How does one start to define trauma? A major debilitating life event? Repetitive, dangerous situations? Maybe rather than define what trauma is by characterizing it as an event, it is more apt to define it by its effects on the person experiencing it.
“Trauma is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond, leaving us feeling helpless, hopeless and out of control.”
– Hala Khouri
Trauma is generally classified into five different types:
- Developmental Trauma – abandonment, abuse and neglect in the early years of a child’s life can affect their cognitive, emotional and psychological development.
- Acute Stress Disorder – characterized by severe anxiety and dissociative symptoms in response to a traumatic event.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – generally thought to be a condition whereby the person is triggered by a terrifying event and includes symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks and uncontrollable thoughts.
- Vicarious Trauma – happens to a trauma worker or helper as they engage empathetically with a traumatised client and their sharing of the traumatic experience.
- Complex Trauma – refers to exposure to multiple traumatic events, usually severe and long term in nature, such as child abuse.
It is estimated that about 20% of the population has suffered some type of trauma. In a yoga class it is important for a yoga teacher to understand this condition, especially because potentially one in five people on the mat in front of you (and possibly more) may be suffering the effects of trauma.
Trauma usually has an aspect of violence. It affects a person’s ability to function, to be happy, and it may create disharmony between people. A trauma victim’s recovery is a reflection of this – it is a search for peace, and to be seen and held in a safe community of others. Yoga and its cultivation of inner peace is the perfect space in which to heal the affects of trauma. People who have suffered trauma naturally gravitate towards yoga and the glimpses of inner equilibrium that they can find through its practice.
When someone has experienced trauma they usually react in one of four different pathways, or a combination of these. These reactions are commonly known as the ‘Four F’s’ – namely Flight, Fight, Freeze and Fawn. (Peter Walker) These are the four basic defensive structures that are used and which develop in the body in reaction to trauma.
These reactions are our survival strategies that keep us safe. They are beneficial to us during an actual event. People who have suffered trauma are incredibly resilient and strong and have found adaptions of behavior that have helped them stay safe, sometimes at a very young age. However if and when the traumatic event finishes, people often find themselves acting out these defensive strategies unconsciously in their everyday life. They may react to innocuous situations, aspects of which trigger the memory of the original trauma (whether they are aware of it or not). This over-reliance on the Four F’s can often lead to dysfunction in everyday life. Depending on which survival strategy is dominant, this leads to different behavioral adaptations:
Flight can often manifest as obsessive/compulsive behaviours;
Fight may become narcissism;
Freeze lends towards dissociative behaviours;
Fawn may lead to co-dependency.
When a person is experiencing trauma, they initially react in one of two pathways. Most people have heard of Fight/ Flight and have experienced it. This is what is usually called a successful outcome to trauma in that the person has been able to escape the danger either by fighting back or by being able to leave or escape the danger. In both cases the body has had a chance to galvanise its resources, and to use up this adrenalin/energy to get itself out of danger. However if either of these pathways have been unsuccessful or unavailable in a situation, people may become immobilised and use the fall back strategies of Fawn or Freeze. Fawn refers to the display of affection or submissive behaviour, in an attempt to please. The Freeze response speaks of the emotional and physical stillness that occurs in the face of danger.
These four strategies for survival are complex and often occur in combination and/or one can become predominate. In people who have suffered major trauma (e.g. childhood abuse) these four strategies, or perhaps one dominant one, becomes their habitual behaviour or pattern, because they perceive themselves to be in a constant state of threat.
In terms of arousal patterning for trauma victims, we can classify the dangerous event as the ‘arousal’. It is generally considered that Flight and Fight will lend the body/mind to hyper-arousal. The person is alert, aware and the body is ready to act. Should this course of action not be successful the person will then usually choose a Fawn or Freeze strategy and move into a hypo-arousal zone where the body is motionless, often with glazed eyes.
For trauma victims, in between these zones is the ever elusive ‘optimal arousal zone’ – the window of tolerance that people want to be in – relaxed state of body and consciousness. Current thinking sees this paradigm not as an ‘either – or’ but rather that you can move dynamically in and out of all three of these states, sometimes within a short period of time. It is also worth noting that a person may show up in a yoga class with different parts of their being in different states – e.g. hyper-aroused mind and a hypo-aroused, listless body.
Yoga teacher Bo Forbes characterizes these variations interchanging ‘hyper-arousal’ with ‘anxious’ and ‘hypo-arousal’ with ‘depressed’. So you could potentially have a student who presents as Depressed Mind/Depressed Body, or Anxious Mind/Anxious Body, or Anxious Mind/Depressed Body or Depressed Mind/Anxious Body.
Symptoms of hyper-arousal in both body and mind may present as a fidgety body, increased heart rate and body temperature, sensations of constrictions in the throat and chest, rapid, shallow, open mouth breathing, trembling and shaking, circulating thoughts, insomnia, racing, worried thoughts, a focus mainly on the future, and a tendency to view all situations as dangerous.
Symptoms of hypo-arousal in the body and mind may show up as lack of core strength, rounding of upper back and shoulders, listlessness, yawning and sighing, slow movements which take a lot of effort, heavy body feeling, avoidance of eye contact, laboured breath with gaps between in breath and out breath, poor concentration and memory, self criticism, a delayed response to questions, brain fog, a focus mainly on the past, freezing postures of the body, not viewing any situation as dangerous.
In terms of more spiritual/emotional symptoms, a whole range of normal relational aspects of living may be dysfunctional due to the effects of trauma, e.g. the ability to trust, forgiveness, connection and oneness, and belief systems surrounding God/Goddess.
The essence of yoga helps a trauma survivor to reclaim their body, to experience sensations in the body with ease, to quieten thoughts and allow a sense of peace to pervade in their mind, and to allow aspects of the spirit to heal.
Yoga provides an avenue for the person to inhibit their body, to begin to know that the body is a safe place to be in. They become more aware of their breathing, their body parts and the sensations in these parts. Preceding thought is the physical sensation, and these sensations from trauma are stored in the body. The body remembers trauma, often more so than the mind, and in some cases where the traumatic event was at a young age, it is only the body that remembers.
In yoga a person may begin to first become aware of, feel and track these sensations related to trauma in a titrated way. Then they may begin to change these sensations through various yogic practices and therefore change the way that both their body feels, and how they feel. Beginning to be aware of, tolerate and have some agency over somatic/bodily sensations can massively help with emotional regulation and the healing process.
Trauma Aware Yoga aims to take people to the optimal arousal zone, to gently guide them from a state of hyper or hypo arousal into the window of tolerance – a place where they can safely manage their emotions, thoughts, feelings and sensations. By helping them to stay in this optimal zone in a yoga class, where they are not being triggered into hyper or hypo arousal, the brain is making and strengthening new pathways of being. These new pathways may help trauma survivors to navigate daily life without feeling like they are in constant danger and/or in a reactionary mode. Through the interoceptive and conscious physical aspects of yogic practices, the person can become more grounded and centered in present time, rather than stuck in emotions or memories of the past or fears for the future. The main successful outcomes of a Trauma Aware yoga class are for the student to “have and notice their own body, to befriend their body and to be able to self regulate”. (Emerson and Hopper 2011)
The Trauma Aware yoga class is a present moment experience – a very solid interoceptive experience that can be felt or sensed. The yoga teacher creates a safe environment in which choice is allowed – choice in asana, choice in breath and making the body more comfortable. Both choice and effective action were not available to the trauma survivor during the trauma and it is therefore a key component to a sense of agency and successful recovery.
An emphasis is placed on orientating the student not only in their own body but also orienting their body in the physical space around them. The class should aim to help the student sense dynamics of the body in real time – e.g. placing a hand on part of the body, feeling the movements of the muscles, skin etc.
Trauma Aware yoga also aims to reintegrate survivors back into a sense of rhythm or connection with themselves and with others. This connection is often lost through the abuse or violence from others during the traumatic event. This connection is experienced in a yoga class by creating a rhythmic movement in which everyone tries to connect to – making it a singular shared movement.
The language of a trauma sensitive yoga class is predominantly invitational rather than directive e.g. ‘if you like’, ‘feel free to’, ‘as you are ready’ – and this aims to promote a sense of choice and agency. Teachers may also use the language of inquiry – ‘explore’, ‘notice’, ‘investigate’, ‘allow’ – again allowing for choice and encouraging an inward somatic, interoceptive experience. The language is body specific and concrete rather than imaginary. It is also very repetitive, saying things in the exact same way many times over so that those with poor concentration, memory and dissociative tendencies can follow the class.
Trauma Aware Yoga is fast becoming a recognized and valuable contribution in the treatment of trauma. Numerous studies have shown it to be beneficial in the recovery process for trauma survivors by decreasing a persons physical symptoms and emotional distress. It has the added advantage over many other treatments, especially pharmaceuticals, because it has very few contraindications or side effects.
If yoga teachers would like to know more, training is available from Trauma Sensitive Yoga Australia, David Emerson at Kripalu Centre, or Hala Khouri.
Yoga students who would like to find Trauma Aware Yoga teacher can go to the listing for NZ on Trauma Sensitive Yoga Australia website, www.traumasensitiveyogaaustralia.com
David Emerson “Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga”
Bo Forbes “Yoga for Emotional Balance”
Hala Khouri – online training.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga Australia Training for Yoga Teachers
Bessel van der Kolk “The Body Keeps The Score”
Peter Walker “A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD”
Cushla Sheridan runs Te Hine Ruru Retreat in beautiful Russell, Bay of Islands on the north-east coast of New Zealand.
© The Yoga Connection 2017