Restoring the Mind-Body Connection during Trauma Recovery

I recently listened to a Podcast by Krista Tippett (from On Being) where she interviewed Dr Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who has done extensive research in trauma treatment and has found bodywork to be effective and important in trauma recovery (PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder). Some of the research projects include: yoga as a complimentary therapy for chronic PTSD (finding more than 50% of the women in the program recovered), improvisational theatre-based (drama) for youth violence prevention (with positive results), EMDR and therapeutic (neurofeedback) computer games. These are all therapies that involve the body. The yoga research seems particularly promising. Yoga practice helps to increase awareness of the whole body - so it isn't just a therapy to assist with strength and flexibility. It is a therapy that enhances the mind-body connection and trains the brain in mindfulness. 

We feel emotions in our bodies and when trauma occurs, a person can become somewhat cut-off from their bodies because of the need to shut down those traumatic feelings, often using substances such as alcohol or drugs or just shutting down their emotional awareness of their body. Therefore Dr van der Kolk advises that we need to help people who have experienced trauma to "feel safe in their bodies, feel the sensations in their bodies". He goes on to say that "Feeling your body move, the life inside of yourself is critical; and Western culture is astoundingly disembodied. We come from a post-alcoholic culture, people whose origins are in northern Europe have only one way of treating stress, with a bottle of alcohol... North-American culture continues that notion - if you feel bad just take a swig or take a pill - and the notion that you can do things to change the harmony inside of yourself is just not something that we teach in schools, in our culture... in our religious practices...." 

The discussion got me thinking about people who have massages for reasons other than the obvious positive physiological results that therapeutic massage gives. Most people now understand the physical benefits of massage such as pain relief, structural correction, muscular tension relief and the direct effect on the nervous system to relieve stress. As our culture is currently changing (for the better) around the subject of mental health, and some researchers are exploring different therapies that may assist people to recover from trauma or assist with their management of depression and anxiety, more people are seeing body therapies such as massage and yoga as an important part of their integrative therapeutic treatment program. In my practice I have many clients receiving regular massages to assist with their depression, anxiety, PTSD, and grief, and they find massage therapy does help. 

Dr van der Kolk said this:  "... I think this field has opened up two areas. One is the area of trauma and survival and suffering, but the other one is also — people are studying the nature of human connections and the connection between us, also, from a scientific point of view." So it is clear how important connection is when it comes to healing - connection with your body, and connection with other people. He goes on to say: "There’s a whole new field of interpersonal neurobiology that is studying how we are connected with each other and how a lack of connection, particularly early in life, has devastating consequences on the development of mind and brain." 

In my own practice, it's common for clients to be unaware of how much tension they hold in their bodies and to only become fully aware when I'm working on that particular area, so perhaps we all need bodywork to really become aware and enhance our own mind-body connection.  So what can we do to connect more with our bodies and to become more mindful? I think it's about taking it back to basics; practicing yoga, having regular massages, having acupuncture, doing breathing exercises daily, practicing meditation, doing tai chi, as well as other things that get the body moving - like dancing. Even going for a walk, being aware of your breathing and each step you take, as you focus on the nature around you can be very beneficial as a mindfulness practice and daily exercise. 

All of these things will help us to become more connected with our bodies and help us to release stress. If we are more aware, then we are more likely to take better care of ourselves with good nutrition and exercise. The mind-body connection is also important for us to realise when something isn't quite right with our bodies.  If we are always feeling stressed I think we may be tempted to go for things that temporarily numb that feeling - like alcohol or even food (e.g. eating too much sugar, trans-fats, highly processed foods or just overeating in general). However this is not the solution, people can learn to feel better without using unhealthy substances.  Tuning out and therefore feeling less in the short term may do long term damage, and neuroscience backs this up - habits wire our brains so that we repeat the same behaviours every day. However we can form new healthful habits and rewire our brains for the better. Dr van der Kolk highlighted the fact that trauma also rewires the brain, and these therapies that involve the body can help rewire the brain back to a healthy state. 

It appears that healthy therapeutic relationships are really important for people suffering with trauma or other mental illness. Dr van der Kolk acknowledges that traditional talk-therapy (traditional psychology) is an important part of the healing process but he advises you cannot leave out the senses because traumatised people need to get back in touch with their bodies. 

In my own practice, sometimes clients may feel like spontaneously sharing some emotions that come up for them. This isn't uncommon, many massage therapists report the same. The massage seems to help people to release emotions from their body. So although as a massage therapist the aim is the treatment of the body - the muscles, the posture and structural alignment, I see massage as a holistic therapy.  It can help to enhance the mind-body connection and help people to become aware of and release their emotions. While a massage therapist should not be treated as a counsellor, as this is not within their scope of practice, sometimes some informal, unplanned counselling happens in the form of listening to the client as they express what they feel they need to express. To be seen and heard in a non-judgmental way is truly healing. The massage therapist can then refer the client for further help. Knowing that I have been of service is one of the most rewarding parts of my profession.

Mindfulness - brain.jpg

Going on, Dr van der Kolk advises: "The big issue for traumatised people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully...." He goes on to say "So trauma treatment starts at the foundation of a body that can sleep, a body that can rest, a body that feels safe, a body that can move." On these discoveries, it is clear that therapies involving the body such as yoga and massage (used in a mindful way and as part of an integrative treatment program) will be beneficial for many traumatised people. These therapies help you to reconnect with your body, improving sleep and helping you to feel calm and safe. As always, everyone’s situation is unique so a person diagnosed with PTSD should seek help from an appropriate mental health professional (psychiatrist/psychologist) before exploring these therapies.

My most common, and heart-warming example of the lasting effects of massage is oncology clients have reported back to me advising that for days after, and often even a week after their oncology massage they experienced a much more calm and steady mood (whereas before the massage they were experiencing anxiety, and/or irritability and anger). Additionally, pain was eliminated or greatly reduced, both muscular pain and general pain they were experiencing in their body from the cancer or as a consequence of cancer treatment. It's as if the therapeutic touch helps them to experience some peace with their bodies, where before the treatment there was pain and resistance. When I hear these stories, I know for sure that this work is important. A cancer diagnosis often results in depression and or anxiety and massage can be a helpful therapy to assist with these issues too, in conjunction with other support. 

In conclusion, massage really encourages the mind-body connection which is important for healing. In my practice clients report that receiving regular massages helps them to manage their anxiety or stress, and they feel better able to cope with life. Massage is very restorative. It grounds you back into your body, and like with yoga, you can use massage mindfully, bringing your full attention to the feeling of the massage and the sensations you feel in your body, thus making it a meditative practice.

 

Introducing Dr Alison Howes - your awesome local yoga teacher (based in Kenmore)

Dr Alison Howes (PhD Applied Science) is the Founder of Devi Shakti Yoga, a yoga and meditation program that specialises in Women’s Health. Ali has a strong understanding of the female body and how yoga therapies can be used to address a number of women’s health issues including: endometriosis, thyroid disease, hormone imbalances, anxiety and depression. In addition, Ali is further studying how yoga therapies can be used to address trauma and PTSD.

 Dr Alison Howes (PhD Applied Science)

Dr Alison Howes (PhD Applied Science)

Ali is passionate about the science of how yoga (asana and pranayama) combined with appropriate meditation techniques can be used to overcome mental, emotional and physical challenges in the body. Science is unravelling the incredible mind-body connection and how practices such as yoga and meditation can assist in neuroplasticity. In some cases, these practices are proving to be more effective in managing stress, anxiety and health conditions than prescription drugs, and it was with these techniques that Ali restored her own body from endometriosis, thyroid disease, depression and anxiety.

Ali advises that whilst mindfulness and breathing techniques are becoming popular ‘tools’ in today’s busy society, these highly complex and systematic techniques have powerful effects on the mind and should always be practiced under trained and expert guidance.   

Ali teaches group classes, one-on-one consultations and online programs for women wanting to improve their health naturally. You can find more information at www.devishakti.org

 

Useful Links

The interview with Dr Bessel van der Kolk, with a link to the podcast.

Another presentation by Dr Bessel van der Kolk. This is a comprehensive talk about childhood trauma and I would recommend everyone watches this. It is invaluable and important knowledge. 

About Dr Bessel van der Kolk.

Trauma Centre Research Publications

BeyondBlue Resources:

If you or someone you know has any mental health issues, please see a G.P. for referral to a qualified health professional (psychiatrist/psychologist) first. Then body therapies such as yoga and massage can be discussed, as part of an integrative treatment program. 

Information on PTSD

Information on Anxiety. Massage therapy is helpful for managing anxiety, as part of an integrative approach. Aromatherapy can be beneficial for anxiety. There are many essential oils that promote a calm mood. Always see a qualified Aromatherapist, rather than self-prescribe. There is some misinformation about Aromatherapy out there. For example, you shouldn't ingest essential oils, and some of the larger essential oil retailers (so not Aromatherapists, sales people) are incorrectly encouraging this. 

Information on Depression: Massage can help with regulating moods and therapeutic touch is invaluable for helping people to feel better. Aromatherapy can also help. There are several oils that can regulate moods and increase energy. Always see a qualified Aromatherapist, rather than self-prescribe. 

Information on Grief and Loss: Massage can form part of a person's integrated health program to assist with grief. Aromatherapy is also helpful for this. 

 

Information provided by Essential Restorative Massage is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have a health condition or symptoms of one, please consult with your doctor before using complimentary remedies and therapies.

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