A bodywork approach to trauma

A bodywork approach to trauma

Beverly Wilkinson

Bev Wilkinson, trained in Belgium, is South Africa’s Postural Integration Trainer. Here she argues for an integrated, “body-mind” approach to trauma treatment. The natural defence mechanism of the body to any form of violence, is the”flight or fight” syndrome. This pumps adrenalin into the system, resulting in increased circulation, access to protein and glucose, blood-clotting enhancement, pupil dilation, etc. The secondary line of defense includes: the use of the mouth to cry, scream, shout, or just say “NO!”; body reactions, such as perspiration, trembling, or goose pimples; and the relaxation or contraction of muscles. I say “relaxation or contraction” because, contrary to popular belief, as many people relax their muscles in face of danger as tighten them. A healthy response to fear is action through movement, thus using the extra energy produced by the adrenalin. This can take the form of running, hitting out, stamping, crying, laughing, pulling away, etc. The lack of such action leads, in the long term, to physical problems. Becoming paralysed, or “freezing up”, and thus not using the available surplus energy, leads to flabby and flaccid muscles; while internal contractive resistance, with no outward expression or movement, results in a rigid and inflexible muscle structure. Whatever form violence takes ­ battering, rape, a household accident, or the emotional trauma of moving house ­ the body’s response is the same. This is because the body is irrational and is not aware of what is causing the “flight or fight” syndrome. Our minds can interpret the source of a sensation: our bodies can only feel the sensation itself.

Bev Wilkinson, formatasi in Belgio, e’ Trainer di Integrazione Posturale in Sud Africa. Qui parla di un approccio integrato, psicocorporeo, al trattamento del trauma. Il meccanismo naturale di difesa del corpo ad ogni forma di violenza è la sindrome di fuga od attacco. Questa pompa adrenalina nel sistema, provocando un aumento della circolazione, accesso a proteine e glucosio, aumento della coagulazione sanguigna, dilatazione delle pupille, ecc. La linea secondaria di difesa include: l’impiego della bocca per piangere, urlare o semplicemenete dire “NO!”; reazioni corporee, come sudore, tremori o pelle d’oca ed il rilassamento o la contrazione dei muscoli. Dico rilassamento o contrazione perche’, contrariamente a quanto si crede, di fronte al pericolo altrettante persone rilassano i loro muscoli quante li tendono. Una salutare risposta alla paura e’ una azione attraverso il movimento, impiegando percio’ il surplus di energia dato dalla adrenalina. Questo puo’ prendere la forma di correre, colpire, scalciare, piangere, ridere, allontanare, ecc. La mancanza di tali azioni porta, nel lungo termine, a problemi fisici. Paralizzarsi, immobilizzarsi, e percio’ non impiegare il surplus di energia disponibile, porta a muscoli con poco tono e flaccidi; mentre una resistenza interna contatta, senza espressione esterna o movimento, risulta in una struttura muscolare rigida ed inflessibile. Qualsiasi forma prenda la violenza – aggressione, stupro, un incidente domestico oppure il trauma emotivo di traslocare la propria abitazione – la risposta corporea rimane sempre la stessa. Questo perche’ il corpo e’ irrazionale (ndt. le strutture cerebrali arcaiche) e non consapevole di che cosa provoca la sindrome di fuga od attacco. Le nostre menti possono interpretare la sorgente di una sensazione: i nostri corpi possono solo sentire la sensazione stessa.

Never Neutral

This is an important factor in body therapy, particularly in the case of young children. Once the body has experienced a “bad” sensation, every time the physical area involved feels the same sensation, it re-experiences the original event, entrenching the same physical and emotional response of, for example, contraction or paralysis. Further, the body responds primarily with “I like” or “I do not like”; it does not differentiate the degree of sensation, other than the amount of adrenalin produced. The body never remains neutral: it either allows the sensation to ripple through it as a fine vibration, or it resists it. It is this resistance, or freezing, rather than the aggressive action itself, that causes the long lasting effects on the child’s personality and physique. This can be seen from the case-study (below).

Gates of Pain

An alternative way to look at pain is to see the nervous system as an interrelated unit, with changes in one part affecting every other part. Nervous activity is, therefore, not controlled only by the brain stem; lower centers also play a critical role. According to this view, the nervous system is seen as a complicated series of gates, which open and close as stimuli pass through local receptors. It is as if the gate in a certain part of the body-mind becomes closed by a painful experience and surrounded by armour, which “freezes” the tissue on and around the muscle. If this armour were to be considered permanent and unchangeable, the specificity theory of simple stimulus and response could account for much of our “stuck” behaviour. During the process of piercing the armour through deep bodywork, however, it appears that we may reopen some of the gates. When the practitioner penetrates the body’s defenses, the area is re-stimulated and the client may re-experience the memories and events held in the muscles. It seems that the act of fully re-experiencing pain is part of the process of penetrating the armour; thereafter, the gates are able to reset for new kinds of integrating experience. Further, the 1970″s saw a series of important discoveries, centered on minute chemicals called neuro-transmitters, which transmit nerve impulses, telling every organ of our emotions, desires, memories, etc. They are found attached to every cell of the body and, in a healthy body, are in a constant state of flux and change; in some cases, however, they remain “stuck” to their receptor cells, creating a habitual response. None of thee events are confined to the brain or nervous system; nor are they strictly mental, since they can be coded into chemical messages. These discoveries greatly increase our understanding of the interaction between mind and matter and of its mobility and flow; they also help fill the quantum gap that apparently separated mind and body. The cardinal rule is that a shift in cognitive awareness must be accompanied simultaneously with a shift in the habitual muscle response reflex. This means identifying the physical location of non-response to an event, for example, clenching of fists, tightening the jaw, etc., as well as the emotional need ­ crying, anger, etc. It is essential to treat the body and the mind as an integrated body-mind. Encourage a healthy physical reaction to simulated events, for example, expressing anger and not being helpless, so that the body can reverse its recorded response to the sensation involved, thus utilizing the still present energy produced by the adrenalin rush.

Stop the “Freeze”

As the body never remains neutral, do not settle for a non-committal response. Remember that it is the resistance or “freezing”, rather than the aggressive action itself, which causes the long-lasting effects on the child’s personality and physique. After any trauma, and especially after any purely psychological approach, watch out for the tell-tale physical signs of any new habitual response, however slight. This shows that there is more to be released, even if the child attributes little or no significance to the incident. Do not encourage children to be too positive without acknowledging where the child actually feels s/he is: for example, “I am strong”, should be changed to, “I’m not as strong as I want to be, but I’m getting stronger every day”. A straight affirmation, when in contradiction to what is actually felt, creates physical tension, entrenching the reality. As adult educators, we need to explore, and lose our fear of, internal body sensations and begin to allow the waves of sensation flowing through us to change from pain, fear, anger, and sorrow, to the vibrant warmth and tingling of a healthy, alive body. In general, I believe it is important to introduce as much physical contact as possible in homes and in our education system and not leave this only to the gym and the sports field. We need to begin to understand the physical fears and responses of children in a whole new light.

Survival, submission, and ‘something in between’

The childhood response to pain can affect personality and physique in adult life, as this case study shows. Little Johnny was a demonstrative and lively three-year old when he wandered into the kitchen one day and pulled a pot of boiling oil over himself. He suffered extensive third degree burns over his back and right side and was hospitalised, some 50 kms away from his very loving parents. Following excellent care and numerous skin grafts, Johnny was declared well and returned home, after nearly six months.


Thirty years later, Johnny, now a sales rep, sought the help of a body therapist. He had seen a psychologist for some time but had found it ‘not meaningful’. He said that he longed to have a stable relationship, feel more physically confident and be more outgoing. While his arms and legs were well developed, his torso was slight, almost puny. Noticing torso scars, I asked what had caused them. He responded in an apparently integrated manner, attributing no significance to the burning incident. He was somewhat shy and withdrawn, his head hanging slightly forward and his eyes downcast. When I touched his arms or legs, his response was receptive; when, however, I touched his torso, his response was to tighten and pull away. As I continued to work lightly on his torso he complained that I was hurting him. When I encouraged him to express this hurt, he curled into a fetal position, crying helplessly and muttering, ‘it hurt so much; if I move it will hurt more’. As I increased my pressure and contact, his muscular response began to change: a powerful resistance alternating with a helpless submission. As we got his muscles to move repeatedly from protective resistance to helpless submission, natural muscle tone began to build. Johnny suddenly sat up and laughed: “I’ve spent my whole life either fighting for survival or in helpless submission, but now I can feel there is something in between.” He said that, while lying on the mattress, he had vividly recalled not the accident but the time spent in hospital. And that his body had had waves of sensations, which started as pain but ended as warmth and tingling. He recognized that he wanted physical contact, but at the same time was scared of being touched. He also understood his tendency not to ask questions because of a subconscious belief that “they will not answer me” and realized that he had carried his intense sense of rejection and abandonment into his adult life. Johnny’s life and posture had started to change: he no longer hung his head; his torso started to fill out. He began asking questions, actively seeking contact and radiating a greater sense of confidence and vitality. What had happened? Johnny experienced a dramatic shift in awareness as the result of, and at the same time as, his muscles shifted from a habitual response reflex. How and why did this occur? As we know, the central nervous system conducts messages from one part of the body to another and coordinates its activities. Until recently it was believed that it controlled everything and that nerves worked as a series of electrical discharges passing in succession along the nerve fibres. This view, however, does not take account of the contribution which local tissue makes to the experience and retention of pain and trauma, or of the role that neuro-transmitters play in the retention of “body memory”.


Chopra, Deepak Quantum Healing, Exploring the frontiers of mind/body medicine (Bantam Books, New York, 1989)
Dychtwald, Ken Bodymind. (Pantheon Books, 1978)
Maltz, Maxwell Psycho-Cybernetics. (Simon & Schuster, 1960)
Melzack, Ronald The Puzzle of Pain. (Basic Books, New York, 1973)
Painter, Jack Deep Bodywork and Personal Development. (San Francisco, 1984)

Articolo di Wilkinson, B. pubblicato sulla rivista Recovery,  Johannesburg, SA, Dicembre 1995

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