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Body awareness for trauma

According to Babette Rothschild, one of the most respected trauma authors, body awareness is a most practical tool in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. When we are more aware of our bodies, we enter the present moment, separating past from present. We do not get distracted by our mind and we gain control over unpleasant somatic memories.

Our brain has different ways of remembering events: explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit memory is what you normally remember happening to you in a narrative. It is what we usually call “memory”. It is mediated by the hippocampus. Implicit memory includes all automatic processes that you remember, like knowing how to tie your shoelaces. They are unconscious processes because you don’t need to think about them to remember them. They are mediated by the amygdala.

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When faced with a danger, your body will activate the fight or flight response. In those circumstances of high stress, the stress hormones suppress the activity of the hippocampus but they don’t appear to affect the activity of the amygdala. This is the reason why traumatic events are more often recorded in the implicit memory. Your body remembers the trauma, but your mind cannot make sense of it because your hippocampus was not working when it happened. Remember that your hippocampus managed the explicit memory (narrative of the events).

fight-or-flightYou may not remember a traumatic event, but you may feel the signs of fight or flight when something triggers the event: a smell, a certain look, a thought. You may not recognise the triggers, but you may feel your heart racing, a cold sweat, shallow breathing, or any of the signs indicated in the image. You can recognise these signs as fear. With body awareness, you are able to slow down and stop this hyperarousal. Body awareness allows you to stay in the present and helps you to feel more empowered regarding your body responses and emotions.

Body awareness has been cultivated for centuries by the Eastern practices of meditation, yoga, tai chi or qigong. But you don’t need to be a yogi to become more aware of your body. Your counsellor can help you. Body awareness can become a precious tool when processing past trauma with the help of a professional counsellor.

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10 Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a common condition that affects people who have experienced a traumatic event, have witnessed a traumatic event or have heard about a loved one experiencing such an event. The symptoms of PTSD may start after the event or months or years after the event has passed. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD.

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If you are looking for help for PTSD, you may recognise some of these symptoms. Because your autonomous nervous system is hyperaroused, you often experience the bodily symptoms usually triggered by a dangerous situation. But the danger is no longer there. Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Cold sweat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Heart palpitations

When some of these symptoms become chronic, they can result in:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Difficulty concentrating

If you remember the traumatic event (or being told or witnessed it), you may also have the following symptoms:

  • Flashbacks (or nightmares)
  • Avoiding situations reminding you of the event

You may or may not develop all of these symptoms. If you are in doubt whether you have PTSD, consult your GP or contact a qualified psychotherapist.

Meditation

If you have PTSD, your nervous system is hyperaroused due to your previous experience. You can look for help for PTSD in a relaxation, meditation or mindfulness regular class (yoga, tai chi, qi gong). This will help your nervous system calm down. Additionally, look for help for PTSD with a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist to find out what triggered your PTSD and start processing your trauma.


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Understanding PTSD

A person may develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after having experienced a terrifying or traumatic event. Or they may have witnessed a harmful event happening to a loved one or strangers, or heard about a loved one experiencing such an event. They may develop PTSD after the event or years after the event has passed.

This experience triggers the fight or flight response in their body. The fight or flight response is designed to be triggered when we are faced with a danger, mobilising all our bodily resources to cope with that danger. Some of the usual bodily symptoms of our fight or flight response are: cold sweating, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, hypervigilance…. Our body feels that it is under attack.

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If you have PTSD, you probably recognise some of these symptoms. This is so because you go into fight or flight long after the danger has passed. The memory of the traumatic event is in your body, even though your may not cognitively remember the traumatic event or some of the feelings attached to it. Your fight or flight response is started because you may have come in contact with a trigger that reminded you of the event, such as a smell, a person, a look, etc. But you may not be aware of what the trigger is. For example, a person may be triggered by a perfume because it was the same used by his or her abuser, even though his or her mind doesn’t cognitively remember the abuser’s perfume. When the person smells the perfume, she or he will go into fight or flight with the symptoms mentioned above, even though the danger is no longer there. When the fight or flight symptoms become chronic, they can result into sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, sexual dysfunction and difficulty concentrating.

Understanding this is the first step when looking for help for PTSD. If you suspect that you may have PTSD or have been diagnosed with PTSD, you may benefit from working with a professional psychotherapist. Because your nervous system is hyperaroused, your therapist will generally provide you with some tools to calm down your nervous system. The tools usually include meditation, relaxation or mindfulness exercises. After learning that you can control your nervous system activation, there is usually a sense of relief.

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Once your body becomes more relaxed, you can start looking at your symptoms as messages from your body to discover what triggers your fight and flight response. When you find professional help for PTSD, your therapist will help you to listen to these messages and they may start making sense to you. This may enable you to process your traumatic event in a safe environment and get rid of the emotional charge and symptoms that accompanied it.

Multicultural Counselling and Psychotherapy in Exeter, Teignmouth, Skype

Alda Gomez BA PGCEd GCCI HDIPCP MA Psych (Psychotherapy) MBACP

01626 778048 – 07437 332032

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