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It’s not all in your head

Releasing body-held trauma

Written by Karen Long

No matter how much we try to appear in control and exhibit mind over matter, common expressions give us away. We might speak of “getting something off our chest,” “crying our heart out,” or being “head over heels” for someone. Recognizing humans’ inescapable connection between mind and body has led to a rapid growth in somatic, or body-based, treatments for resolving PTSD, an often stubborn challenge.

In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” psychiatrist and researcher Bessel Van Der Kolk identifies three broad approaches to treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The first is talking through the traumatic memories and reconnecting with others, commonly known as talk therapy. The second is through medication, and the third works from the “bottom up,” focusing on the body and giving it experiences that “deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.”

The fight, flight or freeze response that occurs during a traumatic event results in a “whole-body response to threat,” and modalities that deal with somatic reprocessing likewise take a whole-body approach to diffusing the trauma and tension that accumulate in the body, leading to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, mood swings, insomnia, hypervigilance, shame, aggression and difficulty maintaining relationships.

In addition it’s not only the big, singular events — a car accident, combat trauma or first-responder experiences — that can lead to long-term complications from trauma. A series of occurrences, from childhood abuse and neglect to domestic violence, verbal abuse or bullying, known as complex PTSD, can have a similar adverse effect over time.

Body-focused practices for resolving trauma include acupuncture, movement-based therapies, neurofeedback, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and trauma-sensitive yoga. We’re fortunate in Wichita to have a growing number of practitioners using somatic techniques, and they are seeing impressive results.

Holistic wellness therapy

Therapist Sherilyn Dalke, LPCP, of Tree of Life Holistic Wellness, started off in her career offering talk therapy, but became frustrated because “I knew that there was more to counseling than what I was taught in my degree.” She transitioned to school counseling for a number of years, but then found her way back to therapy when she took an extensive three-year training course in Somatic Experiencing.

During Somatic Experiencing sessions, Dalke encourages clients to tune into sensations such as heat, cold, tingling or shallow breathing that may arise while discussing traumatic memories. She has also added movement-based therapy, family healing, EMDR and embodied yoga practices, combining them all with talk therapy in what she calls “holistic wellness therapy.”

“When you experience the felt sensations within the body, what happens is, you end up discharging those stagnant emotions that are held within the body,” Dalke explains, “and it helps to provide a gentle release without ever really having to go into depth about the trauma that you've experienced.”

One exercise Dalke teaches is called the high power pose, or the Superwoman pose, where the client stands up tall, legs strong, fists on hips, exuding self confidence and empowerment, and feeling it in their body. Practiced daily, this leads to being more “embodied and present” in everyday life.

A recent client who was continually failing her exams sought help for test anxiety; after a few sessions, she was able to pass her exams. Dalke also works with women going through domestic abuse, and over time “they’re able to leave their partners and create a life on their own, in security and safety.”

“I will tell you that there is a great need for Somatic Experiencing. And a majority of the clients that I see are asking for Somatic Experiencing therapy.”

EMDR

One somatic treatment gaining more recognition is called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.

“What makes EMDR different from other modalities is that it uses bilateral stimulation,” explains Christina Granados, LSCSW, ACHT. She has advanced clinical training working with patients who’ve experienced or witnessed, sexual abuse, childhood trauma, domestic violence and other traumatic events. She says that, through the eight-stage protocol of EMDR, most clients start to feel relief within a couple of sessions. Complete resolution of symptoms can take six to 18 sessions or more, which she explains is a shorter time period than traditional talk therapy alone.

During the reprocessing stage of EMDR, Granados uses a light bar displaying a green signal flicking back and forth from left to right. The client follows the light with their eyes while bringing up an image from their traumatic memory, and Granados asks them questions such as: “What do you notice right now in your body?” “What thoughts and emotions are coming up?” “What would you like to believe in yourself?”

Using this system, Granados says, the client is eventually able to come to the understanding that they are safe. “That was a terrible thing that happened. But I'm not owned by it today, my brain knows that was an old event, I am safe now. There is a new neural pathway so I can listen to my body and see what's happening, instead of replaying the old tape in my head from my past.”

Trauma-sensitive yoga

“Trauma patients have completely disassociated themselves from their body, and so they need to really learn how to be present,” says Amy Speer, part of the team at Soma Therapy and Counseling. A yoga teacher with over 11 years experience and special training in trauma-sensitive yoga, Speer explains that she works not only with physical pain, she also works with emotional distress.

“A lot of people store emotional pain in their bodies. You can tell they have a different posture — their back hunches, their chest gets tighter — everything, in their whole countenance is just completely different.”

Speer always teaches trauma-sensitive yoga as a private session, sometimes directing the student through familiar yoga poses, but there the similarity ends. Instead of correcting alignment and directing a constant flow of asanas, she gently invites the student into the poses to give them a sense of agency and control. She spends more time in each pose and asks them to be present with what they’re feeling.

While working with the therapists at Soma Therapy and Counseling, Speer has explained how trauma-sensitive yoga can dovetail with their own work, for example, certain poses can make a student feel more talkative, others can be calming after an intense session.

Sometimes during a session, the reaction is immediate.

“The place that was tight where they were holding it, when they stretched it, all of a sudden, that emotion was released. One student told me that she had an experience where she was just crying uncontrollably. And she couldn't believe how good it felt to be crying — even in public — and just letting go of it.”

Even though resolving the long-term effects of trauma may require focused attention, a blend of modalities, and specially trained professionals, Sherilyn Dalke ends on a hopeful note. “The only thing I want to add is that the body has an innate capacity to heal itself.”

 
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