Although the word “trauma” is often associated with war, accidents, or abuse, it can refer to less obvious experiences, too. Illness, injury, poverty—if you have been a member of the human race long enough, it is highly likely that you have experienced some sort of trauma yourself.
When we experience a traumatic event, our body goes into a heightened state. This is a good thing. It’s how our body protects itself. If someone throws a punch at me, I shield myself: arms crossed, shoulders curled in, rib cage back, head down. I’d suck in a breath and hold it, bracing for the impact.
Once the threat is gone, say I realized the person was only swatting a fly, I’d open back up, take a big breath, shake it off, and move on. Those two things combined, breathing and shaking, send the signal to my brain that everything is okay and it can stop taking both the visible protective measures (my body moving to deflect the blow) and the internal, invisible ones, like stress hormone production.
But sometimes, the threat persists, like the threat of illness has for the past two years. And even if the actual threat is gone, we may perceive (consciously or subconsciously) that it is still there and, whether we know it or not, keep working to protect ourselves.
When we’re stressed, our muscles constrict. Just as if I held that tight, protected pose inspired by the fly swatter for more than a few moments, the body may have a hard time letting go. And it might hurt. It’s quite similar to the way we may feel about things opening back up after the isolation of the pandemic.
Just because in-person events are back on, doesn’t mean we are automatically free from fear of exposure. Just because the world is opening back up, doesn’t mean your body will automatically follow.
There’s no single approach to healing from trauma that’s right for everyone. Being freed of stored, unresolved trauma is certainly not as simple as doing a little breath work, booking an acupuncture session, or eating more kale.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and other types of therapeutic medicine, meditation, art therapy, biofeedback, exercise, massage, support groups, and many more methods used in combination over time can heal the effects of unresolved trauma. The first step is to get help. Your primary care doctor, spiritual practitioner, employer, or school should all be able to guide you to resources.
You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline which provides 24-hour free, confidential referrals in English and Spanish by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visiting .samhsa.gov/find-treatment.
Since my expertise is in movement, I must note that the benefits of exercise in restoring balance to the nervous system are undeniable. Regular exercise can even teach your nervous system how to rebound from activation sooner. But, for many struggling with mental health challenges of all kinds, the thought of launching into an exercise program is daunting.
In all cases, especially when addressing an acute situation, we must start small. For me and my clients, breath always comes first. Make no mistake, breathing is moving!
If you need guidance on starting an effective practice you can refer to my May 2020 column, Your Wellness Secret Weapon, or shoot me an email at email@example.com—I’d love to help.
Once you’ve got that down, gentle mobility practices such as rocking, rolling, crawling, and head nods (again, let me know if you want to know more about using these movements, they are my favorite!), tai chi, and yoga are great ways to release stress. Gentle stretching, focused on your hips, necks, shoulder and spine comes next. Always warm up before stretching by moving for at least two minutes. Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Don’t overdo or hold for too long. If it hurts, it’s too much. Only stretch until you feel tension in the muscle, not to the point of pain, and don’t bounce. Remember, whatever exercise you choose to use to help you body open back up, it should feel good! Our goal in using movement here is to remind your brain that your body is safe. A bit of challenging, pleasant exertion is great but for now no pain is all the gain. If you have questions about your specific needs or are willing to share your experience with storing trauma in your body, I encourage you to reach out. If not to me, to another trusted health and wellness practitioner. That is what we are here for!
Erika Taylor is a community wellness instigator at Taylored Fitness. Taylored Fitness believes that everyone can discover small changes in order to make themselves and their communities more vibrant. Visit facebook.com/erika.taylor.303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.