Healing the Brain and Body From Trauma Often Goes Beyond Talk Therapy—Here’s Why
Psychotherapists are the pillars of mental health support. They are our sounding boards and voices of reason. They offer coping mechanisms and help us process difficult emotions. There’s no doubt that talk therapy has saved lives. But something else we know about trauma, whether it’s inherited or from a personal experience, is that it can become deep-rooted in the brain and body.
Many people who experience trauma find that there are healing modalities that work hand-in-hand with talk therapy. Some of these practices—like reiki, yoga, and trauma-sensitive massage—have rich histories and have existed for hundreds of years. Others, like virtual reality therapy, are relatively new. What’s clear is that there’s no one set way to heal. Learning how trauma takes root in the brain and body may lead to discovering a practice that resonates with you. Here, mental health experts, researchers, and healers share exactly how trauma affects both, highlighting several ways of healing that could be helpful to explore.
What exactly is trauma?
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” While this is certainly true, The Center for Mind-Body Medicine founder, psychiatrist, and Transforming Trauma: The Path To Hope and Healing ($18) author James S. Gordon, MD, says trauma can also be inherited. “The [medical] field of epigenetics has shown that if someone’s parents or grandparents suffered significant trauma, it can cause chromosomal changes that can affect the way our genes are expressed,” he explains. “These changes can be inherited and what it means is that someone’s response to stress isn’t as prompt; they aren’t as resilient.”
“Trauma takes root in the brain and body, so both require care.” —James S. Gordon, MD, founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine
Natalie McGreal, a trauma-sensitive massage therapist and certified trauma-sensitive yoga teacher, says that the more she studied trauma, the more she realized it’s hard to escape. “To be a human being alive in this world is to experience trauma,” she says. “Even just the process of being born can be pretty traumatizing. We go from this warm, safe [womb] to somewhere bright and cold, and for some people, they were held upside down by their ankles and given a smack.” Of course, she also honors that there are vastly different degrees of trauma. Some have experienced harrowing personal experiences—such as physical or sexual abuse, war, or food insecurity; our trauma stories differ greatly from one another.
About ready for some positive news? “Just like trauma can be inherited, it can also be reversed and resiliency can be inherited, too,” Dr. Gordon says. “What’s important to understand is that every part of our body is connected to each other. That means, every thought and feeling can affect every organ, cell, and every biological process in the body.” This is exactly why Dr. Gordon says trauma healing should go deeper than talk therapy on its own. For example, he says the longest chapter in his book is about a trauma-healing diet because many people have a compromised digestive system as a result of trauma. (If you’ve ever experienced tummy troubles because you’re stressed, you’ve experienced a taste of this first-hand.) He emphasizes that trauma takes root in the brain and body, so both require care.
Ways of healing the brain
As Dr. Gordon pointed out, trauma can affect your entire system, and that of course includes the brain. He explains that whenever we’re confronted with something that’s either physically or mentally distressing, it jump-starts the fight, flight, or freeze response. “In this state, heart rate goes up, stress hormones go up, and our digestive system doesn’t work as well,” he explains. “The amygdala, the emotional center of our brain and the center of fear and anger, is firing off madly and the frontal part of the cerebral cortex [which plays vital roles in memory, attention, motivation, and numerous other daily tasks] is suppressed.”
But this doesn’t just happen during the traumatic event itself. Whenever there’s a situation or image that resembles the trauma, it can re-activate that fight, flight, or freeze response, according to Dr. Gordon. This is exactly why someone who has been involved in a shooting may instinctively drop to the ground when they hear a loud noise.
Psychologist and researcher Deborah Korn, PsyD has extensively studied how trauma affects the brain, and one way of healing she’s a proponent of is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). She recently co-wrote a book about EMDR as trauma healing, Every Memory Deserves Respect ($16). “Trauma is truly an injury to the brain, and its overwhelming nature is what activates the fight, flight, or freeze response. What can also happen is that it can cause someone to shut down completely, which can lead to feeling depressed and not motivated to participate in life,” she says. “What EMDR is focused on is getting the brain to work functionally again. Because it can’t function properly when it’s stuck in fight, flight, freeze, or shutdown mode.”
She explains that EMDR was developed in 1987 by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro, PhD. Dr. Shapiro was walking in the park reflecting on some traumatic events that happened to her in the past, and she realized that, as these memories came flooding back, her eyes started moving rapidly back and forth, looking between two trees. She also noticed that, as her eyes moved back and forth, the negative emotions associated with the disturbing memories subsided. Intrigued, she started conducting research studies to see if there was a connection. EMDR is still controversial, but numerous studies in the four decades since its introduction have shown it can play an important role in healing.
Here’s how it works: During a session, a client is asked to focus internally on a traumatic memory or trigger. At the same time, they’re asked to focus their eyes on something—typically the therapist’s fingers or a light—moving their eyes bilaterally back and forth. “This creates a condition of ‘dual attention’—a simultaneous focus on an external activity and an internal memory or experience—that seems to jump-start and support processing of the memory,” Dr. Korn writes in her book. “When clients reprocess traumatic memories and triggers, they are able to reduce distress and come to terms with significant guilt, shame, unmet needs, grief, and anger while addressing their sense of effectiveness, vulnerability, and powerlessness.” If someone has diagnosable trauma—such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—it takes three to four sessions to start seeing results, Dr. Korn tells me.
Dr. Korn emphasizes that talk therapy plays a big part in EMDR—someone should never just be thrown back into their traumatic memories. “A therapeutic relationship between the therapist and client needs to be established first, and then you work collaboratively on a treatment plan,” she says. EMDR is just one part of that, and there are conversations beforehand about what the client needs to feel safe.
Maria Olsen, who experienced trauma in the form of sexual assault during childhood, says she has had both positive and negative experiences with EMDR. “I was in a black hole of depression that I was desperate to get out of,” she says. “Holding on to my trauma was like trying to hold a beach ball underwater; it took a tremendous amount of energy.” She says even 20 years after the assault occurred, she was still triggered by memories, so she sought out EMDR as part of her treatment.
The first time she tried it, she says the therapist spent very little time talking to her beforehand; they didn’t have an established relationship. As Olsen moved her eyes back and forth, tracking the therapist’s finger, she said it felt hypnotizing. “I was brought right back to the scene. I could smell the room and see the fibers in the carpet. It was so vivid,” she says. Afterward, she felt angry, and she says the therapist let her channel that anger by beating the couch with a baseball bat. “I had all this pent of rage I didn’t realize,” she says.
But overall, she says it was not a good experience for her because the therapist didn’t spend enough time making her feel safe as the memories so vividly surfaced or afterward. “I get very upset when I hear stories like this because it reflects poor treatment,” Dr. Korn says, of Olsen’s experience. “No matter what profession you are talking about, there are always going to be people who don’t do a good job,” she says. Her advice is to seek out an EMDR therapist who is credentialed, and emphasizes again that it shouldn’t be the start of treatment—you should have a trusting relationship with the therapist, as well as a game plan before doing it.
Fortunately, Olsen says the second time she did EMDR, she it was healing for her. “It was with someone with more training—a therapist specifically for people who had been sexually traumatized—and it was a much better experience,” she says. “We spent much more time talking.” She believes the EMDR was helpful in making the memories of her sexual assault less anxiety-inducing when they surface, but she also says speaking out about her experience—with therapists and in general—also tremendously helps.
Virtual reality therapy
Similar to with EMDR, Debra Boeldt, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and researcher whose work centers around evidence-based approaches for mental health and technology, says using virtual reality in exposure therapy is a way to rewire the brain, making distressing memories less traumatic. She co-authored a scientific paper about how virtual reality can help someone overcome anxiety. “For the past three decades, there has been research done on using virtual reality for exposure therapy, anxiety, and PTSD,” she says.
Dr. Boeldt explains that virtual reality provides a way for someone to be put in a computer-generated simulation that’s similar to the traumatic situation they’ve experienced. There, they may feel fearful, but in a safe way, and in the presence of a trained therapist. “Virtual reality is really good at tricking your brain,” she says. “People can put themselves in an immersive experience but it’s very controlled, and the therapist knows exactly what the client is seeing.”
Also like EMDR, Dr. Boeldt says virtual reality therapy is done in steps; no one is ever just thrown a headset and put in a situation that’s mentally distressing. For example, if someone was in a car accident, they may be scared to get into a car again. A therapist can help them work up to that. First, they may spend time around cars, just touching them. Then, they can use virtual reality to have the experience of being in a car without actually doing so. It’s used as a way to work up to actually driving again, all while under the careful watch of a trained therapist. Another example Dr. Boeldt gives is using virtual reality to get over a fear of heights. Virtual reality can provide the feeling of being high up without actually doing so—a helpful step for someone who isn’t ready to experience it IRL.
As with the other ways of healing, Dr. Boeldt says virtual reality therapy is done in conjunction with talk therapy, not in place of it. “Also, during the virtual reality experience, the therapist is talking you through it and perhaps assisting with techniques like breathing exercises if anxiety reaches a certain level,” she says. “The other cool thing about VR is that if the experience gets too intense, you just have to close your eyes and it all disappears.”
Of course, creating virtual reality worlds can be expensive—especially since they’re being used clinically and not just as a form of gaming. But Dr. Boeldt says as VR headsets become more affordable, the actual equipment is more accessible. “Some therapists are also using YouTube as a cheaper way to do it,” she says. As with any type of therapy, finding someone specifically trained in virtual reality is important, so Dr. Boeldt says to make sure whoever you are thinking of seeing is credentialed specifically in this type of therapy.
Healing the body
While EMDR and virtual reality therapy focus specifically on healing the brain from trauma, other modalities, like reiki, trauma-sensitive yoga, and trauma-sensitive massage focus more on the body. Dr. Gordon says trauma can manifest in many different physical symptoms. Fatigue, trouble sleeping, aches and pains, and digestive issues can all be tied to trauma. “Often, people are unaware of the connection even within themselves,” he says. It’s not until they try a way of physical healing that they see their symptoms dissipate and they make the connection.
Trauma-sensitive massage and yoga
McGreal (who is trained in trauma-sensitive massage and yoga) says the way this type of massage is different from other modalities is that there is an emphasis on working within the client’s comfort zone and a lot more communication. “As a practitioner, I don’t have to know what someone’s specific trauma is to treat them,” she says. “It’s truly up to them how much they want to share.” Sometimes, she says, someone does want to open up about their trauma experience, and in those cases, McGreal lends a compassionate ear before the massage starts. But typically, she starts by asking what their expectations are for the massage, and communicates that they are in control over their own body and what happens in the session.
“For some survivors of trauma, this may be their first time experiencing a safe touch,” McGreal says. “In these cases, the massage is a powerful way to teach their nervous system that touch can be powerful and safe.” This is in addition to the benefits a massage can give in general, releasing tension in places the body may be holding trauma. Similarly, McGreal says trauma-sensitive yoga can also release tension from the body; she says the poses are specifically meant to do just that. It’s also used to help build a positive relationship with the body.
A form of energy healing that originated in Japan in the early 1900s, reiki is another way of healing many find powerful. Sydney Rae Chin, a queer sexuality education guide, says it certainly was for her. For many years, she says she carried around a sense of shame for identifying as queer and also experienced trauma from being in an abusive relationship. “It was actually my talk therapist who recommended I try reiki,” Chin says. “What reiki did for me was that it helped me feel more comfortable in my body.”
In her session, the reiki practitioner gave her the option of lying on a table or in a hammock. Chin opted for the hammock. She remembers soft music playing and incense. “Then, she sat down with me, and we talked about what was going to happen next. That way, there wouldn’t be any surprises,” Chin says. During the session, the reiki practitioner wrapped Chin in blankets. “I could just feel the energy running through my body. I feel like it helped release the negative energy,” Chin says. She has done several reiki sessions since, including a virtual reiki session during the pandemic.
How to figure out which form of healing is most beneficial for you
As you can see, there are so many different ways to heal from trauma—and the ones highlighted here are just a few. Figuring out not only what to try, as well as finding a space where you feel safe doing so, is part of what inspired partners McKenzie Angelo Martinez and Joss Martinez (who is a doctoral student at Pacific College for Health and Science and learning Traditional Chinese Medicine) to found metaDEN, a healing incubator for the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.
“We wanted to create a space where people can come together and heal, and at the time , there weren’t a lot of spaces centering people of color or queer folks,” McKenzie says. They opened a physical space in Brooklyn, New York that offered reiki, trauma-sensitive massage, and workshops led by BIPOC healers that incorporated creativity, spirituality, and movement in different ways (such as yoga and dance). When they were forced to close up shop due to COVID-19 financial strains, they took it online.
Their advice for someone who isn’t sure what type of healing to try is to focus on what you’re drawn to. They suggest asking questions like, what sounds interesting to you? What are you drawn to? If you do a body scan meditation, where is your trauma being held and what feels like a good way for you to release that? Then, just go for it. “Some people find healing through something creative, like writing or art; others want to let it out of their physical body; someone else may want to talk about it at length,” McKenzie says. These ways of healing also, they say, can complement each other. “Trauma doesn’t just show up in one way—you get to tailor your healing experience for what will work for you,” Joss says.
Joss also points out that healing from trauma is a journey; it doesn’t just result from one workshop, massage, or reiki session. (Or EMDR or virtual reality session for that matter.) Healing is something we keep coming back to, and they says the type of healing that resonates may change over time.
Whatever way of healing you explore, all the experts interviewed say it’s important to make sure you’re working with a credentialed professional. This is someone you’re trusting with your mind and body, so it’s worth doing your homework to learn about them first. If you are seeking out a healing method with a rich cultural history, like reiki or yoga, find a practitioner that honors those roots as well.
Taking steps toward healing is the beginning of building resiliency—and there’s immense power in that. “Not only can you heal from trauma, but you can pass that healing down,” Dr. Gordon says. “Trauma isn’t all that can be inherited; healing and resiliency can be inherited, too.”
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