Trauma-Informed Tai Chi

trauma

‘Tai Chi does not mean oriental wisdom or something exotic. It is the wisdom of your own senses, of your own mind and body together as one process.’[1]

– Chunglinag Al Huang

Those who have survived trauma can be subject to a range of symptoms that diminish one’s quality of life. These include flashbacks, nightmares, poor relationships, hyper and hypo-arousal, and sleeplessness, as well as a general disconnection between mind and body. These symptoms follow events that were experienced as traumatic by the individual, ranging anywhere from an accident, to combat, sexual abuse, and childhood neglect. Trauma is subjective, so the healing process must acknowledge the individual as a whole person, not just as parts which have become dissociated.

While traditional, ‘top-down’ approaches like cognitive-based psychotherapies are helpful, many trauma survivors may also benefit from complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), which are ‘bottom-up’, mind-body based therapies like Tai Chi, Yoga, and massage.

Studies on CAMs often focus on immediate, short-term results, meaning that evidence of long-term efficacy is limited. CAMs, like Tai Chi and Yoga-based therapies, can have real, long-term benefits for clients impacted by trauma, but they involve an extended length of practice, However, this should not be a deterrent; the long term benefits of mind-body approaches like Tai Chi and Yoga can potentially have a significantly positive impact on the well-being and overall quality of life of those who practice. There are also numerous short-term benefits such as relaxation and improved breathing.

The Mind-Body Connection

The ancient Chinese tradition of Tai Chi, noted for its self-defence origins, involves a series of gentle exercises which cultivate an awareness of mind and body, and the connection between the two. Flowing movement is accompanied by deep breathing to foster a deep sense of connection to oneself.

When practicing this technique, inner physical and emotional sensations can arise unexpectedly, which is why teachers and practitioners should be cautious when it comes to sessions with clients who have experienced trauma. This does not mean that clients should not fully immerse themselves in the work, but that sensitivity to triggers is acknowledged and respected, and becomes part of the process.

Benefits of Tai Chi

 Common benefits of Tai Chi include:[2]

  • Awareness and connection to the mind and body
  • Groundedness
  • Confidence
  • Strength
  • Relaxation
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced stress and anxiety

Tai Chi offers many benefits, but to be effective in promoting healing from trauma, it must be trauma-informed. The degree and severity of traumatic experience varies between individuals, so each individual must be acknowledged and respected on their personal journey.

A trauma-informed Tai Chi instructor is aware of the many benefits of Tai Chi, and may relay these benefits to clients, but it should be clearly stated that Tai Chi is not a results-driven practice; it is about being in the present moment, as open and aware as is possible in that moment as one moves through the exercises.

What is Retraumatisation?

Retraumatisation is the re-experiencing of a previously traumatic event, either consciously or unconsciously. Triggers, like an unexpected noise or touch, smells, even lighting, can remind us of our traumatic experiences and can cause us to feel as though we are reliving them.

Though a person may be able to speak their mind about the traumatic event, its memory is stored in the body, too. Diligent practice, the kind that reaches the greatest potential for healing, requires an acceptance of things as they are. While the traumatised individual has learned to ‘hide from themselves’, Tai Chi calls upon a person to be present with themselves. This becomes part of the healing journey.

Avoiding the Risk of Retraumatisation

Being trauma-informed means being aware of any potential risks of retraumatisation, and carefully avoiding those risks. The aim of trauma-informed approaches to any CAM is not to focus on recognising and dealing with triggers directly, but to avoid triggers in practice to increase the efficacy and impact of the therapy.

While inner exploration is encouraged in this practise, it should be clearly stated to clients that one does not have to push themselves past their current physical and emotional limits. Space is created to move at one’s own pace and to stop when they feel uncomfortable.

Touch may be applied by some teachers to correct a client’s posture or stance, but touch can also be a huge trigger, so it should only happen following clear permission.

As for the benefits of Tai Chi mentioned above, implying that a certain stance or pose will yield a particular result should be avoided. The traumatised client may feel that if they are unable to achieve the apparent benefits, that they are doing something wrong or are somehow incapable.

Safely Awakening to the Body

The use of Tai Chi other mind-body approaches in trauma work is a way of awakening clients to their bodies, which is a strong support for healing in cognitive-based, ‘top-down’ therapies. Tai Chi calls upon a person to be present, the only place where healing can happen. The fluid movement and attention to oneself that clients experience in Tai Chi cultivates a sharper sense of self-awareness, which is why, when used to support trauma recovery, clients must be supported and guided by a trained professional.

Tai Chi cultivates groundedness and balance within the body[3], which can translate to harmony in the mind. It is important to remember that Tai Chi for trauma recovery is a CAM, and it should be delivered in combination with other, clinically proven, traditional therapeutic modalities like behaviour and cognitive-based psychotherapies.

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling and could benefit from participating in treatment modalities such as trauma informed Tai Chi, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

 

[1] Al Huang, C., 2011. Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, p.62.

[2] Mayo Clinic. n.d. Why Try Tai Chi?. [online] Available at: <https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/tai-chi/art-20045184> [Accessed 3 September 2020].

[3] Taoist Tai Chi Society. n.d. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) And Taoist Tai Chi® Arts. – Taoist Tai Chi Society. [online] Available at: <https://www.taoisttaichi.org/ptsd-post-traumatic-stress/> [Accessed 5 September 2020].

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