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Restoring the Nervous System by Healing the Mind-Body Connection


One of the aims of Benchmarks’ Partnering for Excellence (PFE) is to educate communities about the effects of trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs); specifically, how these effects impact the youth and families that encounter the child welfare system. Through our work we know that when systems are trauma-informed, it can help shift the perspectives of professionals from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”, which ultimately informs the way we treat and address trauma.

To this end, Benchmarks developed the Trauma-intensive Comprehensive Clinical Assessment (TiCCA) to assist PFE clinicians in using this lens to make more holistic and individualized recommendations for children and families impacted by trauma. We encourage clinicians to “think outside the box” when it comes to addressing the individual needs of families and consider other alternative treatments, in addition to more widely accepted trauma-informed models of care like TF-CBT. An example of an alternative treatment is body-based interventions which can be beneficial in treating the effects of trauma in the body.

Some may ask, what does the mind have to do with the body? The answer is…a lot! The mind and body are intended to work together in harmony to maximize our physical and mental health. When one experiences trauma, it can directly affect the working relationship between the mind and body. In people who have experienced trauma, we notice they often live their lives in survival or “fight or flight” mode. This is due to experiences that have caused their body to be on constant alert, even when danger may not be present. For some, even if there are no consciously accessible memories of their trauma, their bodies will often remember. These “body memories” can manifest physically as headaches, clenched jaws, flashbacks, bad dreams, anxious thoughts, and many other somatic symptoms if they are left unprocessed. Using mind-body healing techniques can be an effective way to counter the effects of trauma in the body by providing a chance to process and release the shock experienced in the mind-body system and return the nervous system to a balanced state.

To better illustrate this, in a quote by Bessel van der Kolk from the book “The Body Keeps the Score”, the author emphasizes the importance of “befriending the body”:

“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. To change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

So, how does one “befriend” their body after trauma?

Body-Based Interventions

Feeling powerless over external situations is a common feeling for those who have experienced trauma. Body-based interventions can help individuals shift focus from external input to internal control. While there are many examples of body-based interventions, more widely used ones include:

  • Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-oriented model for healing trauma and other stress-related disorders. The approach releases traumatic shock, helping transform the effects of traumatic stress disorders including emotional and early developmental attachment trauma. It offers a framework to assess where a person is “stuck” in the fight, flight or freeze responses and provides clinical tools to resolve these fixations.
  • Trauma-informed Yoga encourages individuals to connect with their bodies through movement, breathing, and mindfulness. Trauma-informed yoga considers an individual’s experiences and modifies the practice to account for that. With guidance from the instructor, simple movement and breath work can help the individual to develop a compassionate connection with their bodies, tools to check in with their feelings, and methods to regulate their nervous system.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocesses (EMDR) has a direct effect on the way the brain processes information, releasing emotional experiences that are trapped in the nervous system. A therapist works with an individual and has them recall dysregulating memories or feelings. These memories or feelings are reprocessed using bilateral stimulation which can be anything that causes the eyes to move from one side to another.

Like fingerprints, every individual’s experience with trauma is unique and therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. The work our partners are doing to implement innovative strategies and approaches to address trauma is a huge stride in bettering the outcomes for those who have experienced it.

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