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  • Writer's pictureAbby Volk

How Trauma Enters and Leaves the Body

How Trauma Enters and Leaves the Body

Rocky Rapids

What Are Forms of Trauma?

When people ask me what trauma is, I tell them that there is “Trauma” and there is “trauma.” There is the big “T” incidents where a catastrophic event occurs like a flood, and there is the little “t” where an incident wounds deeply. Here, someone takes in the experience with guilt or shame. In both cases, a person may experience deep pain, fear the loss of their life, fear the loss of another’s life, or fear a loss of a part of themselves. I call the loss of self, or the pain of shame, as a “soul” death. Here, one is not heard, seen, loved, cared for, or held in a healing or healthy way. Many people come to me with many little “t” traumas that have wound their way into a great big spaghetti ball of suffering. Neither type of trauma is worse nor better, nor is there a trauma hierarchy. What makes something traumatic versus just painful, is if it doesn’t leave the body or the mind a month after the event. It’s normal to feel very upset or disturbed by a terrible events as a form of protection. However, years of holding onto the pain after one is safe, becomes problematic.

I am share a story of as to illuminate how seemingly insignificant events can still cause emotional scarring. If you have fearful feelings around nature or water, you may not want to read on. However, this story is not a tragic nor grotesque and suitable for even for sensitive readers.

A Story of Almost Drowning

"One year ago on a sunny, and hot day at the Yuba River, I had been climbing on rocks and swimming between boulders. I had been climbing around a very small waterfall and body surfing through the rapids, joining the fun that everyone was having around me. I decided to take another direction through the rapids.

In an instant, I felt the pressure of the falls push me under a large bolder and pin me under a foot of rushing water. I bashed my hands and flailed my legs, fighting to reemerge. I could feel the pressure mounting in my lungs and my heart slamming in my chest. I thought I was going to drown. Luckily, I gained a foothold and was able to launch myself enough out of water that my partner noticed my failing emersion and grabbed my hand and helped me up. Due to pride and shock, I minimized the terror that was inside. I chose stoicism over allowing myself to express my fright. This locking my fear into my core.

This year I returned to the same, river. I hesitantly walked over the same boulders I surmounted last year. All my muscles tensed at the current of the river, and I could feel the same pressure in my lungs and pounding of my heart as I did the day I thought I was going to drown. My body faintly screamed, “No, you’re not safe!” It remembered what my brain was happy to forget. Still, I pressed myself on, pushing through the primal urge to flee or freeze. As I approached the area, I kept experiencing the feeling of being pressed down under the water and pinner to the rock. I choked as people carelessly floated through what seemed like a death trap to me."

A Path to Healing

"The next day, I went further upstream where another falls poured into a placid area. I could feel that same choking sensation as I saw people slide off the rock into the bubbly whirl a few feet below. After seeing many people, including my partner, jubilantly enjoy the dunk, I decided I wanted to conquer these fears that clenched my heart.

I had shared my terror with my partner while expressing my hopes to alleviate the dread I had been experiencing all day. He said, “I will be right here and all these people are by your side. I will make sure you are OK.” I slid off the rock and once again felt the rush of the falls over me. I allowed myself to tumble and flow, but after a few seconds, the panic set in. I was thrashing in bubbling water unsure of the depths. I bashed my ankle against a smooth rock as I ascended to the surface. Slightly excited and most afraid, I pulled my gasping body onto the nearest land.

For a second, I focused on my bravery, but I truly knew what my body needed all along. I needed to shake like I was in the freezing cold, and I needed to let the loving arms of my partner hold me and tell me that I was OK. I let myself finally feel the terror and feel the safety all at once. As my body shook harder, I could also feel the fear leaving me. I felt more relaxed and free than I had all day."

How Trauma Forms

Trauma gets locked in the body when the self-defense mechanisms of flight, fright, freeze or fawn do not shut off, and we cannot gain or will not allow ourselves to experience comfort, support, and calm. The response of stoicism, a sophisticated freeze: "If I act like nothing happened, nothing did." One can essentially shutdown one's feelings so that she/he won't feel them. Like a rabbit will freeze when caught by a fox, to not feel the pain or consumption of its life.

More examples of reactions to trauma

  • Fight can come in the response of fighting to any perceived threat, including those who threaten reveal hidden pain.

  • Flight can also be avoidance. Leaving oneself, one’s feelings, or anything that reminds of the source of the pain.

  • Freeze often is in shutdown. One dissociates from one’s body, feelings, or relationships. One may feel alone, numb, or disconnected.

  • Finally, the least known of the responses is fawn where someone acts nice, helpful, stupid, silly, or completely unthreatening. Like a when an animal roles over to submit to an aggressive alpha. Here the message maybe, if I am good and don’t fight, I will come out less damaged or I can avoid conflict, or I may be able sooth or befriend the other as a way of staying safe.

How to Heal Trauma

There are many paths to healing trauma. We are hurt in relation (even if that means the feeling of being abandoned or isolated during crisis), and we heal in relation. Like in the story, healing is done in a safe environment where one is protected and support, and one knows she/he will be able to receive help if things got bad. This is what I calle“resources,” or things or people that help you move through challenges.One can only go into fear willingly and bravely, while knowing one has to surrendering to the torrent that once felt like it was going to consume them. One must know when to fight and when to allow the deep comfort of a partner. I am NOT suggesting you to literally throw yourself back into the situation or the relationship that hurt you. However, you can revisit the memories that scarred your life with a skilled partner, like a therapist, to help you through the process, so that you can get the healing and care that you missed with the resources you needed at the time. This is known as a reparative experience or a healing relationship. In my practice, I do EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) method of therapy, where I take clients through all these steps. I believe that people don’t have to continue to manage the symptoms of trauma, and sometimes they need an expert with skilled tools to aid in healing.

If you would like to learn more about EMDR visit my “services” page at or contact me at 415-878-6030

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