How does one use bodywork to heal from emotional trauma?
“Trauma resolved is a great gift, returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love, and compassion.” – Peter Levine, PhD, 1997
You ask an important question that comes up a lot in my line of work. Before I respond, first, a few disclaimers: Trauma work can be challenging and, ideally, is done with the support of a qualified professional. My suggestions here are not meant to replace or act as any form of treatment. I offer one perspective and one technique here, but there are many others, so, by all means, use this as a starting point and continue exploring different ways to heal.
Let’s take a look at a mind-body-spirit approach to releasing emotional trauma. This practice is specifically inspired by the modalities of Focusing, Shamanism, Forrest Yoga, and the work of master somatic therapist Peter Levine, PhD, the developer and director of The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute based in Colorado.
Step 1: Deep Breathing
In order for deep breathing to help you connect with yourself, you must learn to get the inhale-exhale rhythm moving completely through your body. I encourage you to slow down breathing to engage the relaxation response. As best as you can, let the mind quiet down and relax the body. When you feel you have achieved this psychological and physiological state, name your intention for this session before you proceed. Your intention serves as a direction for your organism’s innate resources and other healing sources (for example, spiritual helpers) to act.
Step 2: Connect to Your Helpers or Guides
Prepare for your practice by connecting to mental imagery that will act as a helper or guide for you as you begin to release stuck, emotional trauma. You may imagine having a trusting loved one there with you. If you cannot think of a person, consider an animal helper or sacred place in nature that you can draw energy from so you can feel safe in this work.
Another tool you will need is a few pleasant memories or objects you can visualize or hold should you get overwhelmed. In bringing these helpers into focus, it’s best to take the time to connect to them on a completely sensory level—meaning use all five senses (or six, the intuitive sense) to embody these helpers. When this person, animal, or place appears, you can have a dialogue with them, or it, to confirm it is your helper. In other words, check to see that it resonates with you and feels safe, trustworthy, and authentic. Allow your guide, or helper, to remain with you if they are willing.
Step 3: Initiate an Inquiry While Connected to the Body.
To initiate this process, choose a stimulus, something like a memory of an event or person, or even an object or photo that reminds you of a difficult experience. When you’re first learning this process, it’s best to not work with too overwhelming of an experience or a trauma because you may get flooded. It’s better to start with something easy that will still generate an emotional response of some measure within you. Remember to breath deep from step one throughout.
When you have your stimulus selected, sit with it, and turn your attention to your physical body. Holding this stimulus, notice what may be starting to happen. Can you feel changes coming on, such as body temperatures rising or cooling? Scan your body to see if you can sense any energy vibrating, shifting, or moving like ocean waves through you. Are there areas that feels tight or tense, loose or detached? Observe as many aspects of this embodied experience. Without losing body focus, notice how the mind may also be involved. Essentially, the different sensations, vibrations, shakiness, emotional responses, and energy moving through you is the emotional trauma being released.
This stimulus may flow or morph into another one and that’s fine. You can apply this same process for as long as it feels safe and integrated. If you start to feel ungrounded, call on your helpers to re-center and support you. If they’re not able to bring you back, then deliberately refocus your attention onto the most pleasant memory that you gathered earlier and use the positive energy of that memory to calm you and stop the session.
If you feel that you need to move the energy with more intention, you may visualize releasing it through the soles of your feet and all the way down into the center of the earth. Let it dissolve in the molten core of this planet. Mother Earth is your home and is a tremendous caretaker and healer. Remember that!
If you cannot complete this type of practice without flooding or resulting in lingering effects, then it is recommended to work with a trauma-focused psychotherapist. There is never a need to place any judgements on yourself for the difficulty of this work. Trauma processing requires patience and a continuous dedication to this work. Trauma therapists have a lot of training on how to pace and move forward with care.
When you feel complete with this session, it’s time to symbolically close the experience. Call on your helper and thank them for being a part of this experience. Imagine offering a bow of love and gratitude toward them. Thank yourself for taking the time and being courageous to work on integrating this memory. Offer yourself a bow of love and gratitude, too. If you have been sitting the whole time, it would be helpful to stand and take about 10 long breaths in mountain pose to get your feet rooted to the earth. Channel the energy up through your body and draw sky energy down to reconnect your feminine and masculine energies. Let these forces unite in your heart so that you are integrated as you move back into your day. If anything feels left undone, rest easy knowing that things move as they are supposed to and the body has wisdom and resolution will likely come in a future session.
A few useful closing theoretical notes: Focusing involves moving slowly and gently exploring inward the different physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, memories, and images that may be connected to a trauma. As hinted above, it’s key to be able to not go fully into these memories and lose yourself, but rather to be able to witness them from a place of openness, curiosity, and a non-judgmental objective stance toward whatever arises. You must be able to notice and observe what comes up, then let it pass by or through you.
Remember, this process may be challenging to do on your own. If you enter a place of feeling overwhelmed with emotion, this may be a sign that you have proceeded too far, too fast, and that you should stop and enlist the help of a professional trauma worker.
The key to this process is to be able to learn how to get to the underlying physiological dimensions of the emotional experience. Trauma workers, such as Levine, suggest that “sensations come from symptoms, and symptoms come from compressed energy; that energy is what we have to work with in this process. Through sensation and the felt sense, this vast energy can gradually be decompressed and harnessed for the purpose of transforming trauma.” Therefore, one must utilize skills of mindfulness and focusing to get connected to sensations to dislodge the underlying compressed energy. Symptoms may be powerful masks that are difficult to get through to unlock the stuck energy.
Remember this is an ongoing process and small steps forward are big steps. Thank you again for writing in and I wish you the best on your journey forward.
I’d like to acknowledge the teachings of Eugene Gendlin, Ana Forrest, Peter Levine, and Michael Drake. Their teachings and books serve as the theoretical foundation for this article and the technique described infuses their wisdom and especially that of Levine and Gendlin.
By John Rettger