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 medicine.
The word “integrative” refers to the interdependency of our systems—including our mind, body, spirit, environment, relationships, and more. Thanks to growing proof of its effectiveness, integrative medicine has gained a toe-hold within conventional health care programs across the county.
In mental health, this shift has been evidenced by the growing number of therapists who provide somatic or body-oriented psychotherapy, working with the body as a primary source of non-verbal information about why we act, feel or think in certain ways. This is especially the case in the treatment of trauma.
While we may think of trauma as an emotional experience, we now know it can have major effects on the body. When we experience a traumatic event, our body essentially records it in our nervous system, creating a sort of 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 physiological responses like rapid breathing, dizziness, or an impending sense of doom. We may see, hear, smell, 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 whether or not there is an actual threat to our safety. This 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 and sensations associated with the trauma. Yet while the body can act as a source of great distress for trauma survivors, it can also hold the keys to healing.
In their book on Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP), Pat Ogden, the founder of SP, and Janina Fischer, a leading clinician who works with SP, posit that “since the movement of our bodies is inextricably linked with our emotions, beliefs, and 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 at posture, movement, inner-body sensations, and sensory responses to identify and change a person’s response to traumatic triggers.
Let’s return to the backfiring car example; a veteran returning home after working in a combat zone may become nauseous, dizzy, or numb whenever she hears a car backfiring. An SP therapist would help the individual learn skills for first tolerating these sensations, and then for gradually reducing their impact. As a result, the individual begins to feel less overwhelmed, more in control and safer in their bodies.
A growing interest in combining yoga practice with psychotherapy enables clients who have experienced trauma to regulate their nervous systems through movement, breathing, and meditation.
A trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive approach to yoga is distinguished from studio yoga in a few key ways, says Lenna Jawdat, LICSW, RYT. Jawdat is a psychotherapist who, in addition to working in talk-based modalities, leads trauma-sensitive yoga classes at the Viva Center.
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.
Don’t just take our word for how effective trauma-informed yoga can be—try it yourself! Jawdat will be doing a free demonstration of trauma-sensitive yoga at our Happy Brain, Happy Body event this February. Note that you don’t need to identify as someone who has experienced trauma or PTSD to benefit from this practice; it’s a great way to get in touch with yourself and your needs regardless of your life experiences.
Liz Piren, MA, LMT, a licensed counselor and holistic therapist at the Viva Center, 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 theta brainwave state that helps calm 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, positive outlook, increased awareness, intuition, memory and vitality.
Many clinicians also work with visual, olfactory, and other sensory cues to work through traumatic symptoms (Piren also uses floral essences, a modality based in scent).
Try them all!
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.
Can’t wait to see you soon!
Regina Tosca, LICSW, is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including loss of companion animals, as well as those who experience grief and trauma from their work in animal welfare.