When it comes to the idea of trauma, most of us think of the familiar "fight or flight" response and we certainly hear about that concept and read about it frequently. But is that always the case? Do we really only have two options--fight back or run away? For example, let's take a child who's being abused physically, sexually, emotionally or verbally. Is he really going to fight a fully grown adult or have the ability and opportunity to run away? Most likely not. Under this kind of threat, the pre-frontal cortex--our rational thinking equipment--shuts down and the limbic system takes over, the emotional part of us which gives us survival. But often, instead of fight or flight, it goes into a "freeze" mode whereby we can't fight and we can't run so instead our brain just locks up not knowing what to do so we freeze and try to endure the trauma the best we can.
Meanwhile, the body encodes all this trauma which in the future can wreak havoc on our daily functioning, especially the limbic system, which means we may be prone to anxiety, depression, addiction and other maladaptive coping skills.
Had he been able to fight or at least run away, sure he would have had some kind of trauma, but a much lower level of interference in his everyday life. The act of not freezing stops all the trauma being encoded in the body and creates a much better outcome. One of the great trauma clinicians,
the Dutch psychiatrist who lives and works in the US, Bessel van der Kolk, has entitled his excellent book on trauma recovery, The Body Keeps the Score, underscoring how the mind and body are completely intertwined when dealing with trauma, any kind of trauma.
In one of his workshops, van der Kolk discusses an unusual finding, namely that after the most traumatic event in recent US history, the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11, typically, there should have been a massive amount of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) yet surprisingly, when all the research on this was completed, there was an unexpected lower level of PTSD in many of the population.
When the researchers put all the data together they found some definite variables which accounted for this lower level.
One of the factors was the outpouring of support, not just from fellow New Yorkers but from the entire world with other countries offering immediate aid, celebrities coming together for concerts, and everyone including the media, talking, telling their stories, offering sympathy and empathy and allowing for a huge psychological cradle of support which had a comforting, soothing effect on the traumatized population.
The second major factor was that when the explosions happened and dust clouds were erupting, thousands of people didn't go into a freeze mode but instead they ran as fast as they could, just as our bodies were designed to do when under immediate threat. The act of running allowed the body to absorb the psychological trauma as it was happening but with the result that those who ran eventually found themselves safe, thereby reducing the harmful effects of the trauma and staving off any potential PTSD.
So what does this tell us? That a crucial component of trauma recovery involves movement which can help heal existing PTSD symptoms. And while EMDR is frequently the treatment of choice for many people or Narrative Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it can be helpful to include a component of movement either in re-enacting ("What would you liked to have been able to do instead of freezing?") or in other body movement such as dance, tai chi, pilates and so on.
Many years ago I met a Native Medicine man and we got talking about counseling and therapy and he asked what was my dance.
"My dance?" I asked
"Yes, your dance. You don't dance for your clients?"
"No, therapy is talking and processing feelings, re-framing how you see yourself, maybe some journaling and drawing, that kind of thing."
He paused for a few moments and said, "Too bad because they'll only get half-well if they don't move their bodies."
That was thirty years ago and I think he was on to something. Meanwhile, if you're dealing with some form of PTSD, get moving...walk, run, exercise, dance, stretch...make some kind of physical movement part of your healing process because as Bessel van der Kolk says, the body does, indeed, keep the score