Tuesday Toolbox: “Touching” the Heart of Trauma

by: Jennie Murdock

Mother and DaughterI opened my email andwas reminded of  the title for the ATN  blog:  “Touching the Heart of Trauma”.   It struck me that quite literally what we need to do IS “touch” the heart of trauma by touching the body.

I thought back to a mother who brought in her adopted daughter several weeks ago, and saw instantly in their eyes the pain, fear and rejection they were feeling as they kept hitting dead ends in the attempt to connect with each other. There was so much anger and resentment and hurt, you could almost taste it. So I had them sit on the couch facing each other and take turns massaging each other’s hand and telling each other what felt good and what didn’t. In those few minutes, something magical happened as they got beyond their defenses and sensed what the other was feeling. A simple touch broke the spell.

I’m a big fan of  trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who has done pioneering work on highlighting the way that people experience the long-range effects of trauma as much in their bodies as in their minds. Sadly, it’s the very fact that both emotion and reasoning ability are held hostage by the  body’s continuing physical reaction to trauma—long after the traumatic event happens—that makes healing so hard for trauma survivors, no matter how much cognitive “insight” they have into their suffering. As a result, many trauma therapists are now making mindful body awareness, breathing, relaxation, and grounding techniques as integral to the therapy as talk therapy is.

In my 23 plus years of working as a clinical social worker and a massage therapist (yes, I blend both!),  I am coming more and more to recognize and acknowledge that just talking will never get to the heart of trauma.  The cognitive aspect is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is so much rich material under the surface, but we have to contact the body to get there. How many times a day do you look at your child and think to yourself…..Hello, is anybody in there?  (Well, maybe they are so disconnected from their body that in essence they really aren’t there!)  We have to help them reenter and inhabit their own bodies.

There are many ways to incorporate touch and body work.  We can connect with the body of our client/child directly through massage therapy or body-oriented psychotherapy, and we can  help them get in touch with their own bodies through movement, dance, breathing, horseback riding, use of  clay and kinetic sand.

Regardless of the approach, we must find JOY in the journey and start moving and touching.  The healing will follow.

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