The body keeps the score. Your issues are in your tissues. The body remembers, and it will tell its tale.
These maxims speak to a growing awareness that our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked.
In the 90s, a groundbreaking study—the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE)—showed an irrefutable connection between many types of childhood adversities and the onset of physical and mental health issues later in life (Felitti et al., 1998). Since then, advancements in the fields of epigenetics, psychoneuroimmunology, and relational neurobiology have begun to shed light on the “how.”
When something painful happens to us, and we feel intense emotions, we experience a full-body response. Hormones are released, our respiratory and cardiac functions change, and our circulatory systems prepare for action. When the event challenges our ability to cope, our systems can be overwhelmed. As a result, the memory is stored in fragments in our brains.
But our bodies also carry a memory of the trauma. If the event is so overpowering that we can’t deal with it, or worse we push it down, the trauma can become stuck in our brains and our bodies, leading to increased physical and mental health symptoms.
Attachment difficulties and traumatic experiences that happen very early in childhood (before we develop the ability to speak) may show up as unexplained physical symptoms in the future. Sometimes the memory of the experience isn’t clear, but the physical reaction to reminders of the event can cause a whole-body response (classic flight/fight/freeze).
In other words, our bodies remember what our brains want to forget.
That’s why no matter how much we talk about, analyze, or try to willpower our way through—when it comes to trauma—healing will be limited unless we get in touch with our body memories, too (Quinn & Dainaraviciute, 2021).
That was the case for me when, several years ago, I suddenly became very sick.
Less than 6 months after a period of high stress, combined with events that activated past trauma, I began to experience a constellation of mysterious physical and mental health symptoms. Unfortunately, another year would go by before doctors were able to figure out what was going on—I have an autoimmune disease. Because she could no longer distinguish between self and intruder, my body ramped up defences and started attacking healthy cells by mistake.
At the time, I was angry at my body, I felt betrayed by her, and I really struggled to be kind to her. But since then, I’ve come to understand that my body was just trying to protect me the only way she knew how. She was doing her best to keep me safe physically, during a time when I felt unsafe emotionally.
“Stop! We’ve been here before. It’s too much,” she said. My body remembered, and she was telling her tale.
An Integrative & Experiential Approach To Trauma
I had been in talk therapy for a while before I became chronically ill. And while it’s true that I experienced shifts, breakthroughs, and healing in many ways, I hadn’t yet processed the traumatic stress that was stuck or trapped in my body. Like most people, if I was going to be truly well, I needed a holistic approach that combined top-down (cognitive) and bottom-up (somatic) interventions (van der Kolk, 2014).
I needed an integrative and experiential model of care.
Although top-down methods are still the most common today, an increasing number of clinicians are recognizing the importance of addressing both the mind and the body in counselling.
For example, some mind-body therapies include:
- Internal Family Systems
- Somatic Experiencing
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
- Expressive Arts Therapy
- Yoga, Dance, and Movement
Healing from trauma isn’t a linear or an overnight process. But, as we begin to connect with our whole selves, we can slowly release the weight of the past and remain grounded in the present. We can slowly learn to trust ourselves—and the wisdom of our bodies—to guide us home.
- Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
- Quinn, A., & Dainaraviciute, N. (2021, August 8). Trauma Informed Practice Level 1 Certificate: Trauma and the Body [Lecture]. Trauma Informed Practice Institute.
- van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
- Arden, J. (2019). Mind-brain-gene: Toward psychotherapy integration. W. W. Norton.
- Levine, P. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. North Atlantic Books.
- Mate, G. (2003). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Random House.
- Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Central Recovery Press.
- Nakazawa, D. J. (2015). Childhood disrupted: How your biography becomes your biology, and how you can heal. Simon and Schuster.