Healing Trauma


TW: This blog discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual assault.

Every other woman walking the face of the Earth has had some sort of negative sexual experience, yet the effects of sexual trauma are rarely discussed.

Traumatic experiences like these can manifest in our bodies mentally, emotionally, and physically. I was able to discuss this topic with Yoga Therapist and Founder of the Trauma Healing Yoga Therapy Program, Anissa Hudak, who shared how to process that trauma and how to navigate a journey of healing.

At the moment we experience a traumatic event (or if we are exposed to trauma over an extended period of time), our central nervous system "flips a switch" in our bodies to support us in that moment. We move out of the upper echelon brain and enter "survival mode", otherwise known as "fight, flight or freeze" mode. This switches us to our reptilian brain, which helps us to reach a point of safety, whether that’s fending off an attacker or dissociating if necessary.

After the traumatic event has happened, and as our bodies process the experience, we need to “flip the switch” back to our everyday mode. But what happens if that switch doesn't get flipped? That is when we might start to experience symptoms like nightmares, anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep. 

When trauma presents itself like this, it is often treated with talk therapy and meds. Although there is a good reason for this and they can both significantly help, neither focus on where the trauma started. Your body needs to first release the trauma that is being stored inside.

What is the difference between yoga and yoga therapy?

As a yoga therapist, Anissa’s scope of practice is to help people move their bodies in a way that releases trauma they have been storing in their bodies.

If you think of yoga as one pie, half of it is fitness based yoga (e.g. hot yoga, bikram, aerial yoga etc.) and the other half the pie is therapeutic yoga. This is where you work with a particular group of people to help them reach a goal, for example it could be cardiac rehab, cancer recovery, or for PTSD and TBIs.

How does yoga therapy help to heal trauma?

You may have noticed that right after dogs have finished fighting, they shake. What they are doing here is resetting their central nervous system after a huge amount of adrenaline has been pumped through their system. 

As humans we have to realize that we are animals too, and we similarly need to reset our central nervous system after a traumatic event. If that shaking mechanism does not occur, we get stuck in that reptilian brain, which is where the PTSD happens. 

We’re able to utilize yoga therapy to reset the central nervous system and go back up to the upper echelon brain. Our bodies trap that trauma at a very cellular level. We have extra cortisol flowing through our veins, and our body dumps a ton of cortisol and adrenaline into our bodies when we’re in fight or flight mode. Holding onto the increased level of cortisol is in fact why people who have experienced trauma can tend to hold onto more weight. 

What is EMDR therapy and how can it help to heal trauma?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, commonly known as EMDR, is a mental health therapy method. It is used to treat mental health conditions that come about as a result of memories from past traumatic events, most notably PTSD.

EMDR therapy doesn’t involve talking in detail about the distressing event. Instead, it focuses on changing the emotions, thoughts or behaviors that result from a trauma. This allows your brain to resume a natural healing process.

In normal circumstances, your brain stores memories smoothly and networks them, so they link to other events you remember. However, during a traumatic event, that networking doesn’t process correctly. The brain essentially goes “offline” and there’s a disconnect between what you experience (feel, hear, see) and what your brain stores in memory through language. Often, your brain stores trauma memories in a way that is more negative and doesn’t allow for healthy healing. 

Trauma is similar to a wound that hasn’t been allowed to heal. This means that your brain isn’t aware that the danger is over. More recent experiences can connect to earlier traumatic experiences and reinforce a negative experience over and over again. This disrupts the links between your senses and memories, almost acting as an injury to your mind. In the same way your body is sensitive to pain from an injury, your mind has a higher sensitivity to things you saw, heard, smelled or felt during a trauma-related event.

Anissa explains how just the rhythmic sounds and shouting from a taekwondo studio left her feeling overwhelmingly panicked after triggering memories from her experience of being sexually assaulted. The past became the present out of nowhere. This can happen not only with events you can remember, but also with suppressed memories. 

EMDR has been an incredible tool for both myself and Anissa in helping to heal from our traumas. It helps to peel back the onion and find the other missing pieces to bring together the memory the way it really occurred. You’re able to actually deal with the truth and not what your brain is making you think is the truth. 

Who is yoga therapy suitable for? Do you need a PTSD diagnosis?

Sometimes Anissa has social workers and therapists that refer their clients to her. Other times, she might work with someone who knows they have trauma and knows what they have experienced, but they are simply not ready to talk yet. Yoga therapy can be a great first step in that way. Others may be in talk therapy but feel that it’s stalling.

Yoga therapy goes hand in hand with talk therapy and meds and all different types of modalities. Just going to a talk therapist isn't the only way to heal.

After Anissa’s first rape, she talked about it with her therapist and felt herself going back and talking about the same stuff over and over again, without ever actually putting it to bed. The EMDR helped but she feels she made the most amount of progress on her yoga mat.

Trauma starts in the body, so when you start moving it in a certain way and honing in on certain muscle groups to ignite the shaking mechanism, you will have more control over your emotions and make more sense of things. Your brain starts to unscramble itself and this can actually make talk therapy become more effective. There is no one prescribed way to heal and often these different methods complement each other extremely well.

One of the most common things I see in women who carry extra weight is a history of trauma. This is talked about so little in the mainstream and in medical offices when patients are seeking help for their health. It is so important to open up this conversation so that if you have experienced trauma, you know that you are not alone and that there is help and support out there.

Contact Anissa Hudak, C-IA YT; 500 RYT

Founder of the Trauma Healing Yoga Therapy Program

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