The question of how to heal from childhood trauma might seem to have a long involved overwhelming answer. Surprisingly, however, the answer, while having many layers, starts with a simple tool. Get back into your body. As a trauma and abuse survivor, you most likely unconsciously and automatically dissociated from your body. Considering the horror of what your body experienced during the trauma and abuse, this response provided safety for your survival. The issue now is, that your body is no longer in danger but it still responds as if you are.
Healing From Childhood Trauma Requires Learning How to Be Present in Your Body
In his ground-breaking book The Body Keeps the Score, Besser Van Der Kolk shares his years of successful research with trauma survivors of all kinds. He points out that teaching clients tools for body awareness can free trauma survivors from the “tyranny of the past.” In fact, his research has demonstrated that helping trauma survivors tap into their bodies actually helps activate the “brain’s natural neuroplasticity to rewire disturbed functioning and rebuild step by step the ability to know what you know and feel what you feel.” Moreover, including body awareness of what you are feeing offers experiences that “directly counteract the helplessness and invisibility associated with trauma, enabling both adults and children to reclaim ownership of their bodies and their lives.” How cool is that?
The Myth of Mindset and Healing From Childhood Trauma
Early on in my recovery mindset was the new big thing. I tried it for many years. Long story short, it didn’t help. Honestly, it felt exhausting! I got so sick and tired of trying so hard to “change my thoughts and change my life” blah blah blah because not matter how hard I tried I still felt anxious. Not only that, I ended up feeling even more anxious and frustrated on top of that. To make matters worse, I believed that if I didn’t feel better than it must be that I wasn’t working hard enough at changing my thoughts. Ugg… it felt like a huge mess inside my head! However, I did start to notice a huge difference when I first learned to stop challenging and reframing my thoughts and get back into my body. I couldn’t believe how relived I started feeling!
Why Connecting with Your Body Aids in Healing From Childhood Trauma
As the book title states, the body keeps the score. Your body keeps track of the trauma. Like it or not, it does. Which means that your body will let you know that you are hurting or are in pain. The body cannot say things like, “You feel terrified and nobody sees that. You feel unloved and unimportant. and were traumatized by people you trusted to love you. You feel so sad, unseen and unheard. You believe that if you recognize this pain you will die.” However, it can make your heart race, make your body temperature rise, make your palms sweaty, create anxiety, etc. It’s like the little kid who keeps pulling on his Mommy’s skirt trying to get her attention only to be ignored.
When these bodily responses are left ignored like the child pulling on his or her Mommy’s skirt, 2 things can happen:
1. The body just increases the intensity and frequency of these experiences.
2. The pain of the trauma shows up in ways that don’t actually “feel bad.” For example, defensive behavior instead of connection and curiosity, overworking, obsession about others, striving for perfection, hyper focusing on a cause or concern, drinking, doing drugs, etc.
Either way, the body continues to try to notify you that you are in pain and either you attend to it and resolve it or repeat patterns of behavior that mask the pain for a little while only keeping your body (and life) stuck by increasing your anxiety, exacerbating your obsessive behaviors, etc..
The Science of the Body Keeping the Score
I could get into the science and neuroplasticity of the brain (that the brain can change) but for the purposes of this blog I’ll stick to the elementary explanation that will be easier to understand. Your nervous system regulates your body which, in turn impacts your mind and consequently your thoughts. All of which impacts how to live and function in life in relationships, work, play etc. When the body is regulated, it becomes easier to manage the thoughts because you are no longer reacting unconsciously but instead, responding. However, unregulated you stay stuck in unhealthy and unconscious reactions and behaviors that prevent you from living a free, hopeful and joyful life.
Healing From Childhood Trauma-The Good News About the Body
Attending to these difficult feelings and beliefs by simply noticing what your body is doing (not even addressing the feeling and thoughts) provides a huge helpful key to healing from childhood trauma and abuse. It really is that simple.
How so you ask?
Because by noticing what is happening in your body you automatically without even trying, calm and regulate the nervous system (aka your body.) Which, in turn, allows you to respond and operate from the part of your brain where learning and change can happen. This is where the anxiety and fear significantly decrease and changes take place that will allow you transform the trauma and be free from the “tyranny of the past.”
How to Build Body Awareness
So how do you do it? How do you build body awareness? It might sound a bit intimidating. However, learning to reconnect with your body isn’t as awful as it might sound. I promise. I have done it even when I thought I would die and you can too. :o)
When you start to feel activated, anxious, upset etc. follow what I call the 3 Steps to Serenity:
- Stop-don’t do anything else-just stop first
- Sense what is going on in your body with curiosity. Say to yourself, “I notice that _________ (my heart is racing, my jaw is clenched, my hands are balled up in fists, my shoulders are up near my ears, my toes are curled up, etc.) Describe as much as you can about what your body is doing. Continue describing to yourself what you notice and feel free to repeat.
- Say-I feel __________ and _______ and ________. (afraid, anxious, nervous, angry, sad, etc.)
Take your time in Step 2. Do not rush through it.
The cool thing about this tool is that you don’t have to even address the thoughts accompanying the feeling. Just stick to your body and what is happening in it. Then notice if the intensity of your feeling has decreased and if you feel any sense of relief.
This simple three step process calms your nervous system. Additionally, it will teach you and your body that you can handle difficult feelings. Also, it will automatically allow you to train your brain that you are safe. Better yet, this will help you activate the part of your brain where real change and transformation happens. In doing so, your body will no longer have to work overtime to point out that you are hurting because you can now see it and attend to it.
Healing Childhood Trauma Is a Process
This powerful 3 step process opens the door for the other tools to overcome abuse and discover joy. Healing from childhood trauma involves a 5 Key process and Post–Traumatic Growth includes 5 pillars. To begin the healing and discover joy, you need to be able to first regulate your nervous system. Thus, starting the transformation one breakthrough at a time. You can do it one breakthrough at a time!
Let me know in the comments if these steps offered you any relief. For more tools to overcome trauma and discover joy, download my free E-Book 5 Keys to Overcome Abuse and Discover Joy.