How Trauma Is Stored in the Body (+ How to Release It)

Trauma used to be in the shadows. Everyone knew it was there, but no one was talking about it. 

Then the pandemic came along and trauma was forced into the limelight. Suddenly, people were eager for ways to relieve their emotional pain. Social isolation, financial worries, or the crushing grief of losing a loved one can have lasting impacts. 

Traumatic events can leave you feeling shocked, hopeless, and unable to cope. You may feel incapable of dealing with the emotions popping up and push them off to the side. 

The trouble is, when trauma isn’t processed, it lingers. Many believe unprocessed trauma is stored in your nervous system. These trapped ‘issues in your tissues’ may have detrimental effects on your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. So, let’s break down how trauma gets trapped in your body and how you can release it. 

What is Trauma?

Trauma

Trauma is an emotional reaction to a stressful, frightening, or disturbing incident or series of events. Nearly everyone has faced some form of trauma in their lives. 

In fact, in a 2015 survey of nearly 69,000 adults, 70% reported a traumatic event, and over 30% reported four or more!

Some examples of traumatic experiences include:

  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Death of a loved one
  • Witnessing death or severe injury
  • Serious illness
  • Severe automobile accident
  • Domestic abuse

The experiences above are often referred to as “Big T” traumas. They’re the ones most often linked with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that affects around 8% of Americans.

But trauma can also come from other distressing events that affect your ability to cope, such as:

  • Breakups
  • Divorce
  • Long-term emotional abuse
  • Bullying
  • Losing a job
  • Injuries
  • Financial worries

These are often called ‘“little t” traumas. While “little t” traumas may not make the mark for getting a PTSD diagnosis, that doesn’t take away from the emotional damage they can cause. 

In fact, accumulate enough of the “little t” traumas, and it may harm you just as much if not more than one “Big T” event.

How Does Trauma Get ‘Trapped’ in the Body?

Trauma

Everyone has a stress threshold. Trauma happens when this threshold is crossed, and you feel unable to cope with the situation at hand. 

Traumatic events activate your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ system. Your heartbeat and blood pressure rise, digestion slows down, and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline amp up. Basically, your body’s ready to fight for your life – or run away fast!

When you’re in this emergency mode, non-essential tasks like filing your short-term memory, are put on hold. This can cause a glitch in your body’s memory processing system and keep the traumatic event from being logged properly. 

Where is Trauma Stored in the Body?

There are all kinds of debates about whether trauma is stored in the brain or the body. Some theories are backed by scientific studies, while others are based on anecdotal evidence that’s tough to prove. Let’s break it down:

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Make no mistake – trauma can change your brain! Research reveals that people with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus – the memory center of your brain that is sensitive to stress. PTSD patients also tend to have a more active amygdala, the part of your brain that processes emotions such as fear.

Another way trauma affects the brain is by dysregulating the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal-axis, which plays a key role in the stress response. Fight-or-flight mode is meant to be temporary, but traumatic events can cause the body to get stuck in emergency mode. This can create a state of hyper-vigilance, which may eventually lead to adrenal burnout.

YOU May Forget…But Your Body Doesn’t

Emerging evidence suggests that trauma doesn’t just affect your brain – it affects your cells too. Recent studies reveal that stem cells can actually store your tissue’s past memories. Those "issues in your tissues" may harm your physical and emotional health. 

In fact, Harvard Health reports that unprocessed trauma can make you more prone to several health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. 

If trauma or ‘trapped’ emotions are ignored long enough, they may be somatized and manifest as physical sensations, such as chronic pain. While ‘stuck’ or ‘trapped’ emotions can harm our well-being, releasing them can have equally dramatic effects.

One profound example of this is the phenomenon of radical remission. Dr. Kelly Turner, author of Radical Remission, studied over 1,500 terminally ill cancer patients. She found that many people who experienced radical remission credited releasing past trauma and emotional baggage as key to their healing.

So, let’s get to the good stuff…how to release this ‘trapped’ trauma from your body!

9 Tips & Tools for Releasing Stored Trauma in Your Body

Trauma

The following tips and tools may help you release stored trauma from your body. Keep in mind, releasing trauma can be intense. Emotions or memories may bubble up to the surface and feel overwhelming or even downright scary. 

While some people feel comfortable navigating their ‘trapped’ emotions solo, others do best with some outside help. Trust yourself, and if you feel like you’d benefit from the support and guidance of a well-trained therapist, get it before letting it loose.

1 - Make Friends with Your Feelings

If you want to heal it, you’ve gotta feel it. Feelings are energy in motion (aka E-motion). So let them move! This is easier said than done, as emotions like fear, sadness, and shame can be ultra-painful. Many people run from these feelings, as the pain feels too much to bear.  This avoidance tactic often generates anxiety.

Yet what you resist persists. So instead of pushing uncomfortable feelings away – get curious about them. Notice the sensations that arise and where you feel them. Do you feel a knot in your chest? Are you holding your breath? Just witness whatever you’re feeling without judgment.  Seeing yourself without judgment and offering kindness to your personal growth is essential in healing from trauma.  

Research shows that even the simple act of naming your emotions can help lessen their intensity! According to Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, “Once you start approaching your feelings with curiosity rather than fear, everything shifts.”  This book is amazing and I highly recommend it.

2 - Slow Down and Be Still

You can’t be aware of your feelings if you’re always in motion. So slow down and be present in your body. Resist the urge to constantly distract yourself with noise, screens, and those never-ending to-do lists, and find time to be still in a safe place and just observe what comes up.

It might be as simple as sipping a cup of tea on your porch, taking a bath, journaling, or doing a 5-minute meditation. Spending time in nature is also an excellent way to let go of the constant need for speed. The more you slow down, the more aware you’ll be of the emotions simmering under the surface. 

3 - Move Your Body

This one may seem paradoxical after the last one but hear me out. While being still IS important for releasing trauma, movement is too. Movement truly is medicine. Exercise helps your body burn off adrenaline, release endorphins, calm your nervous system, and relieve stress

While any physical movement can help get your energy moving, some forms of exercise are especially helpful for trauma. For example, yoga is proven as an effective treatment for relieving PTSD symptoms and improving overall well-being. 

But no worries if yoga’s not your thing. Just get your body moving – whether that means going for a walk, bike ride, or dancing it out. To ramp up the healing effects, try moving mindfully. Ditch those distractions, pay attention to your breath, and feel the sensations in your body.  

Aim to keep an easy or moderate pace that helps you stay present and calm. This helps maintain some parasympathetic tone, helping your body become more resilient to stress. Getting your heart rate up really high may feel like you're helping yourself, but it can make your sympathetic nervous system overly active and actually take away from the healing process. 

4 - Try Breathwork

Breathwork is an intentional method of breathing that helps your body relax by bypassing your conscious mind. Trauma can overstimulate the body’s sympathetic nervous system (aka your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response). Breathwork settles it down. 

Intentional breathing may help you process stored thoughts, emotions, and memories that have been pushed to the side. That’s why breathwork brings about emotional catharsis for many. For this reason, some people opt for sessions with a breathwork facilitator to learn the ropes. 

Yet if you’re interested in a more DIY approach to breathwork, many videos can walk you through it. Here’s an excellent intro to breathwork video to get you started:

5 - Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

Also known as ‘tapping,’ the Emotional Freedom Technique involves tapping energy meridian points along the body while focusing on an issue or memory. This rebalances your energy system and release emotional pain. 

EFT is often used for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. In fact, in one study, 60% of veterans no longer met the criteria for PTSD after just three tapping sessions! To find an EFT practitioner near you, check out this directory. Or, if you’d rather tap it out on your own, check out the video below: 

6 - Bodywork

You’ve likely heard stories of people who’ve burst into tears during a massage. Maybe you’ve even experienced this yourself. So, what’s the deal? Well, many bodyworkers believe that your fascia (the connective tissues in your body) can become blocked from traumatic events and trapped emotions. 

Myofascial release is a form of massage that relaxes your fascia by finding restricted areas of the body and unwinding that tissue. It’s not uncommon for memories and emotions to surface during a session. Deep tissue or craniosacral massage are other excellent options for letting go of emotional trauma. 

7 - EMDR Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy technique often used to treat anxiety and PTSD. It incorporates rhythmic eye movements while recalling traumatic experiences. This combo changes how the memory is stored in the brain and allow you to process the trauma fully. 

Research backs up EMDR’s success. One scientific review of 24 studies found that EMDR provided massive relief from emotional distress and was more effective than trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy.  I personally have experienced EMDR for my own personal trauma patterns and found it profoundly helpful. Other forms of therapy are helpful in providing you tools to create new patterns that make your life easier. CBT and Family First therapy are some options of other types of therapy that can help.

8 - Sound & Vibrational Healing

Sound healing has become all the rage in the health and wellness world. It involves using the power of vibration – from tuning forks, singing bowls, or gongs – to relax the mind and body. 

The human body is 75% water – making us the perfect conductors for vibration. Sound healing uses instruments to emit certain vibrations to reattune the body and release trapped emotions. While the research is limited, there is evidence that sound healing can relieve tension, anxiety, and depression and improve well-being

Most people report feeling incredibly relaxed after a session, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to try!  I also have experienced this type of work many times and find it very helpful in creating peaceful space in my body.

9 - Network Spinal Analysis

Network Spinal Analysis (NSA) is a chiropractic technique that uses gentle touches on the spine to help release tension and stored trauma in the nervous system. Unlike traditional chiropractic methods, there’s no twisting or ‘cracking’ of the spine with NSA. Because NSA’s so gentle, it allows clients to feel safe enough to truly let go.

NSA also helps you grow your self-awareness and get more in tune with your body. Many clients report deep emotional releases from NSA sessions. I’m proud to say we offer Network Spinal Analysis at Core Flex Wellness, so if you have questions about it or want to experience it for yourself, feel free to call our office at (970) 279-1665. 

10 -  Somato Respiratory Integration 

Trauma causes many people to disconnect from their bodies. But remember – you’ve got to feel it to heal it. Somato respiratory integration (SRI) is a system of healing that uses the power of breath to teach you to tune into your body. Only then can true healing happen. SRI involves a series of breathing exercises that help you reconnect with your body to melt any lingering tension, stress, or stagnation.  

SRI was developed by Dr. Donald Epstein, the founder of Network Spinal Analysis, and the two systems blend beautifully together. Best of all, SRI can be easily learned from the comfort of your home. Dr. Epstein’s book The 12 Stages of Healing is a great place to start to learn the basics of SRI. There is even a workbook if you’re looking to take a deeper dive.

While SRI is an incredibly simple process, its effects can be profound – especially when combined with Network Spinal Analysis. 

Takeaways

Nearly everyone will face some form of trauma in their lifetime – it’s part of being human! Yet, when those traumatic events aren’t fully processed, they can harm both your physical and emotional health. You may deal with somatic symptoms such as pain or digestive distress or feel a steady stream of anxiety. This is because trauma is stored in the body in your nervous system as an overactive stress response.  Unfortunately if trauma is in fact having a negative impact on your healing potential, addressing it will improve out comes of a healthy diet and supplements likely 10 fold.

The key to releasing trauma is to calm your mind and body enough to feel safe. Feeling safe with friends and in relationships is crucial in unwinding emotional storage.  Using the tips and tools we’ve covered above is a good start in helping you release trauma stored in your body. 

If you feel called to try Network Spinal Analysis, SRI, or could use some support and resources on your own healing journey, click here to book your complimentary discovery call!

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