establish control of your body and mind after trauma

Bessel Van der Kolk provides some key guidance on how to reclaim your life after trauma in his insightful book, The Body Keeps the Score.

Nobody can ‘treat’ a war, or abuse or any other horrendous event, for that matter; what has happened cannot be undone. But what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul: the crushing sensations in your chest that you may label as anxiety or depression; the fear of losing control; always being on alert for danger or rejection; the self-loathing; the nightmares and flashbacks; the fog that keeps you from staying on task and from engaging fully in what you are doing; being unable to fully open your heart to another human being.

The last couple of years haven’t been easy for a lot of us. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, natural disasters and a devastating war. We can see perhaps more clearly than ever the devastation these events bring and the lingering trauma that persists long after they have occurred.

Bessel Van der Kolk’s ground-breaking book was written seven years ago but it remains an integral text today, providing much needed information on the causes of trauma and the new treatments making it possible for sufferers to reclaim their lives.

The Body Keeps the Score moves away from traditional methods that haven’t proven entirely satisfactory by focusing on the regulation and syncing of the body and mind through the use of sport, drama, yoga, mindfulness, meditation and other routes to equilibrium.

In his incredible book, Van der Kolk provides some key guidance on how to regain control over your body and mind after trauma:

1. Dealing with hyperarousal

Hyperarousal is an abnormally heightened state of anxiety that occurs whenever you think about a traumatic event. Mainstream psychiatry has tended to treat this with medication, however, Van der Kolk argues that we should focus on our own self-management.

We have the ability to train our arousal system through the way we breathe, chant and move. Therefore, practices such as yoga, tai chi and meditation have been extremely effective amongst trauma survivors. In fact, Van der Kolk and his colleagues found that 10 weeks of yoga reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had previously failed to respond to any prior medication or treatment.

2. Mindfulness

“Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that now are the enemy.”

Self-awareness is at the core of recovery from trauma. If we constantly avoid the sensations felt from hyperarousal we become more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by them.

Practicing mindfulness allows us to focus our attention on our bodily sensations. We can use it to recognise how these sensations can change from slight shifts of our body position, breathing and thinking. We can try to better understand the feeling or emotion of the sensation, whether we are feeling it in a specific place in our body and what thoughts come to mind when it happens.

If you feel comfortable you can start to experiment by seeing how the sensations change when you practice deep breathing or if you touch the particular area where you are feeling the sensation.

3. Relationships

It is extremely important after a traumatic event to be around loved ones as soon as possible to help with our healing process.

Relationships provide us with physical and emotional safety, including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged. They give us the courage to tolerate, face, and process the reality of what has happened.

Trauma that has occurred within relationships can be much more difficult to overcome as it can isolate us from others. Often, the thought of getting close to someone can evoke fears of getting hurt, betrayed and abandoned.

You need to find people who you can trust and who will help you understand the painful messages from your body and mind. This includes relationships with our friends, families, partners and therapists.

4. Communal rhythm and movement

Collective experience through rhythm and movement can be an extremely effective way for you to open up and connect with others. This can be through music, dance, sport, theatre, anything that gets your body moving. When we play together, we feel physically attuned and experience a sense of connection and joy.

5. Getting in touch

The most natural way to calm down our distress is by being touched, hugged and rocked. This helps us to feel safe, protected and in charge.

However, it’s important first to feel safe in your own skin and experience your sensations and emotions in a safe space. This is why Van der Kolk recommends all his patients to engage in some sort of bodywork. This can be therapeutic massage, Feldenkrais (an exercise therapy that uses movement to teach self-awareness and improve function), or craniosacral therapy (an alternative therapy that relieves compression in the bones of the head, sacrum and spinal column).

Bodywork allows you to discover tensions that you may have held for a long time and are not even aware of. When the physical tension is released, the feelings can be released and the body becomes freer.

Feature Title

The Body Keeps the Score
A world expert presents a sympathetic exploration of the causes of trauma and the new treatments making it possible for sufferers to reclaim their lives
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