How we retain trauma in our bodies and ways to release it

yesSometimes our body reacts faster than our mind. Maybe you walk into a room and your chest instantly contracts; maybe your pulse races and your head throbs every time you see a certain kind of movie scene; maybe your shoulders feel heavy for weeks. Our bodies are physical manifestations of our experiences, which means that they often process or hold on to traumas that we didn’t even know existed. By definition, trauma is any deeply distressing or disturbing experience, and understanding how we hold trauma in our bodies can help us figure out how to effectively release it as part of a healing process.

“When we look at a traumatic experience that someone has, it’s encoded in our brains and in our memories, and then that can also translate to living in our muscles and our hearts,” says Thoko Moyo, a registered clinical counselor who specializes in trauma and focuses her practice on supporting Queer Trans Black Indigenous Peoples of Color (QTBIPOC). “Everything is connected. What a person is experiencing or why they come to a session with me is centered around that. They can be different parts of the body.”

Seventy percent of American adults experience at least one traumatic event, estimates the National Council for Mental Wellness. And just like our own traumas, the way we hold trauma in our bodies is different for everyone. For Katie McKenzie, certified Pilates instructor and founder of the A La Ligne method of movement, her past abuse was locked up in her pelvic floor.

“It was my traumatic response to sexual assaults,” she says. “And the overwhelming feeling that I felt was that yes, my pelvic floor was locked, but also that a large part of me was locked, charged and ready for battle.” He led her to create A La Ligne, which combines Pilates, qigong (an ancient mind-body meditation practice), and somatic experience (a form of therapy that focuses on bodily trauma). “Once someone is empowered with the knowledge and felt sense of what’s going on in their own unique, individual body, they can be empowered to move and change fear,” says McKenzie.

If you think your body is holding on to trauma, Moko says it’s a good idea to seek out a professional counselor who can work with you to unpack the layers of your experience. If counseling isn’t an option for you, here are some simple ways to help your body work through a response to trauma.


Moyo and McKenzie list breathing techniques as core elements of the process. Moyo suggests box breathing (in which you inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, then wait four seconds before inhaling again) and bumblebee breathing (in which you inhale and then exhale with a buzzing) as excellent options for calming and re-centering.

He also suggests a three, two, one method where you name three things you see, three things you hear, and three things you feel, and then take a deep breath and repeat the process for two things and then one thing. “Breathing brings us back into our body,” explains Moyo. “It takes us back to space and connects us to the ground.”

Move on

“Movement has such a powerful role in healing because it brings the mind, breath, and body together at the same time,” says McKenzie. She emphasizes the importance of finding her body where it is, and not getting embarrassed or nervous if her muscles start to shake (even during “easy” movements). “Shaking may be an indication of new neural pathways
and new connections from the brain to the bodies that had not been accessed before,” he explains. “I just say, ‘Okay. This is a normal occurrence. This is your body reconnecting with itself. It’s something good.'”


“Isolation is one of the worst things people can do, even though it’s often what people are drawn to or want to do,” says Moyo. “One of the most important ways to combat bodily experiences of trauma is through connections and community.” So build your support system, whatever that is for you. It could be group therapy; they could be close family members or friends; could be a
network of people who share some of their lived experiences. The important part is that you seek and nurture human connection to help you remember that you are not alone.

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