Wednesday 28 June 2017

Using your body to change your mind

The key challenge for those who have suffered relational trauma is to reclaim their bodies, as psychotherapist Gayle Williamson explains

OPEN UP: ‘It’s the body that will often point more clearly to the issues a client is struggling with’
OPEN UP: ‘It’s the body that will often point more clearly to the issues a client is struggling with’
Healing: Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk

Gayle Williamson

The first time I met Stevie (not her real name), she ran out of my consulting room after only 20 minutes. When she later rang to apologise, she couldn't explain why she had fled, only that she simply had to. But she wanted to come again the next week and try and get answers, because this was something she also found herself doing in other situations.

Stevie did return the following week and this time made it to the end of the session as we looked at what happened immediately prior to her fleeing. It took us a while to figure it out, but, eventually, she realised that the incense I often burn in my consulting room had triggered a memory of being abused as a child. The person who abused her always had some burning, and ever since then Stevie had been acutely sensitive to smells. It meant she sometimes found herself in complete terror and needing to get out of a situation but without understanding why, because her trauma was largely blocked from conscious awareness.

During traumatic events, the body's fight, flight or freeze emergency response floods our system with the stress hormone cortisol. This temporarily shuts down an important area of the brain called the hippocampus and stops it from doing its job of recording an explicit memory of what happened. Consequently, we can't then consciously remember and retrieve information about the event, including, crucially, temporal details - so it often feels like the trauma is still happening now, when in fact it was, perhaps, 20 years ago.

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