Trauma Archives - Embodied Living

There are many reports of people having more frequent and more vivid and unusual dreams during this pandemic. Whilst I personally haven’t seen much of a change (mine are always offbeat), I began to wonder why this increase in COVID dreams might be the case for others.

The main function of dreams

I have always been interested in dreams. However, since studying psychoanalysis during the past year, I have more understanding of the depth that dreams contain. Freud called dreams the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ and said that the main function of dreaming is to keep us asleep.

During a dream, content from our unconscious can be presented in a way that is acceptable or digestible to the more conscious part of our mind. This partly explains why dreams can seem so weird. To ensure this presentability, our mind codes our dreams with symbols and other content is switched to ensure that the dream gets past our internal censor. Remember, the unconscious mind is far from middle class!

Night terrors – when dreams fail

If this process fails, we end up in a night terror and are woken from the dream. This is a sign that our capacity to dream has been overwhelmed by the indigestible stuff from the unconscious. This might partly explain the nature of our COVID dreams.

Creative acts

Freud said “ the function of a dream is fulfilment of a wish to appease a worry. When this works, an anxiety is satisfied, and you can sleep”. This is how dreams keep us asleep. Clever, eh? Today, we have elaborated on this understanding and dreams are seen as creative acts of psychic work to resolve conflicts or challenges, and even come up with something new. As a chemistry student many years ago, I remember being told about Kekule’s dream of a serpent devouring its tail (the ancient alchemical symbol of the ouroborus) which lead to his discovery of the benzene ring.

Understanding our dreams

However, these are not the only reasons to understand our dreams. Dreams are made of darker stuff sometimes, a wish to satisfy an instinct from the darkness of the Id. And our id holds the most ‘terrible’ instincts, even of ‘murderous’ intent. I am talking of the baby’s rage for a withholding breast. On thing is certain though, dreams have very personal meanings and you cannot look them up in a dream dictionary to understand them. Whilst there may be universal symbols at play within them, even these have deeply personal relevance.

Multiple layers of meaning

For example, I recently had an extremely upsetting dream that involved a snake. In part of the dream, the snake was cut into many pieces that were still alive and crawling around the floor. This dream would have different meanings for others, especially with such an ancient symbol of a serpent. However, I own a pet snake which I love dearly, and I have also taken up carving as an art form. One dream has multiple layers of meaning. But one (superficial) meaning of this dream for me, was a wish to not harm my pet whilst I am carving. It was a warning which alleviated this worry.

Why are we having covid dreams?

Overtly it seemed to me that the increase in vivid and strange COVID dreams was because of the trauma of COVID-19 that is around us on a daily basis. The content of dreams is often influenced by our day or recent events on our life – Freud called these top down dreams. Others are more ‘bottom up’ and come direct from the subconscious.

Knowing this explains our covid dreams another way. With less going on in our daily lives, more bottom up material is coming from the depths of our unconscious mind (if it can get past the censor in unusual ways) which is just weirder and more vivid. Freud tells us:

“Every dream that is in the process of formation makes a demand upon the ego for the satisfaction of an instinct, if the dream originates from the id, for a solution of a conflict, the removal of a doubt or the forming of an intention if the dream originates from a residue of preconscious activity from waking life. The sleeping ego is however focused on the wish to remain asleep. It feels this demand as a disturbance and seeks to get rid of it. The ego succeeds in doing this by what appears to be an act of compliance; it meets the demand with what is, in the circumstances, the harmless fulfilment of a wish and so gets rid of it.”

Interpreting dreams

So what chance do we have of making sense of such weirdness? It’s not easy, as you might guess. Despite what the abundance of dream dictionaries and the like seem to tell us. The manifest content is the story we remember and write down or tell our therapist. Yet it is the ‘latent’ content which we need to understand, the hidden message in the dream. By understanding this we have clues to our unconscious conflicts that, in a process like psychotherapy, can greatly aid in our self-development and progress.

To search for the hidden messages, here are a few tips:

  1. Look out for displacement – this is where the emphasis is moved from one item in the dream to another. So that something that seems meaningless is given great focus or there is serious anxiety in something bland
  2. Condensation – the free associations and the links that the dreamer is encouraged to make when thinking about the dream. Or perhaps noticing the play on words in dreams
  3. Secondary revision – how we wrap up the story of the dream (and maybe distort it). I did this with my snake dream (there was more to it).
  4. Symbols (considerations of representability) – this is the visual way metaphor and simile are represented in dreams (a way of by-passing the censor). It is usually an item that represents something completely different. But remember, these are often very individual.

Example dream

Maybe it would help with a recent example from a client. (I have permission, though am keeping all detail anonymous). My client dreamed he was walking down a mountain side. The path was winding and rocky and with big boulders and gaps to navigate precariously. The client found himself with a baby, there were onlookers who seemed to be family and friends and who were not threatening. The client had a dilemma – he wanted to get safely down the mountainside to the base, he wanted to do it for himself but in a way that kept the baby safe. In the dream was distracted by some beautiful pattern in the stones and rocks. The only way he could do it was to hand the baby over to the onlookers, for a moment while he negotiated certain rocks and treacherous parts. But he did not feel he could trust the onlookers with the baby. He wished he could trust them enough to hold the baby for a moment.

Mountain dreams

Overtly the client thought this dream represented a difficult patch in life that he was trying to navigate. But let’s look a bit more deeply, bearing in mind I am no dream expert. The client was going down a mountain, which might represent descent into the work into the unconscious that he was undertaking in therapy. There were onlookers who were friendly. Dreams often reverse things, so this could represent people in his life who he perceives do not have such benign or neutral intent. There was a baby that he was responsible for.

Beginning an interpretation of covid dreams

Notice how the client got more fixated on the beauty or preciousness of the pattern in the stones on the path. This might signify that the baby was something precious to him. What does the baby signify? It might be a symbol. My client is a young man and not yet a father, the baby might symbolise something precious to him. On one level, the baby might represent me, his therapist, and his wish to protect me (he recognised feeling something like this towards me at times, which is not uncommon in the client-therapist transference). I am something ‘precious’ to him and am going on a descent into his unconscious mind with him, he might fear for me of what we might find there.

Freud said that aspects or objects in dreams are aspects of our own mind. Babies are vulnerable but more importantly, dependent. So, given that my client was entering a very important phase in therapy where he was becoming more dependent on a benign caregiver (a vital and delicate part of the therapeutic process), the baby might represent this dependent part of himself. This of course is himself as a baby. And he fears of letting this baby go to others (me the therapist) whom he can’t trust in this crucial and delicate phase.

Play on words

Of course, another layer could be the play on words: in the double bind he experiences in the dream, he is ‘left holding the baby’. Which is a phrase that means “you are put in a situation where you are the sole person responsible for something, often in an unfair way because other people fail or refuse to take responsibility for it”. This might relate to people in his life and general pattern currently and in the past.

Layer upon layer

Remember that there are multiple layers of meaning in a single dream, and we can keep unpacking it. And in addition, the meaning may be different at different times in our life. Then there are traumatic dreams, which are less useful. Rather like the trauma response itself, these dreams repeat and repeat, often in very disturbing ways. This traumatic repetition is an effort to re-experience the trauma so that we can finally take control. However, it often leads to more trauma.

Hopefully this gives you a taste of the power of dreams to help us navigate our problems in life. In psychotherapy dreams can be a useful tool to initiate dialogue with the unreachable unconscious. Through this we can begin to understand the unconscious conflicts and anxieties that disturb our happiness. But there is no one size fits all approach. The therapist needs to do careful and informed work with the client to extract the personal meanings from dreams.


More help during COVID-19

Read more about what might help you cope in this pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis is forcing us to face something which human beings excel at avoiding. Death is the biggest taboo of them all and one which we spend a lifetime denying.

Many are writing about trauma during the COVID-19 crisis. We are in the midst of a trauma and that trauma is being triggered by many everyday things now. But I believe that what is even more important in our response to this crisis is our unconscious fear of death.

Read the full article on LifeLabs.

In order to help with the symptoms of trauma we need to think of the trauma response as being an accelerator. I often remind my clients that trauma is something our body does. Our body has floored the accelerator pedal (so to speak) and we have forgotten that we even have a brake.

Trauma as undischarged energy

Trauma is our body’s natural response to an unnatural situation. Think of the tiny mouse who gets pounced on by the cat. Suddenly it is trapped in sharp jaws and knows it might die. A huge surge of energy rushes through its body as accelerator hormones are released that pump blood and expand lung capacity. It is like a nuclear bomb went off inside its body. This energy prepares the mouse to flee at the first opportunity (or fight if this was a larger animal). The moment the cat drops the mouse it runs faster than it ever has to survive. And the energy bomb is dissipated. The ‘hyper-arousal’ of trauma has served its purpose.

Fall asleep

Sometimes something else happens. When released from the jaws of hell, the mouse looks like it is dead. The animal feigns death. This is less well known side of the trauma response – ‘to fall asleep’. Many animals do this as a survival mechanism. It lies on the floor completely dead. The cat walks away. But the moment the mouse senses a millimetre of safety, it springs up and races off. However, if you were to watch closer, for longer, at some point you would see the little creature jerk and throw itself around in a strange sort of way. This is the mouse discharging the energy of the trauma response. This discharge means the mouse can get back to its normal life with no lasting after effects from the nuclear bomb which has just gone off inside of it.

Symptoms of undischarged trauma

Humans are often not so fortunate. Our natural instincts can be interrupted by our logic and our higher mind. Practically, this means that we are often left with the symptoms of undischarged trauma in our bodies that stay with us long after the traumatising event. In fact, they may lie dormant, but only until another trauma event triggers this energy again.

Diagram: (Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

This diagram is commonly used to help us understand heightened brain/body reactions during adversity. The dotted lines show a healthy nervous system. This being one which is able to self-regulate and maintain an arousal level (following a difficult event) that is within manageable or normal levels. When we experience trauma, this can induce a heightened energetic response in our system (as described above) and can mean that our ability to self-regulate is compromised. This is more likely to be the case if we have had earlier trauma, including disruptions in our early attachment needs.



From Hyper to hypo

This response to trauma pushes us into one of two states, which we will inevitably fluctuate between. Hyperarousal (the ‘stuck on’ position) is where our sympathetic nervous system is in charge and is characterised by an excessive energy response. This will present itself in symptoms of anxiety, panic, fear, hypervigilance and emotional flooding. We may feel rage or anger, restless and hyperactive and it will be difficult to eat, sleep or concentrate.

However, human beings cannot maintain this state for too long. Our system takes over and plunges us into the exhausted state of hypo arousal. This is where the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and in particular the dorsal vagal complex of the vagus nerve. Effectively this is the equivalent of the animal’s ‘feign death’ mode. Here we will feel depressed and tired, have more feelings of negativity and worthlessness, feel disoriented and disconnected. A sense of flatness or numbness will take over and we won’t feel like doing anything, we may also sleep a lot. Indeed we may even feel we don’t have a future. We are, in effect, emotionally dead.

Fluctuating between extremes

Again, our bodies won’t let us stay here too long. So we may be driven to risky (even suicidal) behaviour to feel alive again.

What I often find is that people often find one state more intolerable than the other, and therefore have more of a default position of ‘switched on’ or ‘switched off’. It goes without saying that both of these extremes are confusing and disturbing to us, and to those around us. People say ‘I feel like I am going mad’, they feel messed up and long to be normal. It is a chaotic state. Of course, this layer of shame doesn’t help.

Understanding the energetic response

Nevertheless, understanding the science behind this response helps to understand the disturbing nature of these symptoms. It is vital to learn to build resources in our self that will help us to manage the chaotic nature of undischarged trauma. This will help to protect us (and others) from further harm.

Risky behaviour increases with the trauma response

Without learning how to ‘self-regulate’ we will be at risk from taking actions that somehow help us manage these states but cause us more problems. We may take an overdose if we are so frightened by the thought of carrying on with these symptoms. We may smoke or drink more to help alleviate some of the distress, or become addicted to some other process or substance. These are more risky ways of managing the post-traumatic symptoms that lead to more shame, which will only feed the cycle.

Taking refuge in our self

Our body, and unconscious mind, already have all the resources within them to help us self-regulate the trauma response and find safety. By learning, or being reminded about, the resources we have within we can find and apply the brake on trauma. We can learn when to apply the accelerator and when to use the brake to steer our self into safety.

Applying the brake and the accelerator

Whilst there are different techniques to use for the hyper state and the hypo state, there is one that can work well for either. There is a muscle inside the middle of our body, which attaches to the heart via a central tendon, and also links up with the ventral vagal complex of the vagus nerve. In short, this muscle helps to engage the newest branch of the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘smart vagus’ – the self-regulation centre. This muscle is the diaphragm, the primary muscle of respiration.

However we cannot just breathe our way out of trauma we have to do it in a very specific way. If we can learn to breathe using the full range (25-30 cm ) of our diaphragm, through our nostrils at a rate of around five breaths a minute (that is a 12 sec breath in and out) we can find a balance point between the brake and the accelerator. For this balance, certainly to begin with, there should be no pauses at the end of the inhalation or exhalation, just a smooth flowing of in-breath into out-breath. Like an undulating wave. It is from here that we can reach coherence and begin to find ‘normal’ again.

A simple practice to achieve coherence and balance

I usually teach my clients to reach this state in a number of steps. But I usually start by teaching them to find and engage with their diaphragm.

The following is a simple practice and the best way to do this:

Listen to a podcast of the practice here.

  1. Lie on the floor on your front with your body in a straight line. (it is important that you lie on a hard surface rather than a bed).
  2. Bend your arms at your elbows and rest your forehead or side of your face on your hands.
  3. Make sure you allow a few moments to get as comfortable as possible here.
  4. Make sure your mouth is closed, lips together, and you are breathing through your nostrils.
  5. Be aware of your body lying on the floor and the contact between your body and the floor.
  6. Become aware of your breathing, and notice your abdomen pushing into the floor as you breathe in. It releases as you breathe out.
  7. Keep your awareness on this feeling of your belly pushing into the floor as you breathe.
  8. After a few minutes, you can start to exaggerate this movement and push your belly even more into the floor by drawing deeper breaths. (if at any point you feel uncomfortable or have dizziness stop for a moment and come back to the practice later).
  9. Continue this practice for as long you can. And repeat every day if possible for a while.


Changing default habits

Remember that the trauma response is a habit that our body has gotten into when it is triggered. You can begin to change any pattern if you practice the new resourceful behaviour for a minimum 20 minutes for a minimum of 21 days (I usually say a month, continuously, with Sunday off!). This is like restoring your mobile phone to its factory default settings. You remember to breathe how you were born to breathe. You take the first step at re-connecting with the resources within that are your human heritage as an embodied being.

This article was first published on Counselling Directory.

As we cope with the change of Covid-19 we might find our selves in strange states of emotional upheaval. Regulating our emotional arousal levels is a skill we can learn.

You might be coping and working, and perhaps you are even busy. But you might find yourself alternating between anxiety and tiredness, overwhelm and lack of motivation.

Here are some practices to help.

Watch the video on Psychologies LifeLabs

Find other resources to help you cope with a crisis here.

As we enter our eighth week of COVID-19 lockdown, fear is all around us. Not least is the concern about contagion and illness caused in humans by this strand of RNA that we have called coronavirus. Then there is the financial stress and concerns about our mental health during the isolation of the crisis.

We might have anxiety about going out, as lockdown begins to ease. We might not even feel safe in our own homes anymore. Nevertheless, in the midst of trauma we are deprived of the place of true safety. The safety of the present moment and the safety in our own bodies. This is a simple yet powerful technique to begin to break the hold that trauma has on you.

Read the full piece in my article on Psychologies Life Labs.


When we are in the throes of our problem, whether that be anxiety or depression or some other disturbance, it can be difficult to see it as something other than a terrible crisis that is afflicting us.

A ‘right brain’ way of seeing

In this respect our very way of seeing the problem perpetuates the problem. Being in the midst of the problem, consumed by it, overwhelmed by the right brain’s subjective negative experience, makes us blind to the real nature of things. This ‘veil’ prevents us from seeing reality. It is what yoga calls ‘maya’; the illusion that there is an objective reality.

Reality is projection

Maya is projection, it leads to partial understanding and wrong or false notions about our self, our identity and our reality.

In the Indian tantric myth of the rishi couple, Shiva and Parvati, who lived in a mountain village, the play of reality and illusion is brought out beautifully when Parvati asks: “the minds of people are full of tension and strife, suffering, pain, anxiety, difficulty … Why is there so much desire and craving in human beings … They constantly desire to acquire something which leads to more agitation and anxiety … Why do human beings get entangled in this vicious cycle?”

Inner disturbance is an expression of energy

According to tantra, this disturbance within each individual is an expression of the state of their energy and their consciousness. In this respect, disturbed mental states are projections of energy and consciousness. There is no reality, each of us lives in our own version of reality, which is largely a projection of our unconscious mind.

The end of an illusion

By understanding this we can begin to see our problems as simply the end of an illusion: a chance to expand consciousness to another level. But, as Jung said; “man will do almost anything to avoid facing his own soul”. When we ignore, deny or repress our spirit (our soul), in our obsessive over-identification with our body and/or our mind, the spirit only breaks through in the form of neuroses and mental disturbance.

Changing your problem

So how can you start to change your ‘problem’?

  1. Firstly, accept that your problem is a ‘gift’, a chance to overcome another level of illusion, an opportunity to learn and grow. Welcome your problem in as a cry from your soul to be heard and understood.
  2. Then recognise that you don’t ‘have’ a problem: you are the problem. This will move you from being at ‘effect’ (blame, victim, martyrdom) to ’cause’ (taking the responsibility to change the only thing you can: you!)
  3. Be brave, authentic and tender in exploring the unchartered territory of your spirit because this journey will only bring you to bliss.

In this respect, psychotherapy is ‘spiritual’ and yoga is psychotherapy, ‘all roads lead to Rome’ so to speak.

This piece was first published on Psychologies Life Labs

We are all in the middle of a trauma situation right now. Some are coping, others are not doing so well. This has nothing to do with how ‘strong’ or otherwise we are. This is about more than having ‘mental health issues’. Trauma has an effect on all of us and if we don’t have ways to discharge trauma we will be left with the after effects of undischarged trauma. This is called post-traumatic stress.

It may be that those who are coping better, have habits that help with managing trauma. Conversely, those not doing so well may also have a prior history of undischarged trauma and this might be being triggered every time they go to the supermarket or watch the news headlines.

Mindful of our triggers

I had a client say to me the other day “whichever way you turn, no one really cares about us as (certain type of healthcare worker). We never get mentioned, or noticed. That is the story of my life.”   (I have taken the profession out to protect confidentiality)

It goes without saying that my client was and is getting attention in their job. But this was their experience in their childhood, so they were experiencing current events through this lens.

Another client said to me “I feel abandoned. No one contacts me. No one cares and not one person is there for me.” Nevertheless, when we explored further people had been contacting them. This person had not been proactive in reaching out though, and was waiting for others to make the first move (which will reduce the amount of contact of course). This is another example of how our past traumas of emotional neglect, real or perceived abandonment and loss can mean that the current situation is more highly charged.

The trauma of Covid-19

Nevertheless, the trauma of COVID-19 is real and rife. These include at least three areas:

  • We have the risk of physical trauma of the disease’s impact on our health
  • We have the financial trauma of the effect the crisis has on our ability to earn
  • And we have the psychological trauma of being effectively locked in our own homes

Whilst some of might feel the adverse effects more than others, not least because of our triggers, we can help ourselves.

What causes the trauma response during the COVID crisis?

There are a number of pre conditions for trauma, boxes that must be ticked if you like, that need to be present for us to experience trauma.

  1. Lack of control – the definition of trauma is an event, experience or situation where we feel helpless and out of control. A situation with high levels of unpredictability or uncertainty where we feel powerless.
  2. Immobility – in a truly traumatic situation (think of rape) our physical actions have no effect. Our nervous system is naturally aroused to fight, flee or feign death/faint. But these actions have no effect (whatever we do the rapist overcomes us). We lose our physical sense of agency.
  3. Loss of connection – in the absence of an attacker, extreme loss of connection alone can result in trauma. Think of the torture experiences of isolation. As humans we are wired for connection and need some degree of it to sustain life.
  4. Numbing or spacing out – if we reach this point in a traumatic experience we are quite lost. Again we have lost our sense of agency and passivity has taken over (this can also be the experience of events like rape). This passivity is very bad for us. We might experience this as endless watching of TV or social media. But it can be a sign we are going into a trauma response.
  5. Loss of time – trauma steals our ability to be in the present moment. We have literally gone elsewhere. We have certainly left the here and now of our body. And are lost in the past triggers or future fears. We may find that we literally lose chunks of time.
  6. No sense of safety – particularly if we have previous triggers (unconsciously) coming up, we can react in a very ‘disorganised’ way. This means we can be ‘all over the place’ and even react in violent or other excessive ways. We can react and do things that we would not normally do and these actions may serve to make us even less safe.
  7. Loss of sense of future – in trauma we feel that our future has shrunk or disappeared. This disempowers us further.

How to cope with trauma and maintain our resilience

If we let ourselves sink into the trauma response, we won’t be able to cope. It is important to know that trauma is as much of a response from our body as from our mind. We might think of the experience of trauma as a ‘natural response from our body to a highly unnatural event’.  However if we don’t take action to mitigate these effects we will remain even more vulnerable.

Here are some things that really work to help you cope during this time:

  1. Order and routine – create schedules and some routine in your life. Have things to look forward to. A daily yoga class, a family meal (do it virtually if you are on your own!). Create a calendar and put some order into your day – get up a 9am to do some guided breathing or meditation, have lunch at a certain time, and your daily exercise. Try to make things different on the weekend so that you are maintaining some boundary between week days and weekends.
  2. Take effective physical action – remember the TEA model which I have taught? These actions are what we can do with our bodies (and our breathing). Certain actions can help counteract the loss of agency. And they can also help immensely with self-regulation. By standing up, moving we are sending signals to our self that we can stand up and take action to help our situation. Grounding and physical movement can be a very effective tool to mitigate trauma. Other mindfulness and breathing practices can engage the vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system to calm our arousal response. And do things: move, make music, make things – it gives you back your sense of agency. It counters the passivity which takes away all choice.
  3. Stay connected – make efforts to stay connected with those around you. Don’t wait for others to initiate, but make contact yourself. And texting or messaging or social media is not enough. We need to hear another’s voice, see their faces and facial expressions. So take time for face time, online chats and online calls. The tools are out there and free. Of course, if you are living with someone, get as many hugs as you can!
  4. Connect with yourself – time stops in trauma. Trauma steals the present moment and we feel that we are stuck in something that will last forever. Use guided practices to connect with your body, to re-learn that the here and now of your body is safe. Such practices help you to learn to move your awareness and notice that things do change. You can learn to be with whatever is there, tolerate discomfort and move through it.
  5. Understand what makes you feel safe – is it a certain type of music? Or being around your animals? Or wrapping yourself in your favourite sweater? Take some time to become aware of what resources you have. In the midst of the trauma response, we feel unsafe in our own bodies. So we need to have resources on tap to take us out of that. Cuddles with your pet or loved one can help. Equally important is having a safe place in your own home. This is somewhere that you can withdraw to where no one else is allowed to disturb you. If you don’t have a separate room, it could simply be a chair. You just agree the rules with the others in the house – ‘if I am sitting on this chair (or go into this room) you are not allowed to disturb me.


I hope these tips have been helpful. Please join my Embodied Living – Coping with Covid group to experience practical sessions to help with all of the above and build your own resources to cope with trauma.

Trauma and its symptoms are more prevalent in society than is often thought. Nevertheless, yoga may be one of the best treatments to help with trauma.

What is trauma and how can yoga help?

Trauma happens when we have an experience that we struggle to process. It can feel too overwhelming as we experience negative emotions such as helplessness, fear, sadness, rage or shame.

Trauma-sensitive yoga with a trained teacher and some considerations for a trauma sensitive practise, can be helpful in trauma recovery.

“Yoga is more effective for treating PTSD than any medication so far.”

(Bessel van der Kolk, NScience seminar , London Guys Hospital, 15 May 2005)

Yoga as effective treatment for trauma

In trauma, the body itself becomes unsafe. Yet by learning to reconnect with our self through learning to be with our body we can learn safety again. We can also learn skills of self-regulation, which are important in bringing our arousal levels down. And finally we can begin to take effective action. Effective treatment for trauma needs to involve

  1. Learning to tolerate feelings and sensations by increasing capacity for interoception. This will strengthen hypocampal and precuneal​ activity in the brain and improve cortical function to help process the trauma. In doing so we reduce dominance of the emotional arousal of the right hemisphere. This will help us to develop a sense of self awareness and tolerate sensations in the body.
  2. Learning to modulate one’s own physiological arousal or to self-regulate. This will strengthen the vagal tone and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) response to increase heart rate variability​ (HRV) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia​​ (RSA) to improve self-regulation and reduce physiological arousal levels.
  3. Learning to engage in taking effective action – to overcome the feelings of physical powerlessness and helplessness from the traumatic experience (s), thereby replacing the passive fear response with an active coping strategy. This will help to release the energy of the ‘stuck’ emotional response from the body.

Trauma is our body’s response

Primarily trauma is a physical experience of our body; we have a series of physical responses as our ‘fight or flight’ system kicks in to deal with the situation. We need specific type of help with trauma because of this.

Regaining control

The trauma survivor’s sense of control has been taken away rendering the individual helpless in the face of the event or experience. This is why it is absolutely necessary that throughout the treatment the person is empowered with a sense of choice, control and volition. This requires a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher.


In 2015 during my Satyananda Integration training I completed a project on yoga for trauma. ‘Yoga for Trauma – How Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Can Help in the Trauma Recovery Process’. Click here to see a full copy of the research report.

Embodied Living is running a free online course to help people with anxiety and depression during COVID-19, this may help with trauma too. Watch this space or contact us for more details.

Trauma and its symptoms are more prevalent in society than is often thought. Nearly half of us, that is about 6 of every 10 (or 60%) of men and 5 of every 10 (or 50%) of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8 per cent of the population) will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, the most full-blown grade of trauma), at some point in their lives.

Women more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress

Women are more likely to suffer from trauma: about 10 of every 100 (or 10%) of women develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 (or 4%) of men. This is because the most damaging forms of trauma are those conducted by one person to another, i.e. rape or sexual assault/abuse, and this is more likely to happen to females than males (US figures, National Centre for PTSD). We can begin to see from this evidence the fateful function of trauma, childhood or otherwise, to the fabric of society.

What causes trauma?

Trauma may result from a wide range of stressors such as being in a serious accident; having surgery or surgical procedures; the break -up of a significant relationship; the discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition; being in war zones or being in a major natural or technological disaster; being physically punished by parents as a child; being attacked, mugged or beaten by anyone; being pressured into having unwanted sexual contact; having a close family member die violently ie in a serious car crash, mugging or attack.

Trauma is something the body does

Trauma develops through the failure of the body, psyche and nervous system to process adverse events. All of us will have experienced some traumatic experiences during our life, however not everyone who has a traumatic experience ends up being traumatised. Trauma has a different impact at different ages and stages, and a child who experiences a trauma before the age of 7 years experiences more far reaching consequences than an older child or an adult, and is also more vulnerable to later trauma and being re-traumatised.

Trauma in relationship

The most insidious and damaging forms of trauma occur in the context of interpersonal relationships; the most devastating being relational traumas experienced in childhood such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The worst type of trauma of all is childhood neglect, not just physical but emotional neglect. Hence trauma in families is more prevalent than trauma in war.

Consequences of trauma

Trauma can have devastating consequences. The symptoms of trauma include anxiety, depression, substance abuse, mood disorders, suicidal ideas or attempts, self-harm, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anorexia, flashbacks, avoidance behaviour, a feeling of being detached from other people, trouble sleeping, a feeling of frequently being ‘on guard’ or an exaggerated ‘startle response’, restlessness, distraction and trouble concentrating, irritability and outbursts of anger. However the major faculty that trauma interferes with is the ability of our higher brain to connect with a sense of meaning or purpose – what is called ‘the instinct of privilege’. So traumatised people are poor at goal setting, feel like their future has shrunk or they don’t have a future, have an overriding sense of purposeless or lack of meaning.

People suffering from trauma often behave in inappropriate ways, they can scare others and embarrass themselves and drive people away. Because they have no idea of where these powerful feelings that are still with them come from, they experience greater degrees of shame and self-loathing and have a sense of being out of control and becoming a ‘monster’ who no one can be safe with.

Neuroscience of trauma

In a trauma survivor, awareness is being constantly hijacked by their limbic system and the amygdala (basal brain that does the fear, fight, flight response) in the state of high arousal, constant alert and affect (high emotional) state. In this respect the rational, executive brain has very limited capacity to control the emotional arousal or change fixed action patterns of the emotional brain. The frontal lobe shuts down, which means that trauma sufferers are constantly ‘associated’ in the event (reliving it) and consequently overwhelmed by feelings, sensations and emotions.

Sensory input – such as sounds, images, smells – can act as reminders of the past event, automatically stimulating hormonal secretion and activate the brain regions involved in attention and memory. When this happens trauma survivors react with irrational responses which are irrelevant, even harmful in the present. They may over-react or blow up in response to minor provocations; freeze when frustrated or become helpless in the face of trivial challenges. Any external sensory input can trigger this response, as the inner system is now primed. Nevertheless, in the absence of this context the emotions and reactions of trauma survivors seem out of place and bizarre.

Recent neuroscience research has found that the precuneus is also negatively affected. The precuneus is in the back, mid portion of the parietal lobe, flopping over the inner wall of both hemispheres, and it is responsible for the most basic seat of the ‘self’; from here comes the observing ego, or the “I”. It is the healthy functioning of the precuneus which is associated with self-reflection and self-awareness. The precuneus shows the highest rate of activity when we close our eyes and turn self-awareness inward and become aware of our self, and when taking awareness into the body, sensations and feelings (interoception). This doesn’t apply when moving the body (it only applies to ‘motor imagery’, not movement) and is greatly reduced when we are asleep or during tasks that make no reference to the self.

Abuse is more prevalent than we realise in our society. Parents abuse children, husbands abuse their wives, women bully and abuse other women at work and children abuse children.

There are three general categories of abuse:

  • Physical abuse: physical beatings where damaging blows to the victims’ body are experienced
  • Sexual abuse: unwanted sexual relationship or exposure
  • Psychological abuse: which is about unwanted reduction of the victims self-esteem and value through psychological blows such as: derision, humiliation, ostracism, forced submission etc.

The word ‘Ab-use’ means an abnormal use of a person whereby a person is treated as a thing or object or commodity and not as a living soul or ego.


By Soul, is meant essential or real self – our core being. It is the source of all energies of a person, instincts, emotions, impulses primeval unconscious reactions to external events. When we’re in touch with our soul we are able to laugh and find pleasure when things are satisfying; get angry if things are frustrating. When we’re connected to our soul we have the capacity to be close to others, to love, and to be creative (to create). We also are able to attack or run when we are in danger. In other words, we feel truly alive.

It is a function of the soul to process events and experiences (psychologically and neurologically digest it) and convert it to meaning: in terms of emotion, thoughts, beliefs, behaviours. The soul contains polarities such as the nuclear forces of power and vulnerability. It also contains our collective and genetic history going all the way back through human history.


In order to survive and thrive, the soul needs the discriminating ability of the ego. Which is about boundary making, with separating capacities, providing a separate sense of self that is able to stand independent of others and protect itself from ‘invasion’ and does not have a tendency to want to ‘merge’ with another in co-dependency.

The Ego, which is developed in our own lifetime, acts as a perfectly fitting cell membrane and controls what comes in and goes out of us. The development of the ego is shaped by relationships- especially by parents.

The balance between soul and ego, the closeness of the ‘fit’ is determined by our parents and their parenting. If our parenting was such that it allowed as much of our soul’s potential to be expressed, named, sanctioned we are in good balance. Otherwise parts of our experience of our soul become unacceptable, hidden, denied as coming from the self.

Toddler tantrum as breach of ego

Take an example of how parenting can result in imbalance. A toddler in a powerful tantrum: a fit of rage. He or she might be put in another room until the tantrum dissipates, the child becomes exhausted through the expulsion of energy and collapses with tears in despair, forlornness and tiredness.

This is a highly negative experience for the child, as the nuclear force of power has not been contained. Remember, that the child’s ego is the container for the powerful forces of the soul, and is developed with parents who are strong enough to do the containing for the child in early life. The child then learns that she is not limitless, that the forces within her are not ‘all powerful’.

In the above example, the parents need to hold the child in a supportive way, to see and accept the child’s power, and let the tantrum dissipate whilst the child is in their arms. This provides an external ‘countershape’ for the inner force, which can then get internalised by the child’s ego.

If the child is left, as in the example, the relationship and balance between the soul and the ego is disrupted. The child experiences an all powerful, omnipotent level of feeling that doesn’t have limits (exhaustion and crying themselves out is not a ‘safe container’ and doesn’t give a feeling of control). This experience damages the ego. Several ego functions may be affected and reduced including identity, consciousness, meaning and resulting in feelings of loss of control.

The damage of abuse

Abuse even more dramatically damages the ego, breaking the ego defences and leaving the soul, to a greater or lesser degree, without boundaries. This also gives rise to omnipotent levels of feeling. It arouses strong feelings of both vulnerability or powerlessness and reactivity and power that aren’t ‘digestible’ by the victim’s ego because they are so much stronger than anything he has learnt to cope with. Life simply has not prepared them for this. Thus the feelings are seen as foreign or alien and not part of the self, and in this way abuse can dramatically affect the survivors sense of identity.

This breach in ego boundary can make the victim vulnerable to more abuse: they often present as quiet and fearful. Though sometimes this vulnerable core can have an outer ‘armour’ of toughness or prickliness, but underneath survivors share a fear of their own weakness.

They become more closed, protecting themselves and fearful of letting anything or anyone near to them. Paradoxically this unbounded vulnerability may lead to some abuse victims acting out sexually.

Others cope with the intense feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability by closing down completely. They disconnect from their bodies and felt experience, and learn to be out of their body (dissociate), so they don’t feel. Sometimes they might appear ‘spacey’ or far away, with a whispery, breathy voice, often not clear on what they are talking about. But this subconscious expression of softness or vulnerability leaves them open to the opposite kind of contact in others. Because when someone is weak or vulnerable others often become more powerful, as the polarities of power and vulnerability tend to elicit the opposite in other people.


In psychomotor therapy (PBSP) the treatment of abuse victims focuses on:

  • creating conditions to heal the ego, to ‘darn’ the breaches in its fabric, that allow the ego to once again to be in control
  • creating a safe environment where the victim can get in touch with and express all those powerful, repressed feelings and impulses
  • providing that behaviour and those feelings with the vital validating or limiting interactions with ego-creating ideal parent figures.