Understanding How Trauma is Stored in the Body

May 29 / Sascha Anna Vriend
Discover the silent language of trauma stored within the body and body psychotherapy as a transformative integration tool in unlocking pathways to healing.

9 minutes to read

Why We Need to Understand Trauma

Trauma is a complex and pervasive experience that can profoundly impact our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. While traditional approaches to trauma therapy often focus on the mind and cognition, body psychotherapy takes a holistic perspective, recognizing that trauma is stored not only in our minds but also in our physical bodies. My personal experience working with trauma as a clinical psychologist also trained in theory and techniques of body psychotherapy, emphasizes the importance of embodied practices within the journey towards recovery.

The mind-body connection

Body psychotherapy embraces the notion that the mind and body are inextricably connected, constantly influencing and communicating with one another. Trauma, whether acute or complex, can disrupt this delicate balance, leaving imprints on both the psyche and the soma. The body becomes a living record of challenging and overwhelming experiences, storing unresolved emotions, sensations, and energetic imbalances, often associated with self-protective physiological patterns or coping mechanisms. 

What does this all mean? It’s helpful to look at the somatic experience of trauma to understand this phenomenon. Note that these are general guidelines and processes, with each trauma survivor’s experience being entirely unique. 

Four Somatic Experiences of Trauma

1. Sensations and Body Memories:
When we experience trauma, our bodies can respond instinctively, activating the fight, flight, or freeze response. These intense physiological reactions leave imprints in the form of sensations and body memories, which can manifest over time as pain, tension, numbing, or a heightened sensitivity to certain stimuli. This is classically described by some trauma survivors and the experience of being “triggered”.

2. Chronic Muscle Tension:
Trauma can cause chronic muscle tension as a protective response. The body braces itself, creating a shield against potential threats. Over time, this tension can become habitual, leading to physical discomfort, restricted movement, and a constant state of hyper vigilance. It is important to recognize that the pattern of muscle tension experienced can vary from person to person, with each individual developing a “protective armor” that reflects the challenging emotions they faced and their specific coping mechanisms (e.g. acute trauma such as a car accident can cause tension in the iliopsoas muscle in the pelvic region, repressed anger can cause mandibular and jaw tension, and repetitive experiences of a freeze response can cause stiffness or heaviness in the limbs).      

3. Breath and Respiration Patterns:
In a relaxed and harmonious physiological state, our breathing pattern is deep and slow, often located in the belly. However, traumatic experiences often disrupt our natural breathing patterns, reducing our breath to a more thoracic and shallow breath, as moving away from the “feeling body” which may be experiencing overwhelm, into the safer space of the intellectual or brain body, can often bring emotional relief. As a result of trauma, we may hold our breath, breathe superficially, or even hyperventilate during moments of distress when the body is triggered into an intense emotional state. These altered breath patterns can persist long after the traumatic event, contributing to anxiety, panic attacks, and a sense of “ungroundedness” or disconnection from the body.

4. Body Image and Dissociation:
Trauma can distort our perception of our bodies, leading to body image issues and disconnection.
Dissociation, a common response to trauma, can involve a detachment from physical sensations and a disconnection from the body. This dissociation can hinder the integration of traumatic experiences and contribute to feelings such as disembodiment, disconnection from one’s emotions and lack of bodily autonomy. It is common in my practice with trauma survivors to hear descriptions of feeling “far from” oneself or observing one’s own behavior from an outsider’s perspective. 

"Through the profound wisdom of the mind-body connection we can unlock the potential for healing, resilience, and embodied empowerment."

The Four Body Psychotherapeutic Approach to Trauma

What is the  value of a body psychotherapeutic approach to trauma? In this approach a general focus is placed on supporting recovery of the body’s original harmony, self-regulation, flexibility (the capacity to act as opposed to react), and vitality. 

Ultimately, this supports a person’s sense of connection to themself, others and their environment. Specific techniques and strategies within this approach include:

1. Somatic Awareness: 
Developing an attuned connection to the body's sensations, and recognizing the physiological responses associated with trauma. Through practices such as mindfulness, body scans, and grounding exercises, individuals can reconnect with their bodies and begin to unravel the stored trauma.

2. Somatic Experiencing: 
Somatic experiencing is a therapeutic approach that focuses on renegotiating the body's responses to trauma. By gently titrating and tracking bodily sensations, individuals can gradually discharge and release the energy trapped in the body, leading to increased regulation and a sense of safety.

3. Mind-Body Techniques:
Various mind-body techniques such as breathwork, therapeutic yoga, movement therapy, and touch can be used to support the healing process. These techniques help individuals access and process traumatic memories and emotions that may be inaccessible through traditional talk therapy alone. 

Though these techniques can be powerful resources, it is important to remember that they should always be practiced with care and awareness, as intimate or intense practices that revolve around touch, emotional release and catharsis also have the potential to retraumatize a person if improperly supported and integrated. 

It is also important to recognise that specific mind-body practices can induce altered states of consciousness, with extensive therapeutic benefit. Circular breathwork for example, can trigger psychedelic states that offer overlapping benefits to substance-induced psychedelic therapies such as those currently approved for treatment of conditions like depression and PTSD.

In cases where mind-body or somatic techniques are used for deep healing through altered states of consciousness, it is important that they be practiced with a significant emphasis on integration, that is with adequate preparation, support, safety precautions and post-experience reflection and elaboration, ir order to provide maximum benefit with minimal risk.   

4. Resourcing and Regulation: 
Body psychotherapy places significant emphasis on building inner resources and fostering self-regulation. Techniques such as grounding exercises, self-soothing strategies, and body-based interventions empower individuals to develop a sense of safety, stability, and resilience in the face of trauma-related triggers. “Pendulation”, a common term from the field of Body psychotherapy, involves switching between resourcing and titration, allowing a person to move between a state of arousal triggered by a traumatic event and a state of calm.

In the words of one of my most respected references in the field, Alexander Lowen: “psyche and soma [are] two aspects of a unitary process, one mental and the other physical, much like the head and tail faces of a coin. Whatever one does with the coin affects both sides simultaneously.”

Integrating somatic approaches into trauma therapy

The breadth and depth of body psychotherapy offers an integrative or holistic perspective to trauma recovery, where cognitive or talk therapy is accompanied by somatic work that promotes recovery not only on a mental level, but also at the embodied emotional and somatic level. It provides many resources, all rooted in a deep understanding of the physical and physiological marks trauma can leave on the body and the mind-body connection. As such, by integrating somatic approaches into trauma therapy, individuals can embark on a transformative journey towards reclaiming their bodies, releasing stored trauma, and restoring their overall well-being. Through the profound wisdom of the mind-body connection we can unlock the potential for healing, resilience, and embodied empowerment. 

I invite you to share your thoughts, experiences, or questions in the comments below. .
Sascha Anna Vriend is a seasoned clinical psychologist trained in theory and techniques of body psychotherapy, various mind-body therapies including therapeutic yoga and breathwork, as well as altered states integration. With years of dedicated practice, Sascha brings a wealth of experience and a compassionate approach to her work, guiding individuals through their healing journeys with an emphasis on the interconnectedness of mind, body and consciousness. She believes in being of service within an inside-out philosophy, where transformation starts within the individual and emanates to their relationships, community and wider ecosystem. Sascha currently runs a private practice and community-based therapeutic events in the Lisbon area. She also co-founded Recíproco in 2022 with Amánda Efthimiou, a retreat-based and online training platform designed to support professionals in the psychedelic space to provide informed, integrative and multidisciplinary support for clients exploring altered states of consciousness.   
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