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How to release trauma stored in the body to center your mind and ease stress

Looking up into the canopy of Redwood trees with green leaves and blue sky poking through.
- Oct 03, 2022

Nearly everyone intuitively feels the mind-body connection: a sick stomach before a high-stakes performance, sweaty palms as you meet a new person, etc. Thanks to research in stress psychology, we have more scientific support for these intuitions than ever before. 

Intriguingly, we encounter the deep and constant crosstalk between the mind and body most clearly within trauma research.

It's become well-recognized that trauma stored in the body can be a source of long-term physical and emotional strain. Although this term is more colloquial than scientific, it suggests that trauma isn’t simply an emotional experience: it’s a biological one. Since trauma is both psychological and physiological, practitioners recommend supporting trauma recovery through practices that put the mind and body in conversation with each other.  

Contending with the biological and psychological components of trauma helps address its root causes. This level of resolution is paramount. If trauma isn't processed completely, it can manifest in physical symptoms, like headaches, fatigue, and other issues. 

This guide explores the stress-health connection and what’s happening in the body when we experience trauma. We also cover mind-body practices that help you ease stress and calm your mind in the moment and over time. 

Stress and health: The subtle but pivotal link

The health effects of stress begin in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates all our automatic, unconscious processes: heart rate, organ function, temperature regulation, etc.[1]  It also orchestrates our responses to signs of danger in the environment. 

The ANS has two main components. The sympathetic branch (fight-or-flight) energizes us to escape danger, and the parasympathetic branch (rest-and-digest) calms us after it passes.

Everyone knows the racing heart and shaky legs we feel with an immediate jolt of stress. Yet stress also triggers a cascade of physiological events that can cause long-term changes in our brain and metabolism [2]. 

When our sympathetic nervous system detects danger, it urges the adrenal system to produce abnormally high levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine. Signs of stress also engage the HPA axis, increasing stress hormones like cortisol [2]. These hormonal changes equip us with coping strategies, providing excess energy for running, fighting, or other ways of remedying the danger.

We run into problems when we regularly enter fight-or-flight mode. The sympathetic response evolved to help us cope with acute yet rare circumstances. 

If stress happens constantly, or we struggle to recover from it, we interfere with biological processes that keep us balanced. Processes like sleep, digestion, and immune functions go awry [1], causing disease, mental health issues, and other imbalances. 

Trauma: A disrupted stress response

The classic book, Waking the Tiger, looks to the wild to explain the causes of trauma. When wild animals like lions, zebras, or impalas face a threat, they spring into action like we do, fleeing or fighting. After the danger passes, these animals instinctively discharge any excess energy by trembling or running [3]

The problem is that humans can interfere with these instinctive impulses, failing to discharge the after-effects of trauma. Our ability to judge and rationally evaluate can interfere with our recovery from stress. In this way, we become traumatized when we don’t complete the sequence of events that evolved to help us return to balance after facing danger [3]. 

Importantly, because trauma is fundamentally a manifestation of nervous system dysregulation, trauma can happen after all sorts of events, not just dramatic accidents. A traumatic event can be anything that overwhelms our ability to regulate the nervous system, from breakups to medical procedures to falls. 

Trauma can also originate in early life. Given that babies can't regulate their own nervous systems after birth, they depend on the soothing touch and voice of the adults who care for them.

Yet when a caregiver can't support them with these safety cues, their nervous systems get dysregulated. These experiences inform neural development, creating neural pathways over time that linger later in life [4]. In this sense, trauma may impact nearly everyone to some extent. 

Trauma stored in the body: How and why it happens

It may not be possible to measure whether trauma gets stored in the body. But stress research shows traumatic events can affect our bodies long after a stressful event passes. 

One biological effect of trauma is nervous system imbalance. When the nervous system becomes imbalanced, we struggle to move between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. This can look like one branch of the nervous system becoming dominant over the other. 

In cases where our sympathetic nervous system dominates, we feel hyper-vigilance and agitation. We lose our appetites, grind our teeth at night, or become prone to annoyance. When the parasympathetic branch dominates, we might feel numb, apathetic, and chronically tired [5]. Over-dominance of either one makes balance a faint memory, setting off trajectories that result in disease [2].

In addition to the biological effects of trauma, it’s also possible for emotionalized and unprocessed trauma to become known in the form of physical symptoms [6]. Stress is a well-known cause of inflammation, so when unprocessed trauma lingers, it can contribute to headaches, jaw tension, stomach aches, and other symptoms.

Trauma-informed mind-body practices 

According to The Body Keeps the Score, traumatic memory is implicit, having sensory rather than verbal origins [7]. For this reason, trauma survivors will become split off from bodily sensations to protect themselves from feeling its impacts [8]. 

Trauma-informed therapies, therefore, focus on healing traumatic emotions or memories indirectly, first cultivating a sense of safety in the body that becomes a platform for recovery.

This foundational sense of safety directly or indirectly supports a person as they process any residual emotions or memories that continue to cause pain. 

Below, we explore two of the most extensively known and studied trauma-informed therapies: somatic experiencing and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). These practices illustrate the intricate connections between the mind and body in the experience of trauma. 

Somatic Experiencing

Created by trauma expert and Waking the Tiger author Dr. Peter Levine, Somatic Experiencing originated with the idea mentioned above: we become traumatized when we can’t discharge the excess energy generated by stressful events. 

Unlike animals, who instinctively bounce back from stress, humans can override instinctive behaviors meant to help us process dangers through over-thinking, judging, or engaging in fear-based behaviors. In short, humans become alienated from their bodies, both during and because of trauma. 

Somatic Experiencing helps bring awareness to the mind-body connection using self-regulation strategies that help people process and regulate their emotions. Rather than using psychiatric labels like PTSD, it assesses a person’s symptoms based on where they fall on a stress continuum. This continuum studies the degree of imbalance in the nervous system. 

In this way, Somatic Experiencing is non-pathologizing, seeing trauma as a natural response to unprocessed stress [9]. 

The practice focuses on helping people experience physical sensations without constantly casting a story over them. Practitioners also help people shed light on new ways of registering their past by introducing small details or memories related to traumatic events, then inviting clients to notice the physical changes they feel in response to the material. Gestures like sharp, shallow inhales or sensations of heaviness can give the therapist and individual insights into points of tension that may require more exploration to be understood and released. 

Through these investigations, the therapist helps clients better connect with sensations and places in their body that aren’t activated by their trauma, making their body into a safe space of retreat, rather than a source of danger. 

By exploring physical sensations in a safe, controlled way, therapists can help people recognize and reverse physical responses to stress, enhancing their ability to self-regulate and process their emotions.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy

Invented by psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro in the 1980s, EMDR helps people find resolution from traumatic experiences, reformulate ways of thinking, and reduce tension in their bodies [10]. EMDR sees stored or incompletely processed traumatic memories as the root source of conditions like PTSD [11].

The practice has significantly grown in popularity and evidence since its invention. Even though it’s relatively new, multiple controlled studies of EMDR suggest that it works more quickly and effectively than cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD [12]. 

EMDR doesn’t involve replaying distressing issues in painstaking detail. Instead, it focuses on modulating the emotions and memories associated with traumatic experiences. EMDR assumes that the mind heals from emotional trauma in predictable ways, just like a cut on the finger. 

During the process, a therapist brings the client’s attention toward a distressing emotion, then rapidly shifts the focus to a neutral physical stimulus, most notably horizontal saccadic eye movements.

The goal of the process is to desensitize individuals from the discomfort of traumatic memories by pairing them with a neutral, sensory-based activity [13]. Focusing attention in two directions at once helps to engage brain mechanisms that activate information processing, creating new associations, and re-imprinting traumatic experiences so they no longer lead to ongoing distress.

Although the exact mechanisms behind EMDR are still under study, a recent review article on EMDR points to hypotheses about how it works [10]. One leading idea is that eye movements involve a demanding task that exhausts the working memory.

Since the holding capacity of our working memory is limited, trying to focus on both the traumatic memory and the neutral sensory data impairs our ability to store the details of the trauma, shifting our relationship to it and lessening its ongoing emotional impacts.

Self-led mind-body practices 

Therapy plays a key role in trauma processing. But self-led practices help you respond to stress or anxiety in the moment, which is sometimes all you need to return to a balanced, calm frame of mind.

You can experiment with the below practices on your own. 

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) 

Tapping or EFT are self-led techniques that combine body- and thought-based strategies for processing pain. Over 60 peer-reviewed articles report the 98% efficacy rate of EFT for conditions as diverse as PTSD, anxiety, pain, seizure disorders, and athletic and academic performance issues [14]. The practice focuses on bringing together exposure and cognitive therapy while stimulating acupuncture points throughout the body.

Research in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine reported that subjects who used EFT experienced reductions in anxiety, depression, PTSD, pain, cravings, and even an increase in happiness [15]. These changes were associated with improvements in blood pressure, heart rate variability, resting heart rate, and other markers, pointing to its soothing effects on the nervous system. 

You can learn and practice EFT within minutes. Start by identifying an emotion or sensation you want to process. Rate its intensity of discomfort on a scale of one to ten. You then describe your concern in what’s known as a “set up” statement in the following format:

“Even though I [state the problem], I deeply and completely accept myself. 

The first part of the statement draws attention to the issue (an important aspect of exposure therapy [15]), while the second helps you cultivate self-acceptance toward it. While repeating this phrase to yourself, tap on acupuncture points on your face and upper body, continuing with the process as desired or until the rating of your pain is much lower. 

HRV optimization

Heart rate variability (HRV) measures the dynamics between your heartbeats. HRV is a central way that EFT and other mind-body practices can help you release stress and feel a sense of balance. 

Two ways you can improve your HRV:

Controlled breathing. Even as little as one minute of controlled breathing can engage your parasympathetic nervous system, sending a signal your body registers as safety. Research into the health effects of contemplative practices cites breath control as central to their beneficial effects [16].

One way to practice breath control is through the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Based on exercises in the ancient yogic technique, pranayama, the method asks you to inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, and exhale for eight. Extending your exhales for longer than your inhales can create a rapid, soothing effect because it lessens the impact of the vagus nerve on the heart [17]. 

Stimulating the vagus nerve helps “turn on” the parasympathetic response. By giving you conscious influence over your nervous system, controlled breath helps you rapidly change the state of your body and mind, especially as you continue to practice it. 

Stress wearables. For an even more accessible form of stress relief, try the Apollo wearable. The Apollo wearable sends calming signals to your body through vibrations that mimic natural rhythms between the heart and lungs during deep breathing. 

Based on decades of research suggesting that certain types of vibrations impact our bodies in measurable ways, the Apollo wearable helps increase parasympathetic tone as measured by changes in HRV [18].

Since they mimic natural rhythms, the nervous system automatically registers the device’s vibrations as safety cues. The Apollo wearable only requires you to put on the band or clip and use the app to choose a Vibe or automatically schedule it to play, so it’s easy to use consistently, feeling its benefits immediately and over time.

In 2018, we documented the Apollo wearable’s effects on the nervous system in a study published in Biological Psychiatry. The study showed how the Apollo wearable helped participants remain calm under pressure, as measured by changes in their HRV. 

While doing a task intended to measure cognitive performance under stress, the subjects’ HRV increased 2 to 3 times their average within three minutes [19]. Intriguingly, the more HRV increased in response to its vibrations, the more efficient the subjects became at the task. This finding suggests that the Apollo Neuro technology supports focus and performance, making it easier to enter a flow state, the zone of deep absorption. 

TLDR: You can’t heal the mind without the body

Trauma reflects a complex array of mental and physical processes. As a result, practices that honor the deep interconnections between the mind and body tend to be the most far-reaching and robust ways to soothe stress and trauma. 

Given that trauma can range from accidents to lost jobs to broken friendships, every person benefits from tools and practices that help relieve its lasting effects.

To summarize, two effective trauma-informed therapies include:

  • Somatic Experiencing 
  • EMDR Therapy

And you can change your state within minutes using:

  • Tapping (EFT)
  • Heart rate variability optimization via exercise, controlled breathing, and stress wearables. etc. 

These tools don’t require that you learn a new philosophy or take anything on faith: they’re experiential. They give you the power to influence your emotional states in the moment, demonstrating the body’s immense ability to recover when given the right kind of support. 


Sources: 

  1. Waxenbaum, JA, Reddy, V, Varacallo, M. Anatomy, autonomic nervous system. StatPearls. 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539845/
  2. Solomon, E.P. & Heide, K. The biology of trauma: Implications for treatment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 2005. 20(10);51-60. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8111274_The_Biology_of_Trauma_Implications_for_Treatment
  1. Levine, PA. (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books. 
  2. Mate, G. (2000). Scattered: How Attention-Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. Penguin Group.
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  13. Bach, D., Groesbeck, G., Stapleton, P. et al. Clinical EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Improves Multiple Physiological Markers of Health. Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2515690X18823691
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