What is integrative (mind-body) medicine?
We used to think that our mental, emotional, and physical health were completely separate. If you wanted to treat one, you didn’t have to consult with the others. Yet as our knowledge has advanced, we’ve learned that this old myth is far from true. This has led to the rise of integrative, or mind-body, medicine.
The word “integrative” refers to the interdependency of our systems, including our mind, body, environment, and more. Thanks to growing proof of its effectiveness, mind-body medicine has gained popularity nationwide.
Mind-Body Approaches and Trauma
In mental health, more therapists are providing body-oriented psychotherapy. These methods allow them to work with the mind and body in response to trauma
While we may think of trauma as an emotional experience, we now know it can have major physiological effects. When we experience a traumatic event, our body essentially records it in our nervous system, creating a physical memory. It does this with the goal of protecting us and helping us be more prepared in case the trauma happens again.
Even when we don’t consciously remember what happened to us, our bodies carry their physical memories. This is called “implicit” or “body memory.”
This is why “triggers,” or reminders of a traumatic event, can cause bodily responses like rapid breathing or dizziness. This occurs when we see, hear, or otherwise experience a sensory cue that subconsciously reminds us of the traumatic experience. For example, a car backfiring may remind us of a gunshot.
As you can imagine, this can cause problems. When our body is triggered by a stimulus like the aforementioned car backfiring, it sends the brain into survival mode. This occurs even when there is no real threat to our safety. It can cause a host of unpleasant symptoms, like the ones described above.
It’s not surprising that many trauma survivors become disconnected from their bodies to avoid being overwhelmed by the feelings associated with the trauma. Yet while the body can act as a source of great distress for survivors, it can also hold the keys to healing.
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In their book on Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP), Pat Ogden and Janina Fischer posit that “since the movement of our bodies is inextricably linked with our emotions, beliefs, and a general sense of competency, working with posture, movement, gesture, and our senses can directly support our well-being.”
In other words, SP is a method of treatment that looks to the body to identify and change a person’s response to triggers.
Let’s return to the backfiring car example. A veteran returning from a combat zone may become nauseous or numb whenever she hears a car backfiring. An SP therapist would help her learn skills for first tolerating these sensations, and then gradually reducing them. As a result, the veteran begins to feel less overwhelmed and safer in her body.
Combining yoga with psychotherapy enables clients who have experienced trauma to soothe their nervous systems through movement, breathing, and meditation.
A trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive approach to yoga is different from traditional yoga in a few key ways, says Lenna Jawdat. Jawdat is a psychotherapist who, in addition to working in talk-based modalities, leads trauma-sensitive yoga classes.
Trauma-informed yoga involves “gentle exploration of the body through different movements, with a focus on how the movement feels to the individual.” says Jawdat. Unlike traditional yoga, the goal is more about becoming comfortable in one’s own body rather than getting in an intense workout or mastering an Instagram-ready pose.
Additionally, trauma-informed yoga takes emotional health and security into account during every step of the process. “To maintain a sense of personal safety, I don’t do any hands-on assists and students are arranged in a circle so that everyone can see each other at all times,” Jawdat explains. While these adjustments may seem irrelevant to an uninformed practitioner, they can make all the difference for someone coping with traumatic symptoms.
Liz Piren, MA, LMT uses sound healing to treat trauma among other approaches. Sound healing uses instruments and therapists’ voices to synchronize the brain’s right and left hemispheres, creating a state that is calming to the nervous system.
Piren explains that when working through trauma, the addition of sound and the vibration of the instruments can facilitate the release of difficult emotions. Some of the additional benefits of sound healing include reduced stress and increased awareness and positive outlook.
Many clinicians also work with visual, audio, and other sensory cues to work through traumatic symptoms (Piren also uses floral essences, a method based on scent).
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You can learn more about these and other approaches at our regular workshops, trainings, and open-houses. To make sure you’re the first to hear about upcoming events, sign up for our mailing list here.
Regina Tosca, LICSW, is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including the loss of companion animals, as well as those who experience grief and trauma from their work in animal welfare.