More than a diagnosis, part 4: a whole-body approach to healing

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Content warning – this article discusses trauma, suicide, self-harm, and substance use. Reader discretion is advised.

Mental health services in the UK are failing thousands of trauma survivors. Throughout this four-part series, I will be analysing some of the reasons behind this, and looking at some of the potential solutions. In part one, I looked at the current tendency to pathologise emotional distress. Part two considered how our current responses to trauma are often retraumatising, rather than dealing with the root causes of distress. In part three, the focus was on two potential alternatives to our current psychiatric system, and how these could benefit trauma survivors. In this final part I will discuss what is helping me heal from my trauma, and what we can learn from penguins.

Trauma manifests in the body

There is a lot of evidence suggesting that trauma can physically manifest in our bodies, not just our brains. Therefore, therapies which focus on thoughts and behaviours – such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) – do not fully address trauma’s complexity. 

Trauma is multi-sensory. It can come with images, sounds, emotions, smells and sometimes tastes depending on the specific experience. This means it gets ‘stuck’ in our nervous system in the same way it’s originally experienced. When triggered, or when recalling a memory, you can hear, see, and feel things as if they’re happening again for the first time. Your body holds it all in your nervous system in an unfinished, unresolved state. Our bodies keep a physical memory of all of our experiences in the form of physical sensations and unconscious behaviours. 

Learning from penguins

I spend a lot of time with penguins which has helped me understand the non-verbal aspects of my trauma. My interpretation of their behaviour comes from linking personal experience, what we know about other wild animals, and conversations with zoo keepers.

I realised that following traumatic encounters, penguins often appear unscathed. A zoo keeper explained to me that like many other wild animals, when penguins experience trauma in the wild they shake it off. They find somewhere safe and then they literally shake to discharge the trauma from their bodies. This means their nervous system can’t store it – preventing post-trauma responses.

Unlike penguins, when people experience a lot of trauma, especially in early life, our brain and bodies become conditioned to react in a certain way. The memories, images, sensations and feelings from the original trauma are all linked. When I have flashbacks or remember traumatic memories from my childhood, my whole body reacts and I get the physical sensations as if it’s happening right in that very moment. This is because my body and brain have linked the memories, the sensations, and the emotions. 

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Trauma can often present itself as physical pain. People who have experienced childhood trauma often experience chronic abdominal pain, headaches, chest pain, fainting, and seizure-like episodes. These are all commonly related to a sensitised stress response, meaning that the prior exposure to severe stress leaves an individual in a state which is hyper-responsive to further stressors. Mental health professionals usually label these physical symptoms as ‘functional’ or ‘psychological’. This ignores the role that unhealed trauma plays in those symptoms developing. Therapies which aim to address trauma should focus on the whole body. 

Therapies which focus on trauma felt in the body

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an effective psychological approach which has been proven to help people recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences. It uses bilateral stimulation to aid the integration and processing of painful memories or information. It’s considered a somatic therapy, because it is centred on the idea that trauma memories are stored in the body, and because it allows the release of emotional pain. 

Most of the time, our bodies can process and store new information and memories without us knowing. Normally, a part of the brain called the hippocampus acts as a sort of filing system which processes and stores memories in the right place. However, if something traumatic happens, such as abuse at a young age, then the hippocampus is unable to do its job properly. It cannot file the memories in the right place. The brain stores them in their raw, unprocessed form. They are easily triggered, and for some people they keep causing distress. Bilateral stimulation, usually through eye movements, is thought to replicate the rapid eye movement stage of sleep, in which the brain processes memories. 

EMDR is unlike many other types of therapy, as it does not require talking about the distressing memories. It allows the brain to resume its natural healing process, rather than focusing on changing emotions, thoughts or behaviours. This is often one of the biggest problems for abuse survivors. The things we have experienced often feel ‘unspeakable’. Sometimes this is because when the trauma happened, we didn’t have the words to articulate what was happening. Other times it’s because of things like society’s attitudes towards abuse. For me, EMDR means that I don’t have to struggle to find the right words – so far, it’s been far more beneficial than other types of therapy I’ve tried. 

I am more than a diagnosis

After years of trying to deal with the effects of my trauma, I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere. I’m extremely lucky to be getting EMDR therapy privately to reprocess my trauma. Along with this, I’m learning about why my body responds the way it does and slowly gaining the skills to regulate my emotions. Finding something that works for me has taken a long time. Although it’s hard, I definitely see the benefits already. A huge part of my journey has been realising I’m not ‘ill’. While I can never forget my trauma, there are things I can do to make it easier to live with. I am more than a diagnosis given to me by someone who hardly knew me. 

No one should have to experience trauma, and the thought of accessing services should not terrify anyone, let alone retraumatise them. We can’t forget that every single person who’s experienced trauma is different – therapies should reflect that. This means that, sometimes, a whole-body approach is necessary. 

A never ending ‘mental health crisis’

Anyone accessing support should have options and feel empowered to question decisions about medication and labels. Services shouldn’t label anyone as ‘difficult’ or ‘too complex’ when they ask for help. Ultimately, this means they won’t be able to access help again in the future. Current NHS therapy focuses on making people ‘well’ enough to function, and therefore work. Having said that, it’s in services to capitalism, rather than individuals working in mental health. 

We cannot expect anyone to experience violence, trauma, or injustice on a daily basis and carry on as normal. Suffering and distress are understandable, but mental health services don’t want to talk about that. It’s easier for services to label people as ‘ill’ or ‘disordered’ so that they can medicate patients and push them into therapy to make them compliant. Once someone thinks their issues are a personal flaw, they won’t question the wider injustice in society. So, until we start looking beyond a list of symptoms and think about why people are struggling, the ‘mental health crisis’ will never end.

Featured Image via Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

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