Healing from Within: Releasing Trauma Stored in the Body

The human body is a complex and interconnected system, capable of both enduring and storing the impact of life’s challenges. Trauma, whether it stems from a single distressing event or accumulates over time, has a profound way of leaving its mark not only on the mind but also within the very fibers of our being. In this exploration, we will delve into the insightful teachings of Peter A. Levine’s “Waking the Tiger,” along with the transformative practices of Somatic Experiencing, Somatic Attachment, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and the indispensable insights of the Polyvagal Theory. Together, these approaches offer a holistic understanding of how trauma gets stored in the body and, more importantly, how it can be gently released.

Understanding Trauma and the Body

Levine’s groundbreaking work in “Waking the Tiger” introduces the concept of the “somatic experiencing” of trauma. He suggests that animals in the wild, after facing a life-threatening situation, discharge the residual energy that has built up during the traumatic event through physical movements and trembling. Humans, however, often suppress these instinctual responses, leading to the trapped energy becoming lodged in the body.

Levine argues that trauma is not just a psychological phenomenon but a physiological one as well. The body’s natural response to danger, the fight-or-flight instinct, can become dysregulated when the threat is overwhelming or prolonged. This dysregulation can manifest as chronic tension, pain, and a heightened state of arousal, all of which are physical expressions of unresolved trauma.

For example, if you were mugged on the side of the street, your first response may be to fight. However, if the offender has a weapon, you are not strong enough to find the offender – then you may go into a freeze response which may have well saved your life. However, the trauma was stored as all of your precious possessions are now stolen. Your original response of “fight” now is stuck in the body as it never got released. Therapy – especially somatic experiencing, can help release that stored-up trauma. This may look like your therapist getting you to punch a pillow while imagining the offender – so that you get to release the pent-up trauma. 

Polyvagal Theory: Unraveling the Autonomic Nervous System

Another view of trauma is what Dr. Stephen Porges’ coined called the Polyvagal Theory; this is a groundbreaking framework that helps us understand how our autonomic nervous system responds to and regulates our physiological states, particularly in the context of trauma. The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, and the Polyvagal Theory introduces a nuanced perspective on how these branches influence our physiological and emotional experiences.

The theory emphasizes the role of the vagus nerve, which plays a crucial role in regulating our social engagement, fight-or-flight responses, and the ability to rest and recover. Trauma can dysregulate the autonomic nervous system, leading to patterns of hyperarousal or shutdown. By understanding the polyvagal pathways, therapists and individuals can develop targeted interventions to restore a sense of safety and regulation to the body.

Somatic Attachment: Bridging Body and Relationship

Trauma not only affects our individual bodies but can also influence the way we connect with others. Somatic Attachment explores the intersection of trauma and relationships, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and healing attachment wounds stored in the body. Developed by Diane Poole Heller, this approach combines somatic awareness with attachment theory to address relational trauma.

Somatic Attachment helps individuals understand how their early attachment experiences shape their bodily responses and interpersonal dynamics. Through guided exercises and interventions, practitioners work to create a secure and supportive somatic environment, allowing clients to renegotiate their relationship with themselves and others.

EMDR: Eye Movement and Reprocessing

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another powerful modality for releasing trauma stored in the body. Developed by Francine Shapiro, EMDR integrates elements of cognitive therapy with bilateral stimulation, typically in the form of guided eye movements. This dual-focus approach allows individuals to process distressing memories more adaptively, reducing their emotional charge and promoting integration.

EMDR recognizes that traumatic memories can become “stuck” in the nervous system, contributing to symptoms such as anxiety, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. By engaging in a structured process that includes desensitization and reprocessing, individuals can transform the way these memories are stored, promoting a more adaptive and less distressing response.

The journey of healing from trauma is a deeply personal and multifaceted process. Integrating the insights from “Waking the Tiger,” Somatic Experiencing, Somatic Attachment, EMDR, and the Polyvagal Theory offers a comprehensive approach to addressing trauma at both the psychological and physiological levels. By acknowledging and releasing the imprints of trauma stored in the body, individuals can reclaim a sense of safety, connection, and empowerment. As we honour the body’s wisdom and resilience, we pave the way for profound healing from within.