The truth is that trauma is not just “in your head”. It leaves a real, physical imprint on your body, jarring your memory storage processes and changing your brain. (BioBeats)
When reckoning with a traumatic experience, some find that talk therapy alone can be limiting. While verbal processing can provide some relief, trauma often manifests throughout the entire body. Unresolved grief, for example, can lodge in the body's physiology, leading to “persistent fatigue, sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, anxiety focused on flashbacks, depression, and avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities that are associated with the trauma, even remotely.”
Reconnection through the old ways
Somatic therapy, which has been gaining popularity in recent years, helps people tap into the innate connection between mind and body. Practices that engage the physical body, like meditation, yoga, and therapeutic touch, can help people release trauma from their whole system.
While talk therapy typically analyzes thoughts and emotions verbally, somatic therapy helps people tune into their physical sensations and emotions in order to process trauma, grief, and other difficult experiences.
Our bodies carry memories of everything that has happened to us, just like our brains do. Those memories get activated and show up in our bodily experiences every day, just like our mental memories. (Psychology Today)
Through techniques like mindful breathing and body scans, people are able to develop greater interoception – the ability to sense what’s going on inside your body. For example, a quick check-in with a cramping stomach may indicate that a snack is long overdue.
Close your eyes at any given moment, and you can gauge your over-all mood—good, bad, excited, tired, a bit down, or generally pleased. This mood combines what’s going on in your mind with how your organs, muscles, and nerves are embodying the moment. Interoception is your ability to notice that signal. (The New Yorker)
The trauma of loss, too, can be felt throughout the body. Physical manifestations of grief could feel like a tightness in the chest, a hollowness in the stomach, or simple exhaustion. By tuning into these subtle body cues, people can begin to fully express and move through their bereavement.
If getting acquainted with the sensations in your body feels overwhelming, working with a somatic therapist one-on-one or exploring in a group setting may ease you into the practice. Giulia D. recently attended a week-long somatic grief retreat to immerse herself in this therapeutic approach after losing someone close last year. She hoped it would help her gain a healthier perspective on death and mortality.
Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of it. By living our lives, we nurture death. – Haruki Murakami
Initially, Giulia was drawn to the retreat out of a desire to become more familiar with death as a natural part of life, rather than something to be avoided. As she put it, she wanted to "get acquainted with death - death as a natural rite of passage instead of a taboo we don’t talk about and push away, avoid at all cost."
The retreat encouraged participants to view death as simply another transition to be honored, like the end of a marriage or the loss of youth. "Death is not only our final day...death is a rite of passage that includes break-ups and divorces, menopause, and the loss of youth," she realized.
Over the course of the retreat, Giulia engaged in meaningful meditations, exercises, and rituals focused on mortality. In guided meditations, she envisioned her ideal death scenario and imagined what she would let go of if she only had 12 weeks to live. She wrote a heartfelt letter of gratitude to herself. In partner exercises, she explored profound existential questions about whether she had truly lived and loved to the fullest.
The most powerful activity was a death meditation where participants blew out a candle and laid down, surrendering completely to the experience. Activities like crying, laughing, and group performances also built a sense of community between participants. "I love working in groups. I've been doing it for years. It’s been the most beneficial and effective form of work for myself,” Giulia reflected.
Above all, Giulia left the retreat with a renewed appreciation for the constant interplay between life and death. She realized every day we experience "mini-deaths" and mini-births, and the dance between the two is what makes existence meaningful. This perspective has made her determined to live with more enthusiasm and patience.
Giulia encourages anyone interested in such a retreat to remember death is a natural transition, not something to be feared. She believes society would benefit enormously if death and dying were more openly discussed and embraced as a rite of passage. For her personally, the takeaway was profound: "Do not postpone. The other is not the enemy. Open up, reach for the other."