About Trauma
The Learning Center at Red Willow

Trauma is defined as a life event, which causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm.  It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one's safety or the stability of one's world.  The events may be recently experienced or events from the past.  Medical research has linked the adverse effects of trauma to major diseases and illness such as heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, chemical dependency, and obesity.  Research shows that mind-body healing can reverse or prevent the disease processes in the body.

A Traumatic event may involve:

  • Abuse, both emotional and physical
  • A move to a new location
  • Anxiety
  • Death of a friend, family member, or pet
  • Divorce
  • Illness
  • Hospitalization
  • Loss or change of employment
  • Prolonged exposure to stressful environments, such as veterans of war1

Traumatic experiences
can lead to unsettling and intense emotional states that at times feature flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems, work and relationship problems, weight loss or gain, uncomfortable physical sensations, inexplicable and disturbing memory fragments, and dissociation.  People who have experienced trauma early in life often make unhealthy lifestyle choices (various forms of addiction) to numb the pain.  Diminishing and quieting these uncomfortable symptoms take time and treatment.  The good news is that there are many relatively simple and effective treatments, commonly involving learning skills and techniques to help you learn to quiet yourself enough to notice (rather than be dissociated from) internal sensations and calm your body down.

Here is what a few of the leading experts on research and treatment have to say:

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. (internationally recognized leader in the field of psychological trauma and the body/mind connection. He is the author of the groundbreaking medical text, The Body Keeps the Score and a preeminent researcher and practitioner in the field. Dr. van der Kolk is the Founder and Medical Director of The Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, which provides comprehensive services to traumatized children and adults and their families):  Trauma is about helplessness. To work with traumatized people, you need a variety of skills, including helping patients learn how to focus, how to notice things in their bodies right now, to be present, focused and concentrated on non-traumatic subjects—to help patients do what we like to do ourselves, to help them be focused and have pleasure.  It’s all about physical empowerment.  When I move, I can energize myself and calm and regulate myself and feel the sensations in my body.  Working with traumatized people involves building resources, islands of safety, a little thing here, a little thing there, and pretty soon you have a land mass.

Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. (originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing® and the Director of the Foundation for Human Enrichment. He holds doctoral degrees in Medical Biophysics and in Psychology. During his thirty five-year study of stress and trauma, Dr. Levine has contributed to a variety of scientific and popular publications):  The remarkable thing, I think, is that even with this complexity, I found certain very basic principles to hold true. The first one, which I mentioned at the beginning or my work, is that as animals ourselves, human beings have this innate ability to rebound from extreme experiences and threat given appropriate guidance.  As we begin the healing process, we use what is known as the felt sense, or internal body sensations. These sensations serve as a portal through which we find the symptoms, or reflections, of trauma. In directing our attention to these internal body sensations, attacking the trauma head on, we can unbind and free the energies that have been held in check.
Judith Lasater, Ph.D., PT (Judith Lasater has taught yoga since 1971. She holds a doctorate in East-West psychology and is a physical therapist. Judith is president of the California Yoga Teachers Association, and has been an advisor on three NIH studies on yoga and health.  Her yoga training includes study with B. K. S. Iyengar in India and the United States. She teaches ongoing yoga classes and trains yoga teachers in kinesiology, yoga therapeutics, and the Yoga Sutra in the San Francisco Bay Area. Judith also gives workshops throughout the United States and internationally):  The practice of yoga is fundamentally an act of kindness toward oneself.  We work very hard in our lives, and while we may sleep, we rarely take time to rest. Restorative yoga poses help us learn to relax and rest deeply and completely.  During deep relaxation, all the organ systems of the body are benefited, and a few of the measurable results of deep relaxation are the reduction of blood pressure, serum triglycerides and blood sugar levels in the blood, the increase of the "good cholesterol" levels, as well as improvement in digestion, fertility, elimination, the reduction of muscle tension, insomnia and generalized fatigue.

Andrew Weil, M.D.  [a pioneer in the use of natural healing therapies, Dr. Weil is director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and is a pioneer in the use of natural healing therapies—emphasizing nutrition, exercise and stress reduction—to maintain the body's natural healing systems that he first put forward in his groundbreaking book Health and Healing: The Philosophy of Integrative Medicine (1983)]:  Panic attacks or symptoms of panic disorder are characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or abdominal distress.  Several factors may play a role in the onset of panic disorder:  heredity, a tendency toward exaggerated awareness of normal bodily reactions, and stressful life events.  My top recommendation for dealing with anxiety and panic disorder is breathing exercises. One of the best single anti-anxiety measures, controlling breathing and breath work can offer an immediate lessening of symptoms; mind-body techniques such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help to encourage healthy coping skills; and seeking professional counseling.

Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D.  (the founder and president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif.  He is clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. For more than 32 years, Ornish has directed clinical research demonstrating, for the first time, that comprehensive lifestyle changes may begin to reverse even severe coronary heart disease, without drugs or surgery.  His research showed that comprehensive lifestyle changes affect gene expression, turning on disease-preventing genes and turning off genes that promote cancer and heart disease. In collaboration with Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, he also showed that these lifestyle changes can lengthen telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control how long we live:  Our research at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute (PMRI) as well as studies of other investigators, have shown that your body often has a remarkable capacity to begin healing itself, and much more quickly than had once been realized, when the underlying causes of illness are addressed.  Stress makes you age faster even at a genetic and cellular level.  If you’ve ever compared photographs of any of the past U.S. presidents at the beginning and at the end of their term, you can see how quickly chronic stress accelerates aging.  One of the keys to managing stress well is to be able to turn it off sometimes.  Techniques like yoga and meditation give you a break from chronic stress, providing an internal oasis that you can experience anywhere.  Practicing meditation and other stress-management techniques on a regular basis gives us more power to control how we react to these external events.  As a patient once said to me after learning meditation and yoga, “Well, the situation didn’t change, but I did.” 

For more information about the medical research and effectiveness of mind-body healing, see the "Links" section below and the "Articles" dropdown menu above.

[1.] Traumatic events | University of Maryland Medical Center

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