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How to Release Trauma Trapped in the Body

Guest blog post by Martha (Marty) Dennen MA, LCPC, SEP

When you are really stressed or anxious, you feel it through sensations in the body.  That is because the experience of stress, particularly traumatic stress, can trigger active survival responses of fight, flight, or freeze. When your body can’t activate or complete these responses, those sensations become trapped in your nervous system.  So how can you release trauma trapped in the body?

How Does Trauma Get Trapped in the Body?

sleep - EMDRTrauma is a shock to the system. And when that shock is stored instead of released, it can cause physical and mental health issues down the road. When trauma occurs, in an effort of protection, your brain temporarily pauses your memory processing system, and the experience is not stored as traditional memories are.

Instead of being stored as a complete memory, played in our heads like a movie reel, traumatic experiences are thought to be stored as fragments of pictures of body sensations. These fragments are unprocessed and thus don’t fit in the system as they should. Because they don’t fit, these fragments can surface unexpectedly as nightmares, flashbacks, or general angst and unease.

Keep Learning: Why Understanding What Trauma Does to the Brain Helps You Heal

When trauma is trapped, your body feels it and your brain tries to make sense of it. But it does not recognize the difference between physical or emotional danger – that’s why your heart may physically hurt during heartbreak. To know how to release trauma trapped in the body, you first have to address what your body is feeling.

The body is the key to the mind. You first have to calm the body’s response to trauma, shifting it from danger/alert to relaxed/controlled. Only then can you begin to recognize and process the mental and emotional aspects of the trauma.

How to Release Trauma Trapped in the Body

International Trauma-Healing Institute founder Gina Ross has developed a simple process called EmotionAid. Here is a summary of those steps you can use to begin releasing trauma trapped in your body.

  1. First, assess where you are: rate your stress or upset from a low of 1 to a high of 7. If it is high, first practice the following Grounding Steps.
    1. Begin by Butterfly Hugging and Tapping– hug yourself and then alternately tap on your arms, from side to side, 25 times. Then take a deep breath. Repeat this until your stress level begins to drop noticeably.
    2. Next, Send Roots into the Ground. Notice your feet or, if your seated, your back, buttocks, and back of your legs in the chair.  Now notice your feet or lower body being firmly connected to the floor, then to the ground, like roots going deep into the earth. Take a deep breath. Then gaze about the room and notice objects or textures about the room, remaining connected to your “roots.”
    3. Finally, Notice Breathing: Put one hand on your chest and one hand your belly. Now just be with your breath, not trying to change it, but just noticing the rhythm of it. Then make a heart shape with your fingertips and bring awareness to your beating heart.
  2. Now begin to Discharge Sensations and Release Stress.
    1. First, notice your breath and Breathe Notice any sensations that come up naturally. As you release stress hormones, they will present through sensations like shaking, heat, sweating, yawning, goosebumps, changed breath, and gurgling in the stomach. Be curious about the feelings and be with them, and they will naturally discharge. Do not judge or critique what you are feeling or sensing.
    2. Next, briefly review the traumatic event or troubling thoughts that lead to the sensations. As you review, notice the Feelings that come up as you consider what happened. It’s important to go slow so that you’re only allowing the activation of one feeling at a time. Just be with it and give it plenty of time. Then notice the discharge that emerges as you follow the sensations. (Know that you can temporarily set aside sensations and emotions that you are not focusing on at the moment. For example, imagine putting them on a shelf for the moment.)
    3. Then work with the Thoughts. Again, as you notice one thought at a time, observe the sensations that show up with these thoughts. Let go of the judgment or criticism. Just be present and continue to observe what happens next and experience the sensations discharging and releasing from the body.
    4. Now notice and bring to awareness Resources. A resource is anything that feels strong and calm to you. These can be external (for example, the kind eyes of a good friend) or internal (perhaps the memory of a personal achievement). As you recall or hold these resources notice the sensations that show up in your body. Take a few minutes to feel the sense of calm and strength in your body.

Learn More: 3 Ways Childhood Trauma Can Affect Your Adult Relationships

How Long Does it Take to Recover from Trauma?

Unfortunately, this is a hard question to answer because it is very specific for each individual. But the good news is therapy can help. Working with a counselor specifically trained in trauma resolution can help you work towards unlocking past traumas and releasing them from your system in a safe space.

Trauma is real, and so are its resulting physical effects. But as Somatic Experiencing creator Peter Levine has said, “trauma is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.” If you are in the Chicagoland area, reach out to one of our trauma specialists at Life Care Wellness at on of our offices in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, or the Jefferson Park neighborhood in Chicago.  Your body has the ability to heal. Let us help you get there.

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

-Helen Keller

Martha (Marty) Dennen MA, LCPC, SEP
Marty has been a professional counselor for over 25 years. She has worked in a variety of settings, including intensive residential treatment, partial hospital programming, and private practice. She practices from a body-centered, somatic framework, specializing in eating disorders, childhood trauma, dissociative disorders, and mood disorders.