Childhood Trauma: The Mind-Body Connection

mind-body connection

The mind and the body are close allies that work together to promote mental and physical health. However, this relationship can be complicated, and for children who experienced trauma or neglect, it can cause more distress.

Teaching children about the mind-body connection can help them cope better with their emotions and improve emotional regulation.

Trauma and the Body

Trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that include:

  • Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
  • Parental neglect
  • The sudden loss of a parent or caregiver
  • Growing up in a household with someone who has a mental health condition or substance use disorder
  • Witnessing violence at home or in the community

High numbers of ACEs are not only linked to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, but also physical conditions like chronic health issues and substance use in adulthood. The body can also influence mental health – for example, a period of illness can influence depression and anxiety in young adults and cause significant mental stress.[1]

Children can notice the mind-body connection when faced with stressful or upsetting events. For instance, they may experience a stomach ache when worried about school, or their heart rate might increase when they are apprehensive. While they might be able to notice this symbiosis of the mind and body, understanding why it is happening and knowing how to address it can be difficult.

The Freeze Response

When confronted with a traumatic situation, the body reacts instinctively. It releases a flood of hormones, such as adrenaline, to help prepare the body to deal with the danger. This is known as the fight-or-flight response, but there are more reactions that the body can have, including freezing.

Children may be more prone to the freeze response in the face of danger as they have less chance of fighting it off or running away from it. The freeze response includes signs such as dissociation, dread, decreased heart rate, restricted breathing, and physical stiffness or numbness.

Even after the event has passed, the body can hold onto the energy not released during the freeze response, contributing to many trauma symptoms, such as hyperarousal. It can also lead to physical health problems such as digestive issues or chronic pain.

Building the Mind-Body Connection After Trauma

Psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are commonly used for mental health conditions and trauma. However, trauma doesn’t just impact the mind; it can cause children and young adults many physical pains too, which body-based interventions can help address.

Somatic Experiencing

Somatic experiencing is a ‘bottom-up’ therapy that focuses on reconnecting people to their bodies. Trauma can cause a disconnect and lead to dissociation and numbness within the body as people may no longer feel safe. Somatic experiencing begins with helping people tune into their bodily sensations before returning to their thoughts.

Using sensation and imagery, somatic experiencing releases trapped trauma caused by the freeze response and helps with symptoms such as detachment and mental confusion. Research has shown that somatic experiencing is a highly effective treatment modality, with one study showing that 44% of participants lost their diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[2]

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

Sensorimotor psychotherapy integrates movement and the body with traditional talk therapy to foster a strong mind-body connection. It aims to help people reclaim their responses to trauma and develop greater awareness of the related physical symptoms. It has been proven to help address PTSD, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

Practitioners can combine this form of treatment with art therapy to help children and young adults manage past trauma and work with their bodies to improve emotional regulation, interoception, and proprioception (the understanding of where their body is in the world).[3]

Yoga and Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves bringing awareness to the body in the present moment. Mindful activities such as meditation or yoga can decrease the amygdala’s reactivity, the brain’s fear center that is often overactive in trauma survivors.

Yoga combines mindfulness with exercise and is effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Regularly practicing mindfulness, meditation, or yoga helps strengthen the mind-body connection for trauma survivors and helps young adults notice uncomfortable feelings or bodily sensations.

Research on yoga and meditation shows that mindful movement and steady breathing activate the rest-and-digest system, promoting the relaxation response and helping people move from danger to safety.[4]

Improving Emotional Regulation

Children and young adults can improve their emotional regulation and manage their responses more effectively when they acknowledge the mind-body connection. Traumatic events can cause children to have problems with emotional regulation and find it challenging to manage their emotions when upset or overwhelmed. Other symptoms of emotional dysregulation include:

  • Abrupt mood changes
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Intense emotional reactions that are hard to control
  • Getting upset for no apparent reason

People learn emotional regulation throughout childhood, but when development is interrupted by traumatic events, it can impair their ability to do so through adolescence and into adulthood. However, mindfulness techniques and interventions like somatic experiencing and sensorimotor psychotherapy can strengthen the mind-body connection and provide individuals with the skills necessary to manage difficult feelings.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

Sources:

[1] Renoir T, Hasebe K, Gray L. Mind and body: how the health of the body impacts on neuropsychiatry. Front Pharmacol. 2013;4:158. doi:10.3389/fphar.2013.00158

[2] Brom D, Stokar Y, Lawi C, et al. Somatic experiencing for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled outcome study. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2017;30(3):304. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22189

[3] ​​Malchiodi PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT, Cathy. “Sensorimotor Expressive Art Therapy And Trauma”. Psychology Today, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/arts-and-health/202010/sensorimotor-expressive-art-therapy-and-trauma.

[4] Streeter CC, Gerbarg PL, Saper RB, Ciraulo DA, Brown RP. Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Med Hypotheses. 2012 May;78(5):571-9. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021. Epub 2012 Feb 24. PMID: 22365651.

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