Releasing the Past: Unburdening the Present
by Sarah Hamilton
“If the problem with PTSD is dissociation, the goal of treatment would be association: integrating the cut-off elements of the trauma into the ongoing narrative of life, so that the brain can recognize ‘that was then, and this is now.’”
Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
Life is ever changing, each day is different from the previous and non-assuming of what the next day may bring. This is the ongoing narrative of life, each day an opportunity for a new story. The ability to live in the present is essential for our optimal day-to-day functioning. Oftentimes, the present gets interrupted by dwelling thoughts of yesterday or hopes for future days to come. Even moments in the day are overlooked for thoughts of that all-important 2:00 meeting you’re facilitating.
Similarly, for those who have experienced trauma, the present is overlooked and the past takes control of our day. The core symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are intrusive experiences, avoidance, negative thoughts or moods, and alterations in reactivity (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These symptoms are inherently past-oriented and prevent us from processing and being in the moment.
Intrusive experiences are constant reminders of past events, making it impossible sometimes to focus on the moment we’re in. Avoidance of people or places indicates an inability to process events that happened with a person or at a specific place, hindering our ability to live in the moment and go where we please in our day. Negative thoughts and/or moods leave us unable to connect with others and diminish our interest in activities we once enjoyed, significantly impacting how we live in the present. Finally, noticing marked changes in how we react to our environment such as someone touching your shoulder suddenly sending you into a fit of rage, are reactions to past memories we have not yet processed. Not only do we have these unprocessed past memories impeding our capacity to live in the present, but often with them come a number of physical complaints like heaviness in our chest, constantly sore shoulders from carrying tension all day, or maybe it’s a never ending headache.
After trauma the past becomes the burden of the present and not only do our brains store those memories, but our bodies carry that heaviness of our brains holding on to the past.
Proper healing from trauma would encapsulate each relevant symptom, as well as addressing those physical symptoms we feel in our body. Traditional therapies (e.g. processing therapies, insight-oriented therapies, and exposure therapies) are undoubtedly effective; however, each gives way to unique concerns in practice. Processing therapies can be difficult for those having experienced multiple traumas from a young age into adulthood as it becomes complex to process each individual trauma. Insight-oriented therapies pose difficulty for those who have experienced long-term trauma as it is understood that the longer trauma has occurred, the more challenging it is to verbally express those experiences. Finally, exposure therapies are placing individuals with triggering aspects of their trauma; while this is an effective therapy, dropout and incompletion rates are high due to the difficulty of trauma exposure. If you’ve noticed too, each of these therapies are focusing on the past, not the present. Similarly, none of them have addressed the physical storage of trauma in the body (West et al., 2017).
How is it then that we begin to re-orient ourselves to the present while also addressing the physical storage of trauma in the body? Looking beyond or in supplement to these traditional therapies at healing in alternative therapeutic practices such as yoga, we can find an all-encompassing means of coming back to the present and releasing the weight that comes with carrying it.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) is a practice that works to cultivate healing from trauma exposure through gentle teaching and a safe environment to bring forward compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of what is happening in our bodies in the moment. From this awareness comes a recognition of choice and control over one’s body and in turn the development of ability to take effective action based on these signals from our body. During a TSY class one might notice instructors using invitational language (“Next I invite you to do…”) as opposed to commanding language (“next we will be doing…”) to facilitate a safe environment where participants have a choice in what they do. Any language used is present centered and directed at in-class experiences (“Notice your posture in how you are sitting in class right now” v.s. “Think about your posture at the beginning of the day vs. the end of the day”). Finally, there is no group processing of traumatic experiences during TSY, there is only the now and what’s happening in the present (West et al., 2017).
One research study that examined the experiences of participants in a TSY class identified five overarching themes reported by participants as grace and compassion, relation, acceptance, centeredness, and empowerment. Grace and compassion were described as an increased physical awareness of one’s body as well as the integration of doing what is right for their body leading to increased gentleness with their bodies and patience with the process of change. Relation was identified as participants being able to reflect inward on their bodies and identify physical sensations and emotions that arose for them; strengthened interpersonal relationships were also identified. Acceptance was found among participants as heightened ability to accept themselves for who and where they are in life as well as finding peace in what has been and currently is in life. Centeredness was described as having a quieter, less ruminative mind/thoughts, ability to see multiple perspectives, and overall feel more positive. Finally, empowerment was described as a greater sense of control over one’s life and confidence to take the control (West et al., 2017).
TSY is a present-centered approach that allows healing in a safe, controllable environment. Yoga can be done in addition to or in supplement to traditional therapy approaches as well. After trauma, it is important we recognize what our body is trying to tell us. You have the power to be in control and the power to heal and help yourself. You never lost it. We are the masters of our body and we know what it needs, we just have to remember to listen to it. TSY only heightens and guides those preexisting capabilities to listen to ourselves.
Hope Harbor Yoga Videos can be found on our YouTube Channel
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596.
West, J., Liang, B., & Spinazzola, J. (2017). Trauma sensitive yoga as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A qualitative descriptive analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 24(2), 173–195. https://doi-org.libsrv.wku.edu/10.1037/str0000040
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.Back to Topics
Intro- Thanks for Asking: A Blog by Hope Harbor
Beginning in 2020, Hope Harbor recognized the need for information about trauma and responding to trauma for the survivor community we serve. All experiences are different, but it can be comforting to know we are not alone in this struggle. Sexual violence can be isolating and information covering clinical research can be limited to certain groups. We are using our blog, Thanks for Asking, as a space for shared knowledge and resources to reach a wider audience.
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