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  • Writer's pictureRegina Trailweaver

Healing Trauma Through Yoga: Part 1 Understanding Trauma

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

The symptoms of trauma can range from subtle to overwhelming. You might feel tired, sad, or anxious or simply numb and disconnected. You may feel such intensity of sensations and emotions that you can’t function or you may not be able to feel anything at all and are cut off and shut down. Nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive memories or intrusive thoughts of harming self or others can all be, and likely are, signs that a traumatic event occurred and you are experiencing the subsequent stress response. The body responds to trauma by either being overly vigilant and on guard, as in anxiety, or freezing, as in depression, lethargy, and avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities associated with the trauma. Many, if not most, people experience some combination of both in an effort to stay safe and prevent any future traumas from occurring. Symptoms can last for years or resolve in a few weeks, usually based on the level of health and safety in an individual’s support system.

There are at least five types of trauma. Acute trauma is sudden and intense, often in response to a one time event in an otherwise fairly safe and stable context. Car accidents are a common type of this trauma but date rape or stranger rape can also produce this type of trauma. Chronic trauma is characterized by repeated exposure to stress, such as mental, verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during childhood. Complex trauma is one major event compounded by associated losses and tragedies. Car accidents can also fall into this category if, for example, you are injured but another family member or loved one dies in the same accident. Natural disasters and political trauma, such as torture, imprisonment, or displacement also often result in complex trauma. Vicarious trauma is indirect and is experienced when you know or watch someone else being abused or see a video of someone being harmed.

Public health experts are finally beginning to recognize race-based traumatic stress (RBST) as well. This is the result of generational stress and repeated trauma experience by people of color, according to Gail Parker, PhD, author of Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma. Even if a black, indigenous or other person of color has never experienced a personal trauma, the knowledge of being at greater risk in the social order and the inherited personal trauma from your ancestors can result in trauma symptoms of being hypervigilant, as in anxiety, or frozen, as in depressed.

The lingering coronavirus is also having a long term impact on mental health. Public health experts are finding that many people have PTSD as a result of their pandemic experiences. I am especially concerned about children who are going through this global pandemic at a time when their nervous systems are still developing. They are at high risk for what some pediatric mental health experts call chronic developmental trauma, similar to the chronic trauma mentioned above but with the added injury and challenge to developing a healthy and balanced stress response as a child transitions through adolescence into adulthood.

It is fascinating to me that we treat the natural response of the body/mind complex, also known as the central nervous system, to a threat that has been life threatening as a disorder. The nervous system has experienced an event that rendered the survivor completely helpless and powerless in the moment of that traumatic event. It is part of our society’s tendency to blame the victim rather than looking at the whole system within which the individual is trying to survive. Hala Khouri, a teacher of trauma informed yoga, states, “A trauma informed perspective asks us first to assume that the behaviors we see are an attempt to regulate a dysregulated nervous system.” It is just as important to understand your individual relationship to trauma as it is to build practices that support your well being. And, I would add, it is necessary to also look at the social structures and mechanisms such as income inequity and racism that contribute to trauma patterns and culminate in traumatic events.

Stay posted for how restorative yoga, as mentioned above in relationship to the work of Gail Parker,PhD, is an especially powerful and effective remedy for trauma of all kinds.

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