In this post I want to discuss trauma, specifically psychological trauma (also known as PTSD) and the role massage therapy can play in addressing it.
I find that in the U.S., we often associate trauma with physical harm due to single events, such as industrial accidents, car accidents, gunshot wounds, etc. We can see this association in how we label our major hospitals as “trauma centers.” While I don’t want to diminish such events as traumatic, I want to emphasize that, in order to heal, we need to integrate addressing the psychological parts of trauma, as well as the physical parts of it, and I find massage therapy helps achieve this.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, psychological trauma, “results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20140805161505/http://www.samhsa.gov/traumajustice/traumadefinition/definition.aspx)
Author Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. expands on this discussion, in his book, The Body Keeps The Score, by saying that, “Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and the brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
The questions of how to treat trauma and how to identify those who are traumatized, gets convoluted very quickly. Psychological trauma is progressive, which in medical terms, means it develops over time. It’s important to point out that progression does not mean neat movement from one stage to the next. “Progression” is only a way to identify that the trauma’s expression fluctuates, which is important, because it lets us know to expect the unexpected.
We find psychological trauma in all types of people, regardless of age, ability, gender identity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or location. While some identifiers have a greater association with psychological trauma, this does not mean that being a member of said group guarantees it. We can, however, use these identifiers to help us support people who struggle with psychological trauma.
Some examples of traumatic experiences are: birth trauma; loss of a parent or close family member; severe illness, physical injuries; sexual, physical, and emotional abuse (including severe abandonment); witnessing violence (such as in Armed Services Experience); medical or dental procedures (such as surgery); or natural disasters (such as earthquakes, fires, floods, etc.).
While psychological trauma is divided into 3 different stages, it’s important to note that the symptoms listed below may occur in any stage, in any order, and often repeat.
The first stage is classified by fight, flight, or freeze. In other words, what is physically occurring in your body at the moment of the traumatic event.
The second stage is characterized by hypervigilance, which may include symptoms such as: intrusive thoughts (also known as flashbacks); exaggerated emotional, and startle, responses; nightmares and night terrors; or abrupt mood swings.
The final stage has symptoms which may include: the inability to make commitments; chronic fatigue; immune system problems; psychosomatic illness; asthma; digestive issues; depression; rage; and insomnia.
You might have some of these symptoms, but that does not necessarily mean you have a diagnosis of psychological trauma, or PTSD. I recommend that you consult with a medical professional to be properly diagnosed.
As you can see, some of these responses to trauma physically manifest within the body. The nervous system gets overwhelmed with energy created by the traumatic event. When this energy is not allowed to finish its cycle of release, the result can manifest in physical and emotional sensations. This stored energy is part of what causes the symptoms of psychological trauma.
As a body worker and health coach I have studied trauma and its effects on the human body. I work with people suffering from mental health, trauma, and addiction struggles, as well as people with physical complications that affect their health and well being. Peter Levine, Ph.D. states that “The main point in trauma is that while it can alter your life, it is not a life sentence.” I fully agree with this statement.
In his books, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, and In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Dr. Levine, explains that trauma lies within the body. Therefore, people who struggle with traumatic experience, need to reconnect with their physical body in order to fully heal. While talk therapy and pharmacological prescriptions can help, they are not the whole answer to healing trauma. I find that massage therapy is one way to help people reconnect with their body.
As a massage therapist, I strive to be trauma-informed, and so work to create a space where all my clients feel safe. Although I do not call myself an expert, I am a firm believer that in healing, we have to reunite body, mind, and spirit to be effective.
In my next post I will write about addiction.
“Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” Dr. Peter Levine
“In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness” Dr. Peter Levine
“The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In The Healing of Trauma” Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
“When the Body Displaces the Mind” Jean Benjamin Stora
American Massage Therapy Association (www.amtamassaage.org) “In Safe Hands: Massage & PTDS”
Society of Shamanic Society (www.shamanicpractioners.org) “Healing Trauma: A Shamanic Approach”
In this blog, I give my reflections on various topics, including medical research. The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect any other organization. I am properly trained as a professional massage therapist and health and wellness coach; however, I am not a physician or psychologist (other official western medicine professionals). Please consult your own physician, chiropractor, or psychologist as you make your health and wellness decisions.