According to the National Center for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a trauma is a “shocking and dangerous event that you see or that happens to you. During this type of event, you think that your life or others’ lives are in danger.”
The National Center for PTSD estimates that 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives. While women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse, men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.
The fact is, trauma can be any event that leaves a prolonged negative imprint on any aspect of our lives, both physically and psychologically. While there are dramatic examples such as sexual abuse or assault, trauma can also be a fight with a family member or being in an environment where you experience extended periods of judgment or bullying. And they can all induce traumatic effects which can negatively affect our ability to create – and maintain – healthy, lasting relationships.
Common physical signs of trauma include chronic pain, constant physical fatigue, unexplained anxiety, frequent irritability, and the inability to be present in the moment. Psychologically, the effects can be even worse: trauma can negatively influence our self-control and cognitive skills, leading us to engage in unhealthy outbursts and constantly criticizing our partners.
Even if we’re able to verbalize the specific patterns we want to change, it’s much harder to actually shift the way we behave in moments of conflict. Yet it’s possible to heal from trauma and enjoy a healthy, lasting relationship with your partner; even if you’re repeatedly sabotaging the connection with your partner, you can still repair and make the relationship stronger than before.
To begin the healing, you must access and process old trauma. This means progressing beyond talking about the past and thinking about how you want to change in the future.
Go Beyond Words & Logic
Talk therapy can be useful, but trauma can’t always be accessed and resolved through verbal means. This is because the left hemisphere of our brain – the part that governs language and logic and also has the ability to understand the “sum” of any situation – tends to be the less dominant hemisphere when trauma occurs. The left hemisphere may even “shut down” during or after a traumatic event, which explains why talk therapy is often limited in helping people resolve their trauma.
Dance, movement, or other creative means that rely more on the right hemisphere may be better suited to finally reach a breakthrough in trauma healing. While working with a qualified Dance/Movement Therapist is the safest route to fully release the old trauma from the body, there are activities you can try on your own to help move on from distressing past events.
For example, singing along to your favorite song, dancing, or painting can reach bottled-up emotions and reframe the trauma in order to gain positive meaning from it. Creative interventions, such as a dance to release grief, create a safe space for us to process our feelings with deeper awareness. We can grieve, ponder, and forgive ourselves without the mind’s defenses getting in the way.
If couples counseling hasn’t worked for your relationship, you can try engaging in some of these creative activities with your partner.
Rewiring The Nervous System
Our autonomic nervous system is made up of two components: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. They work together to help us arrive at a neutral state after we experience tension or shock. When we experience extreme stress or trauma, the balance between the two components gets disrupted. This creates a dysfunctional state within our bodies that manifests as constant anxiety and out-of-control responses, both of which can jeopardize even the most loving relationships.
Fortunately, we can each rewire our nervous system to return to its neutral state no matter what kind of trauma we’ve been through. Our brain’s neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life – allows us to mold our emotions and behaviors in a way that creates much healthier patterns in our relationships.
Thus, instead of overreacting at the first sign of conflict in your relationship, you can rewire your nervous system to remain calm without telling yourself to relax or pushing down frustration in order to keep cool. Having this level of calm allows us to choose healthier responses during disagreements.
If you want to explore how your relationship might look different if you rewired your nervous system, start small by including little new habits in your life. When you sense anger rising within you, try not to say anything for the next 30 seconds. Take a deep breath and feel what’s going on in your body instead. You may be able to sense a heated energy moving through your body. Once you identify this, it’s much easier to let it go and soften your physical state into gentleness and empathy instead.
You can also reach out your hand to show your partner that you want to work through your issue together instead of against each other. The physical act of reaching out vulnerably instead of aggressively can create a healthier pattern of camaraderie and understanding in your relationship.
Releasing Trauma from The Body
Emotional trauma often has a life-changing impact on the body in the form of chronic pain, fatigue and other physical ailments; yet, the most popular forms of trauma therapy, like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, rarely engage the physical body in the healing process.
One of the most powerful ways to release trauma from the body is through physical movement. Movement includes actions as minor as breathing or other avenues to release negative energy, such as somatic movement and dance. Dance/Movement Therapists are certified psychotherapists who are often trained to help clients heal their trauma through movement.
If it feels safe, you can start on your own by connecting to your body through very simple, safe, and gentle movements. Taking some quiet space just to stretch out your arms or roll out the tension in your shoulders can help you reconnect harmoniously to yourself.
Connecting to your body is a vital step to healing trauma because it can break the habit of numbing and dissociating from the body, which blocks us from accessing the body-stored trauma that must be released.
About the Author
Orit Krug is an award-winning Board-Certified Dance/Movement Therapist. Ms. Krug specializes in helping individuals & couples heal from past trauma and enjoy healthy lifelong relationships using her unique approach with Dance/Movement Therapy. For more information, visit here.