The body has an immediate, physical response to every emotion we feel and everything we experience. It is inextricably linked to our thoughts and emotions and has the capability of storing each of our experiences (traumas). Because the body holds many of the emotions we experienced in moments of trauma, some of which we don’t even remember, it holds the key to unlocking and releasing conscious and subconscious fears, beliefs and traumas that bleed into our daily lives and manifest as detrimental behaviours and thought processes, as well as aches, pains and illness.
How and Why Trauma is Stored in the Body
The body’s storing of emotions is essential to our survival, as when our emotions and thoughts communicate information to our body about our external environment, our body is able to respond accordingly and trigger the release of hormones and chemicals that work to protect us from potential threats. For example, when we perceive that we are under attack from a predator, this is communicated to our body, which in turn responds by releasing adrenaline (the fight or flight response) so we can flee from danger.
In a further effort to protect us from future danger, our bodies also store these threats as a sort of ‘physical memory’, so that in case a similar situation should arise again, we are able to respond much faster and read the situation sooner. An extreme example of this can be seen in soldiers who are caught in explosions, and for months or even years following the trauma, they experience involuntary and random physical jolts, spasms, and ticks. These ticks mimic the body’s physical response to the explosion at the moment it occurred.
With this type of physical memory, it is easy to identify which parts of the body the trauma has been stored in and what that trauma was. However, for most people, the traumas we have experienced are not as obvious or as life-threatening as being involved in an explosion. The trauma we hold in our body might be to do with the sudden death of a loved one (grief), heartbreak, childhood abandonment, abuse, and so on. Although these traumas might not threaten our immediate survival, the emotions we feel at the moment they occur are no less profound. Our body still processes the emotion and stores it in the part of the body that first responds physically at the moment of trauma, or in the part of the body that correlates to the negative belief or source of stress.
How Unresolved Trauma Stored in the Body Effects Quality of Life
The problem that arises with this is not that trauma or emotion is stored in our body, it’s that we don’t recognize that this is what is happening when we experience mysterious pain or illness. We don’t consider the fact that our body is trying to draw our attention to an issue that has been stored in us physically so that we can acknowledge it and release it. We don’t acknowledge or even consider the link between the physical and the emotional. When we attempt to treat only the pain, it’s like putting a bandage over a bullet wound, because another key factor – the emotional cause – has been overlooked. Pain is merely a symptom of a deeper issue, it is not the problem. So we shouldn’t consider the harbouring of trauma in our bodies as a problem, this is here to help us, it only becomes a problem because we don’t understand that it is communicating something to us, and we haven’t adopted more efficient methods of dealing with it.
For example, if the oldest child in a family loses a parent through death and is subsequently thrust into a role in which they must take on a parental role and replace the parent that has died, their body will likely store the stress and shock of the sudden loss of childhood, loss of innocence and sudden burden and responsibility in the shoulders, neck and head (hence the origin of the expression “a weight on my shoulders”). If this trauma is not properly processed or acknowledged in childhood, this person might, as an adult, experience acute and persistent headaches, shoulder and back pain and a tendency for whiplash.
Because we often still overlook the link between physical pain or physical issues and emotion/trauma, this same person might seek pain medication or simply go for the odd massage for ‘stress release’, and then wonder why the pain persists or returns after a short time. What we instead should be doing when we experience persistent pain or recurring injury, is asking ourselves “what is my pain trying to tell me?”. All pain, injuries and illnesses have an emotional link. If you remember anything from this blog, remember that.
How Your Body Can Show You Subconscious Fears, Beliefs and Worries
Even if you don’t have a problem with chronic pain, if you are simply interested in exploring suppressed emotions, fears, beliefs and traumas, as you explore your body through stretching and movement with the intention of communicating with it, your body will show you the areas in which you are stuck because you will hit ‘walls’, or pains, issues and emotions will arise when you activate certain parts of your body, and then you will know you have hit a point where your presence is needed.
Recurring injuries in children are also an interesting indicator of underlying issues within a family, unhealthy family dynamics, or areas in which the child’s needs are not being met. For instance, a child that repeatedly sprains their ankle, complains of foot pain, or repeatedly fractures their foot or ankle, is likely in a home situation in which they feel unsupported, uncertain, insecure or as though their immediate family environment is ‘on shaky ground’ and is in some way unreliable or unpredictable. There is more going on here than the child simply having ‘weak ankles’. The feet and ankles represent our connection to home, our roots, the mother, our trust in the world, and everything that makes us feel safe, secure and supported. When these factors are out of alignment or these needs are not being met, and we are ignoring that we have issues in this area, our body may call us to address these issues by developing pain and discomfort in the legs, ankles and feet.
Pain, injury and illness is the body’s way of communicating that something in our life is out of alignment – on an emotional level there is something that needs to be addressed and healed. It could be a current issue or a past issue that was not dealt with. Start viewing your ailments as an opportunity to consciously identify an area of your life that is troubling you, with the purpose of altering and improving that thing and finding a way to meet your needs in that area. Once the core issue has been solved, the illness or pain will dissipate as it will have served its purpose.
For example, when I was 10 years old, the parents of my best friend decided to separate. All her life, my friend had lived in a two-parent family in a nice home. It was an acrimonious split, the family home was sold, and both my friend’s parents moved to different houses in different areas. I saw changes in my friend’s behaviour – she seemed more fragile, vulnerable and insecure. She had a teddy bear that she clung to at sleepovers and would get visibly upset if she couldn’t find it. Her mother rented a couple of different homes before she eventually bought a property and they settled in one place. I know this was a disruptive and confusing time for my friend, and it was obvious that having her foundation rattled in that way and losing her longtime home left her feeling on shaky ground.
In the middle of all this, my friend badly fractured her foot playing sport, and ended up needing a cast that went up to her knee, and crutches. Looking at her, you would have thought she’d broken her femur, and the degree to which she was incapacitated by this injury was about equal to that of someone who actually had shattered their femur. I remember her foot took a long time to heal, and the cast was left on for longer than usual.
It is not a coincidence that at a time in her life when she was feeling visibly insecure, unsupported and as though her family life was unpredictable, my friend suffered an injury that demanded the full presence and attention of her parents (the two people in a child’s life who are responsible for making them feel safe and secure), and that at times would require them to physically pick her up – physically and literally ‘support’ her.
So, you might ask what a foot or leg injury has to do with feeling insecure or unsupported? If she’d broken an arm or her nose, her parents still would have needed to pay attention to her? Yes, but a child with a broken arm can still remain largely independent and can do most things without assistance. This foot injury made it difficult for my friend to move around on her own. She needed help bathing, going up and down stairs, and sometimes the pain meant that she was unable to walk comfortably at all. This meant that she needed constant support and presence from her parents. This injury demanded that they slow down, be present with her and her physical need, and acknowledge her needs amidst the chaos of the separation.
Sometimes in the stress of a divorce, particularly if the parents are fighting, so much focus is put towards the ‘fight’, that the child’s needs are unintentionally overlooked or forgotten in the process. It is not uncommon then, that if the child has no other way of getting their parents’ attention or communicating to them that a need isn’t being met, they will manifest an injury or illness as a way of calling the parents’ attention to the issue so that it can be addressed and the family dynamic can be shifted. In the case of my friend, this injury required all her parents’ attention and their complete presence when they were with her. It served as a reminder of the fact that she still needed their support and their input, and forced them to become aware of her increased insecurity and fragility at the time. It forced them to slow down and to momentarily focus their energy on something other than the conflict.
Having her mother help her bathe, pick her up, carry her to the bathroom and help her get dressed subconsciously reinforced to my friend that she was still supported and that her parents were present with her enough to acknowledge something was wrong. The injury brought my friend a sense of predictability, structure, order and peace to the chaos. She knew that every night at the same time her mother would have to be physically in her presence to help her bathe, and help her get in and out of the bath. She was literally and physically supported in these moments.
I noticed that during the period that my friend was injured, her mother softened and actually seemed less stressed, because she had to be. So, once my friend’s core need was met- the need for stability, presence and support – her injury improved and she no longer had problems in this part of her body. The core issue within the family dynamic was addressed and improved so that it was no longer an issue for my friend. Her injury had served its purpose – to enlighten the parents to a need that wasn’t being met.
How to Release Trauma Through Stretching
The process of addressing and releasing trauma or suppressed emotions within the body is simple. It is at times uncomfortable and confusing, but the keywords to remember are attention and presence. If you are experiencing pain and discomfort somewhere in your body, remain receptive to the message it is trying to send you.
Start by moving that part of your body. It doesn’t have to be a particular stretch, just move in whichever way feels comfortable or brings you a sense of relief. Pay attention to which motions feel more stiff or loose, which motions feel uncomfortable or which motions make you feel as though you have no control or lack strength.
For instance, if you have pain, tightness or stiffness of the neck, start by doing gentle head rolls in a circle. Sitting with your back straight and arms relaxed by your side, turn your head slowly as far to the left as you can, then to your right. Now lift your arm up in front of you slowly, and wind it around in a circle above your head and back behind you. Slowly follow your arm with your head as you do so. Trigger points also help to relieve tension in the shoulders and lower neck. Simply have someone use their finger to gently push down on the area that feels the most tense until you feel the muscle spasming as it releases tension. This should feel intense but not painful – if it hurts, have your helper ease up on the pressure a bit.
If you are experiencing neck problems, look at your posture and how you hold your head throughout the day. Do you have forward neck posture (jut your head forward)? Does your head tilt to one side? When you notice that your posture is poor, ask yourself what you are thinking and feeling in those moments. What are you worrying about? What does your body feel like – heavy?
Forward neck posture is common among people who feel they have too many responsibilities and have too many people to please. They are ‘sticking their neck out’ to help and please everyone, at their own expense. Neck stiffness and pain is often a sign that you have ‘had it up to here’ with something or someone. If you experience tightness and stiffness to the degree that you have difficulty turning your head, ask yourself: “What in my environment do I not want to look at/address?”, “What is making me feel stuck/trapped/backed into a corner?”, “What/who is making me feel like I have ‘nowhere to turn'”?
If these feelings of responsibility, pressure or being trapped have manifested in rigidity and stiffness in the neck and shoulders, a great stretch to release this tension is to perform the opposite motions to the postures that have contributed to it. Backbends, in this case of forward neck posture, are excellent. They allow the head to tilt back and open up the chest and shoulders. Start by laying flat on your back, then attempt to push your chest and pelvis up toward the roof by pushing your self up with your arms and legs. Do not push too hard initially, and only hold for a few seconds. Repeat this motion as many times as you feel comfortable doing so, and remember to breathe out.
For a more gentle backbend, use a yoga balls/swiss ball. Mould your back to the ball and allow the ball to carry your entire body weight. Let your arms hang over your head and down to the floor, and use your feet to roll the ball in a forward/back, side-to-side motion. Feel the tension being released, and take note of the sensations you feel as your spinal, shoulder and neck muscles relax.
The simple act of you stretching out these muscles and allowing them to release the tension held in them, is an act in and of itself in giving your attention and presence to the fact that you have tension and the fact that you in some way feel under pressure. This is an acknowledgement and presence with the issue that this pain is drawing your attention to, which is the first step in resolving it. Continue to move this part of your body and do the things that give you any sense of relief. Let your body tell you what feels right and what should be done next. Take note of any emotions that ‘randomly’ arise as you do so – they are telling you something.
How to Identify Suppressed Emotions and Trauma Through Stretching
In order to access and become aware of emotions and traumas held in the body, we must first become connected to it. The only way to do this is through movement. You have to be ‘in’ your body in order to hear it and understand it.
Any kind of movement is great, so start by doing whatever you feel drawn to and enjoy the most. A great starting point is to focus your attention to areas that cause you pain, but if you have no pain, instead look to the areas where you are least flexible or have the poorest coordination. These areas indicate aspects of yourself that you are disconnected from, aspects of yourself that you are not grounded in, or aspects of life in which you feel the least safe.
As you stretch you might notice that certain areas are more painful than others, or are tight, stiff and rigid. When stretching these areas, you might have random urges to cry but be unaware of what this is linked to. You might not immediately be able to link the emotion you are feeling to a particular experience or event in your life, but that is ok. The most important thing is that you have identified an area in your body in which an emotion or trauma has been stored, and it is being released. The part of your body that has triggered the emotional response will give you a clue as to what the underlying issue is.
For example, if you are working on stretching out your hips through hip-openers such as Frog Pose, you might notice that you have a very limited range of movement in this area compared to the average person. The hip joints are where we store fear. They represent our ‘base’ in life, what makes us feel grounded and safe, but they also relate to our ability to cope with change, to adjust, to be ‘flexible’ in life, and for a woman they also related to her femininity and all things linked to that including motherhood etc.
The tighter the hip joints, the more inflexible the person is, usually due to extreme fear and a need to ‘control’ the environment so that the individual is never given any nasty surprises. As you stretch this area more, focus on the emotions that arise. Only you will know the exact events that have led to your fearing change, becoming inflexible and needing to control. Each trigger will be different for everyone, but the core issues are the same when it comes to issues relating to the hips. Also, be prepared for these issues to come to a head once you start activating this area and focusing on it with the intention of discovering what trauma you hold there. Events or people in your life will likely trigger these issues to stare you in the face so you are better able to address them. It’s a bit like unlocking pandora’s box.
Overall, the most important thing to take from this is blog is how essential connection to the body is in understanding pain, illness, trauma and suppressed emotion. Every ailment has an emotional link, and is simply your body’s way of giving you the opportunity to become aware of an emotional issue or environmental issue so you can resolve it. But in order to be aware of this process and take advantage of it, you must learn to reconnect to your body through movement and stretching, so that when your body communicates to you in this way you are able to interpret the message and make the appropriate changes in your life. For further information on how to connect to your body, read my post titled The Importance of Your Breathing Pattern in Mental Health.