written by: Kyneret Azizo
You may have heard this comical phrase in a yin yoga class. I’m certain I’ve said it myself:
“We’ve all got issues in our tissues.”
It elicits some chuckles from students and helps take the edge off the deep stretch they’re in. Although it’s meant to be lighthearted, what is meant by ‘issues’ are the painful remains of our past: trauma, stored in the body.
That’s right – we’ve all got varying degrees of trauma trapped within our connective tissues and organs. It can be the result of excess negative emotion and thoughts, or a physical injury. The important thing to note is that one is usually under a tremendous amount of stress in these incidences, whether from a single traumatic event, or from a long-drawn-out, difficult experience.
It is widely accepted by holistic health practitioners of different backgrounds that this storage of trauma in the body, if not dealt with properly, will accumulate and eventually lead to disease. They also agree that the best way to heal it is to work with the body itself, rather than through talk therapy or counselling. There are a number of ways we can do this.
But first off, let’s get to know more about trauma: What are its causes? How does it accumulate and lead to disease? How might it surface in our day-to-day lives?
Causes of trauma
Trauma can be brought on by devastating life episodes such as physical abuse, the death of someone close to us, or a tragic motor vehicle accident, which leave us with their imprints.
It can also be brought on by experiences which require ongoing emotional defense, like being bullied or verbally abused as a child. Over-training of isolated muscles, which lock the body into a recognized pattern, can also be a source.
Even these non-life-threatening experiences can have detrimental effects on the body; they can lead to pathological conditions later in life if they are not therapeutically addressed earlier on.
How and why trauma gets stored in the body
Psychology acknowledges the formation of two types of memories when the brain processes information: explicit and implicit. Explicit memories are factual, common knowledge and autobiographical in nature. Implicit memories, which are also referred to as somatic memories, relate to feelings and sensations. Under normal circumstances, these two are integrated later to produce one unified memory of an event.
But when we are under stress, say, from a life-threatening incident, the nervous system and brain behave in an entirely different manner (fight-or-flight). In these cases, the brain has no need to encode memories, since its primary function is to get us to safety. This is why many trauma victims often experience gaps in their memories. Such memories of a traumatic event that do not get processed end up fragmented into explicit and implicit chunks in the brain.
The thing is, memory isn’t just contained in the brain; the body, too, behaves as a storehouse for our past experiences – specifically these implicit memories. The information that is too intense for the nervous system to handle during stressful events gets assigned to this subconscious ‘database’ of our connective tissues.
Once an implicit memory finds its place in the body, the connection between the brain and that part is said to be severed. Yet again, this is a protective mechanism, as the brain doesn’t know the difference between the actual physical event and our recollection of it. Both trigger the same fight-or-flight response in the brain. The memory is perceived to be as dangerous as the event, and the brain wants to shield us from it.
For more information on the neuroscience of trauma, check out this article.
What happens if trauma isn’t dealt with earlier on?
In Reiki and other energy healing practices, it is believed that these stored excess emotions eventually become blockages which inhibit the flow of energy through the body and impede the disposal of toxins. Trauma sites not only prevent energy from moving, but they act as an accumulation spot for toxic material to get trapped in. This leads to a breakdown of the body’s systems and eventually disease.
Renowned physician, Gabor Maté, has shone a giant spotlight on the subject of negative emotions and resulting chronic illness. In his book, When The Body Says No; The Cost of Hidden Stress, Maté emphasizes that autoimmune diseases and cancers are the result of stress and repressed emotions. The case-studies that Maté shares involve people who had suffered a traumatic event in their early lives and who had later been diagnosed with a chronic, life-altering disease.
Further to this, there are numerous personal accounts of people healing their condition after addressing the underlying root cause – the toxicity of repressed emotions.
How trauma may surface
Trauma is thought to be an experience that is prevented from being completed. It’s like we’re stuck there in the experience, reliving it on a loop. It can present itself in a number of different ways, both mentally and physically, well before it leads to a chronic health condition. After a traumatic event, we could experience one or more of the following:
– Physical pain and/or restricted mobility
– Problems in our relationships (e.g. tight or non-existent boundaries)
– An inability to relax
An example of how stored trauma can surface is in a yin yoga class, where we hold stretches for a considerable amount of time. Feelings of restlessness, anxiousness, irritability and grief may come up for us – seemingly out of the blue. We might feel completely defenceless against them. This process happens because somatic memory is stored in fascia and muscle. When we stress and lengthen these connective tissues, the result is that we unleash the reserve our body has been holding on to.
How to deal with trauma effectively
The good news is, the above-mentioned yin yoga setting is one of many perfect opportunities to confront these traumatic memories and put them to rest.
Jennifer Sweeton, Psy.D, believes that the best way to heal trauma is with body work. She advocates that it’s imperative to use techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing to terminate the flight-or-flight response. So long as this feedback loop is circling, healing remains out of our reach.
Diaphragmatic breathing techniques are optimal because they signal to the body that we’re not in any danger. When traumatic memories arise in these scenarios, we are equipped to actually deal with them, instead of get caught up in the same stress response. Essentially, we are reframing how we perceive our past and training our nervous system to respond differently than it has been up until now.
Myofascial release, a form of touch therapy, is rapidly gaining more recognition as a viable healing solution for trauma. As per Nicole Cutler, licensed acupuncturist:
“Bodyworkers play a key role in bridging locked memories with the physical body. The techniques known as myofascial release or myofascial unwinding are hands-on methods for initiating traumatic memory release. Myofascial work locates and physically frees the restrictions in muscle and surrounding fascial tissue that house traumatic memories. As a skilled therapist holds and unwinds these tissue tensions, memories may surface and release, causing the body to spontaneously “replay” body movements associated with the memory of the trauma. This release initiates relaxation, unlocking the frozen components of the nervous system. Such a shift marks the reconnection of the brain with the tissue housing the trauma, allowing transformation and healing to ensue.”
Other examples of working with the body are, of course, yoga, vipassana meditation, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, which is a tapping therapy), and ecstatic dance. In these therapies, the goal is to become aware of the body and bring attention to trauma sites of repressed emotion, letting them come up and then letting them go.
In my own experience with a chronic illness and chronic fatigue, I can see how my condition was brought on by episodes of trauma in my life, and how my emotions and thoughts increase the severity of my symptoms, moment to moment.
Over the last two years, I have been integrating energetic healing with my regular yoga practice, with great success. This includes yin and restorative yoga, yoga nidra, reiki and EFT. Nothing seems to work quite as well as directing my attention to my body and emotions in this way. As I gently create length in the fascia, I mindfully process what comes up, acknowledging the associated emotion. This method helps shine a light on ‘stuck’ places which I may either lack a mental connection with, or in which I feel some kind of pain. I’m learning to see that every physical sensation has a root emotion and thought attached to it, and that it all melts away once that root emotion is addressed.
We have an incredible workshop coming up, led by the knowledgeable Sara Salehi and Sean Singer, about trauma in the body. If you or someone you know is dealing with trauma, this workshop might provide useful information and offer sensible solutions. Click here to sign up!
Lastly, remember that however many issues we may have in our tissues, we always have the power to heal them, right now, in this moment. And yes, sometimes that means having a handy box of tissues by our side as we practice!
Kyneret has been practicing and teaching yoga for over a decade. She began as a yoga teacher for Modo Yoga Maple in 2012, and has recently set off on a nomadic adventure to South East Asia. She remains active within our Modo community as a blog writer.
When not writing, she is fully immersed in the day-to-day adventures of travel life and actively seeks out as many foreign yoga experiences as possible to further her knowledge and skills! You can follow Kyneret’s travels on her instagram account @planes_trains_autoimmunity