Bodywork for Trauma: Understanding Trauma-Informed Touch Therapy and Its Healing Potential

How does touch therapy enable people to reclaim control and find solace amidst their traumatic experiences? The cutting-edge modality of bodywork for trauma shows us that touch and massage therapy can be a real catalyst for change. It is reshaping our understanding of trauma and provides a path towards resilience and restoration.

What Is Bodywork for Trauma?

Trauma-informed bodywork is the practice of offering choice to our clients so they may regain agency around touch and their body. Like trauma-informed therapy – a talk modality – trauma-informed touch and massage therapy can help to re-inform the body of a more secure way of being in the world.

The terms trauma-informed, trauma-sensitive, and trauma-aware all refer to the idea that a healing modality can meet the needs of someone with a trauma history. This type of bodywork creates opportunities to bring forth and release trauma held in the body. It also implies that the practitioner is attuned to the pace of healing needed for a trauma survivor, and is aware (and trained) around how to deal with a potential trauma response during session.

Where Do We Hold Trauma in the Body?

Having practiced somatic bodywork for over 20 years, a primary focus of my practice has been to treat clients who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. I found that we hold trauma throughout all of our body tissue, especially the fascia and the diaphragm.

I work with all ages – but particularly in my work with babies, clear signs are always present when upset or overwhelm occurs. Some of these signals include gaze aversion, hands raised with fingers splayed (like a stop sign), rapid and shallow breathing, body tension, and often crying. If these signals are ignored, the external responses may become more extreme, or dissociation can set in. Unlike adults though, babies don’t have years of conditioning around what is socially acceptable behavior. They generally respond to uncomfortable stimuli without inhibition.

Adults exhibit the same signals and behaviors – as subtle as they may be, they are there. If you offer bodywork for trauma survivors, you have to pay close attention to these signals.

Many adults however stop themselves unconsciously (and often consciously) from acting out responses, and so the discomfort settles within the body and psyche. This unprocessed discomfort can manifest in a variety of ways. Most common are anxiety, depression, shortness of breath, sleeplessness, inflammation, headaches, belly aches, low sex drive, and other unpleasant symptoms.

Trauma-informed bodywork creates the proper container for release and completion of the trauma response cycle which includes fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

Woman during a trauma-informed bodywork session

How Do You Release Trauma From the Body?

It’s the responsibility of the trauma touch practitioner to be settled and present in their own body as much as possible before session.

It is important to follow the client’s lead and pace, and not try to push or pull something out of them. As comfort and trusted connection grow, we are able to sink deeper into the session as well as the tissues of the body. We create a safe container for connected touch, which helps release oxytocin and inhibits cortisol, the stress hormone. This work also soothes the vagus nerve, which is responsible for digestion, heart rate, and immune system.

When an “unwinding” of trauma happens in somatic bodywork, it is referred to as Somato Emotional Release (or SER). Sometimes this is subtle in the way of a client burping, hiccupping, or taking a very deep breath. Other times, this may show up as shaking, sweating, or needing to let out a cry or yell.

Although this experience may be uncomfortable, it is an indication of a trauma survivor successfully tapping into their cellular memory via “interoception” – a deeply felt internal sense of awareness

A trauma-sensitive somatic practitioner’s job is to employ modalities such as the Rosen Method Bodywork, CranioSacral Therapy, and Trauma Touch Therapy. In their sessions, recipients may start out feeling unsafe, insecure, and uncomfortable. The practitioner is there to offer them grounding, and a new sense of self and integration through embodiment. It is also the job of the practitioner to pay attention to physical or emotional cues and give the client space and time to release their holding.

Can Massage Trigger Trauma?

As adults in modern society, we’ve been conditioned to hide and mask our hurts and vulnerabilities. But trauma can be sneaky. When a client gets into a bodywork session, they are opening themselves up to the possibility of being seen and witnessed as their trauma is exposed and released.

Yet it’s important to remember that Somato Emotional Release is not the goal. Bodywork and massage can be traumatizing, or re-traumatizing, for the client if the practitioner carries an agenda, so the utmost care must be taken. It’s recommended that this possibility is addressed during the client intake discussion, and the practitioner creates an environment of calm and attunement throughout the session.

Woman enjoying a somatic massage therapy session

Can Massage Help With PTSD?

Bodywork for trauma survivors from a skilled practitioner – who is adept at holding clear boundaries – can be a strong catalyst for release. This, in turn, makes space in the client and creates an opportunity for change.

Regular sessions can bring hope and relief to those suffering from PTSD. In addition to the numerous physical discomforts, the fight-flight-freeze-fawn reaction is also responsible for causing fearful thoughts, depression, sleeplessness, and irritability. Massage therapy can have an opposing effect on the body – reducing tension, lowering heart rate, and generally making a person feel calmer.

Thankfully, as bodywork for trauma and touch therapy are becoming more integrated into our mental, emotional, sexual and physical health care, we have so many options and opportunities for healing.

Is Somatica Trauma-Informed?

As we have seen, there are many different approaches to somatic trauma therapies out there. It can however be quite difficult to actually find a training that focuses on trauma-informed coaching and specifically deals with sex and relationships.

This is actually what sets the Somatica Method apart from other training programs. The Somatica Training is trauma-informed because we found that many clients seeking help in the realm of sex and relationships often also have a history of sexual trauma, intimate trauma, or attachment trauma. Read about how Somatica can help resolve trauma and enhance pleasure.

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