Somatic imprints of trauma and oppression: a primer

Trauma is an experience of threat to our physical (“I’m going to die”) and/or psychological (“I’m going to be destroyed/overpowered”) survival that outstrips the ability of the mind and body to process, respond to and ultimately neutralize it.    Resources of the mind and body are activated, but for various reasons are not allowed to fully or successfully execute their function.  As a result, this activation, this energy, persists in the mind and body in exaggerated and altered forms as fight, flight, freeze, submit, collapse and/or attach-for-survival responses to present, everyday events after the threat has passed (Herman, 1992).

Understanding how past trauma lives in the mind and body in the present is key to reclaiming our lives from it.  It can help make sense of specific everyday experiences like feeling panicky or on edge all the time when circumstances around you seem ‘quiet’; feeling disconnected from the body, or from others, in a way that makes time and space seem ‘strange’; going numb or flat even around things that you would like to enjoy.  It can also help demystify broader or pervasive patterns in experience that we identify as anxiety or depression; cycling or oscillating between moods; feeling hot and cold about close relationships where we can’t really tell if we’re ‘safe’; and much more.

Here are some friendly, mostly accessible videos that begin to explain the neurobiology of traumatic stress:

One.  Parts of the brain, and how they engage our physiology – specifically, the autonomic nervous system – to respond to stress events, including events that are traumatic.

Two.   Link between parts of the brain that respond to stress and trauma and the concept of “Window of Tolerance” (coined by Dr. Dan Siegel in 1999): the optimal zone of autonomic nervous system activation that is neither too intense nor too dull; the zone in which we feel safely and engagingly alive

                     (by and about kids but I think it applies to all of us throughout the lifespan)

                      (more clinical description)

Three.  How trauma is encoded as primarily as bodily-emotional experiences rather than linear, cognitive narratives, and then re-experienced or remembered as bodily emotional experiences without a linear, cognitive explanation ( or even the ‘sense’ that something is being remembered)

Here are some reflective/experiential questions to begin applying the videos to your own situation.  Although they are simple, they may bring up strong feelings or otherwise trigger you – it might be helpful to consider them with or alongside the support of a therapist :

Within the Window of Tolerance:

When have you recently felt in or nearest to your window of tolerance?  I.e  you were relatively calm (but not deadened) and/or actively engaged in something creative, or in learning, talking, hanging out easily with someone, being curious about something?   If something ‘recent’ doesn’t come to mind, see what does come up, maybe even further back, that feels ‘noteworthy’.

What was happening when you were in or near the window of tolerance?  Where were you?  Were you with anyone?  What were you doing?

Can you see or sense the moment as if it were happening now?  

Where was your body in space (very literally – e.g on the couch, left arm propped by cushions, right leg stretched out….)?  What was the body doing?  

If you re-create this posture, or some of the movement in the body while seeing and sensing that moment, what does this feel like?  What can you hear, smell, see, feel in your skin, taste.  What do the muscles and abdomen feel like?  The heart?  The breath?   What do you find yourself (or your body) doing or wanting to do?   Do any thoughts or images – however fleeting – come to you about who you are?

What is the same or different between doing this just now, and how you were feeling before you recalled and revisited that moment?

How close did you find the experience of that memory just now or how far away was it?

What images, sensations, feelings took precedence – maybe interrupting this memory?

Outside the Window of Tolerance

When have you recently been outside the Window of Tolerance?  

What told you this internally (body, emotions, thinking, actions) e.g. heart rate, breathing, tension or flaccidity in limbs, speed or coherence of thinking (e.g too fast or too scattered or too spacey), feelings of panic or rage or numbness/emptiness.  

What kinds of things did you do in those moments?  Can you spot the triggers – briefly, without describing or revisiting them e.g. “dentist”; “reading the news”, “body pain” etc.

When did you return to or get nearer to inside the Window of Tolerance – what were you doing when you noticed you felt better?  What do you think helped?

Implicit Memory

Are there times when you have bodily sensations, tensions, impulses to move/gesticulate, images, perceptions of yourself and others, ‘moods’, that just seem to come on and feel out of context?  Do any of these repeat or recur?  What coincides with them do you think – e.g. always first thing in the morning, or when thinking about work, etc.?

Trauma is not an individual experience or an isolated occurrence.  It is linked to a set of dynamics – family dynamics, dynamics within a community, and the oppressive systems and ideas in which they have been embedded over time – that enables traumatic events to occur.

Safety from trauma is not an individual or isolated accomplishment.   It is linked to a set of dynamics that allow (and disallow) safety to occur.  The ability to feel safe organically or without conscious effort or intention as we move about the world is not distributed equally among people: it is a feature and hallmark of privilege in society.

Traumatic stress, cultural resilience to traumatic stress, and the privilege of relatively effortless safety from traumatic stress, are passed on from one generation to another and are felt between people in a micro-moment of interaction.  They are transmitted through processes of the mind and body –  including the nervous system – that have become habitual or automatic.  

Historical moments of trauma that shaped these habits might be erased internally, made invisible externally by systems and discourses of denial, and/or were never encoded as a linear narrative to re-tell.    Similarly, the privilege of relatively effortless safety – organic comfort and ease – is ‘naturalized’, the systems that work to enable this safety remain outside of awareness.  The habits of mind and body that sensitize us to threat, or that are accustomed to comfort and ease, are decontextualized.  They appear static and without their full story as ‘traits’ of personality, family, or culture (Menakem, 2020).

Here is a podcast that locates the neurobiology of traumatic stress, cultural resilience to traumatic stress, and the relatively effortless safety from traumatic stress, within the context of colonization and oppression of Black and Indigenous people:

Resmaa Menakem — ‘Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence’

Somatic practices to become aware of inherited traumatic stress begin around minute 33:00 and again around minute 43:00

Here are other reflective/experiential questions to begin applying these ideas to your own situation.  Again, although they are simple, they may bring up strong feelings or otherwise trigger you – it might be helpful to consider them with or alongside the support of a therapist :

Listening to the somatic legacy of trauma and resilience

Early on, Menakem tells the story of learning about the shape of his grandmother’s hands and its link to slavery and oppression.

Are there body stories that you’ve heard or noticed from the generations before you?  Stories that may have been told, maybe in fragments, bits and pieces here and there, or as part of a ‘family mythology’ about the bodily shapes, or ailments, illnesses or conditions, unusual capacities, or other habits of the body that have been understood as ‘characteristic’ of your family?  

How has your family made meaning of these?  What do you understand and accept, what seems ‘missing’ in this meaning?  

Where is your own body in this legacy – what of these shapes, habits etc have you taken on or not taken on – that you notice even today, this moment?  What shapes, habits etc does your body take in response to those of others in your family,  for example, as you interact with them currently, or remember them even in this moment?

Like the thickening of Menakem’s grandmother’s hands, how do any of these shapes and habits of the body (yours or theirs) express trauma?  How might the same shapes and habits express the body’s way of supporting itself through trauma? 

Menakem picks up the traumatic stress (constriction) of his grandmother not only in what he sees and feels of her hands, and not only in what she says about them,  but in the tone of her voice – the way that she talks about them.

If you think about how an elder, loved one, partner or friend talks about something in their own bodies that expresses or hints about unspoken trauma, what do you notice about them as they’re doing so?  About how their bodies are positioned in space, how they move or become tense, flush, speed up, quiet down, avert the eyes, how their voice sharpens, and more?   What do you notice within you as you listen to them in this way?   What do you and your body ‘want’ to do in response to this?