Trauma and the Body

Recently, I had the privilege of attending some training on trauma and the body in Perth, Western Australia, with Body-centred Psychotherapist, Dr Andy Harkin. I’d like to share with you some of the key messages from that training.

What is Trauma?

Trauma, is any overwhelming and threatening experience that we are unable to integrate (Ogden & Fisher, 2015). Some people who experience dangerous or threatening situations do not go on to experience trauma, whilst others do. The range of experiences that can induce trauma are vast, from surgery, to a car accident, violence or neglect. Trauma also manifests in many varied ways, such as anxiety, depression, a mysterious illness, unexplained rage or a sense of having lost the self.

A large portion of our memory of traumatic experience is held in our body.

Implicit and Explicit memory

Memory can be divided into two separate entities. Explicit memory is the one most of us are more familiar with. This type of memory is conscious and verbal. It is how we are able to construct a story out of events that have happened to us, and make meaning of what happened. Explicit memory is accessible to us from roughly three years of age.

Implicit memory on the other hand, is available from pre-birth and is largely unconscious. It “…is encoded in emotional, sensory and visceral recall. In other words, what we don’t remember with our minds, we remember with our bodies, with our hearts and our ‘guts’…” – Robin Grille. Implicit memory is nonverbal and is made up of habits, beliefs, images, feelings, emotions and physical sensations. Often, these experiences and ways of being, are related to events that we cannot consciously recall (Ogden & Fisher, 2015).

Put simply, explicit memory is of the conscious, verbal mind and implicit memory is stored in the body.

Procedural Learning

Another aspect of how we remember, is through procedural memory, or procedural learning.
Procedural learning is what drives most human behaviour. It is the habitual, automatic way we function in the world the majority of the time. Learning to do pretty much most of our basic, daily activities, such as: driving, brushing our teeth, making coffee, writing, walking, talking is all procedural learning. We do it automatically, without having to think about it. Procedural learning is also reflected in our posture, our movements, our gestures, our “automatic arousal patterns, and emotional and cognitive tendencies” (Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute).

“Procedural learning is based on unconscious presumptions that the future will be the same as the past” (Ogden & Fisher, 2015). This presumption is extremely useful and effective in daily life. Without it, we would need to assess each and every situation we came across anew, before knowing how to proceed.

Procedural learning also comes into effect in the ways we have learned to protect ourselves from situations and people that felt unsafe to us in the past. For example, if we grew up in a family where it felt safer to go unnoticed, our automatic, unconscious way of being may be to make ourselves small in every way. We may habitually hunch our shoulders, avoid eye contact, keep our voice quiet and have shallow breathing. In the past, this behaviour served to protect us; however, in our current life, this automatic way of being may no longer be appropriate, or in our best interest.

“It becomes difficult to move on from the past when our bodies automatically react as if the past were our present reality” (Ogden & Fisher, 2015). It is useful to become aware of the language of our bodies. To notice, for example, when we are tense, closed, frozen, or feel ready to fight.

Our bodies have stories to tell us, if only we were willing to slow down and listen. Through this process, we are then able to begin to heal and transform ourselves – usually with the support of a trauma-informed, body-centred therapist.

Window of Tolerance

The ‘window of tolerance’ is the name given to the optimum level of activation of an individual’s autonomic nervous system. What does this mean? When we are in our window of tolerance, we feel calm, centred, alert, engaged, safe, competent or focused.

Alternatively, when we are outside our window of tolerance, we are either hyperaroused (over-aroused) – racing mind, urge to run or fight, overwhelmed or distressed, tense, wound up, restless, shaky, angry, anxious, feel unsafe – or at the other end of the scale, we become hypoaroused (under-aroused) – flat, numb, empty, spaced out, depressed, heavy, lethargic, still, frozen, collapsed or indifferent. Trauma is experienced – both at the time of the event and afterward – in these two extremes.

We can learn to identify the internal signals that let us know when we are either hyperaroused, or hypoaroused and when we are within our window of tolerance. We can do this by becoming mindful of our internal state – by noticing for example, when we feel calm, jittery, heavy, spacey, have a tight jaw, or a racing heartbeat.

By checking in with ourselves, and becoming familiar with our bodily signals, we can ‘hear’ what our body is trying to tell us. When we can notice that we are outside our window of tolerance, we are more able to take action in order to return to a state of balance.

Resourcing: Internal and External (for mindfulness and wellness)

Developing personal resources that both enable us to know how we feel, and how to stabilize ourselves, is the first step in healing from trauma.

So what actions can we take to bring ourselves back into balance?
The answer to that depends largely on the individual, and whether we are hyperaroused or hypoaroused. Generally, if we are over-aroused, we need calming, soothing resources to return to our window of tolerance; and if we are under-aroused, we need energising resources.

We have both internal and external resources. Internal resources are such things as our ability to set boundaries, be creative, meditate and notice our bodily sensations. Our external resources include things such as our friends and family, our therapist, exercising and listening to music.

These resources can be broken down into various categories, and the more categories we can draw from, the larger and stronger our tool kit becomes. Following are the categories suggested by Ogden & Fisher (2015), with some examples.

Relational – Internal, feeling others care about us; external, having supportive people around us.
Somatic – Internal, breathing deeply; external, going to a yoga class or having a massage.
Emotional – Internal, ability to feel our emotions; external, activities that promote joy and excitement, or peace and comfort.
Intellectual – Internal, ability to think clearly; external, doing a course or reading a book.
Creative – Internal, accessing our creative energy through letting ourselves do creative activities; external, having access to creative activities.
Material – Internal, the ability to find pleasure in material objects; external, have objects that make life comfortable, such as a warm bed, or a bike.
Psychological – Internal, feeling safe; external, having access to self-help books or a counsellor.
Spiritual – Internal, being in touch with some sense of spirituality; external, access to spiritual activities.
Nature – Internal, connecting to nature; external, having access to the natural environment.

The examples above, are really just a starting point in terms of exploring and implementing supportive resources into our daily lives. For much more detailed information, refer to this book.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks, for the follow up post, elaborating on how we can identify and grow our resources.

Further Information and References

This article provides a basic summary of trauma and the body from the perspective of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. For more detailed information, please refer to the resources below.

‘Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment’ – Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher (2015)
Robin Grille – ‘What your child remembers – new discoveries about early memory and how it affects us’. 
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute

For further support, you may wish to see a body-centred psychotherapist or other health care professional. This article provides general information and cannot respond to the needs of specific individuals.

I am a psychotherapist, counsellor and creative therapist, in Perth, Fremantle and Mundaring, Western Australia. I specialise in working with women around the issues of self-worth, anxiety, body image and personal power. I am a certified Gestalt Therapist, with a BA Psychology and a Grad. Dip. Women’s Studies. I have a strong interest in the areas of trauma and eating disorders and use both body awareness and art therapy in my work.
If you would like to book an appointment, please contact Toni Jackson.
Phone: 0439 995 302

Photo credit: Brush Portraits via / CC BY-NC-ND

3 Comments on “Trauma and the Body

  1. who is the artist of the above art work (women’s body in the foreground; small house in the background).


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