Scientists now have more evidence than ever before revealing the intimate, intertwined relationship between the mind and body. We see this with gut health's influence over our mental health, but we also see it with the very real physical manifestations of psychological stress and trauma on the body—tension, heart palpitations, trembling, pain—particularly trauma that hasn't been fully processed or even acknowledged by the person who experienced it.
Perhaps the most extreme example of how trauma may affect the body: According to research by Kelly Turner, Ph.D., terminally ill cancer patients who have experienced unexpected remission—beating their disease against all odds—often cite releasing emotional stress or trauma as one of the key factors in their healing.
This has led some people to speculate that unprocessed trauma gets "stored" not just in your subconscious mind and memory but throughout your physical being—and that, in addition to more traditional modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy, some sort of physical stimulus or touch may be helpful in releasing it.
But what do the experts think? Could this be why, for instance, some people start spontaneously crying during a massage or acupuncture session for no immediately apparent reason? It's an interesting idea, so we asked researchers, psychiatrists, and healers for their take on why something like this might occur, whether trauma can, in fact, be stored in the body, and the safest ways to go about releasing it.
First, you need to understand that trauma affects everyone at one point or another.
As humans, we will all experience some sort of trauma. In fact, some estimates suggest 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. And while trauma is a word we often associate with war, a violent attack, rape, abuse, or near-death experiences, the reality is there are a range of other less obvious experiences that can be traumatic and that have the potential to seriously disrupt our lives.
"Trauma is going to come to all of us sooner or later," says James S. Gordon, M.D., author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. "It's true that some experiences are most obviously traumatic, like rape or war, but things like dealing with a serious illness in yourself or a family member, the death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or even losing a job or leaving a community that's very important to you can be traumatic."
Trauma isn't something that has to be one specific event, either. "There's much more appreciation these days for micro-traumas—like chronic, more mildly traumatic things—that cumulatively over many years can amount to the same as one macro trauma," says Ellen Vora, M.D., holistic psychiatrist. You can think of these as big-T and little-T traumas.
The problem, of course, is that the negative psychological and physical effects of any type of trauma don't always resolve on their own, and may extend far beyond the actual event. Case in point: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a mental illness that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a terrifying or life-threatening event(s), including any of those mentioned above—which may last the remainder of someone's life if left untreated.
What's happening in the body during and after a traumatic experience?
To better understand why the negative effects of trauma can persist over time—and why it may potentially be physically "stored"—let's take a look at what's happening in the body during and after a traumatic experience.
"The primary response we often have to trauma is fight or flight," says Gordon. "The heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, big muscles get tense and ready to run or fight, digestion slows down. The other reaction we can have—often when the trauma is overwhelming and inescapable, as might be the case with rape or an ongoing abusive relationship—is to freeze, or go into kind of a detached state. During these responses, which are mediated by the autonomic nervous system, areas of the brain responsible for fear, anger, and emotion, particularly the amygdala, become much more active, while areas in the frontal cortex, responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful decision making, human connection, and compassion, become less active."
In some cases, a traumatic event doesn't cause prolonged suffering. "A sort of healthy resolution of a traumatic event would be that you do experience that initial stress response and you are shaken up, but after about a month, the anxiety and recollections of the event diminish significantly or go away," says Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., a research scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who studies PTSD.
But others can get stuck in these fight, flight, or freeze responses—even when they're not consciously thinking about the traumatic event. "Trauma can sort of shock the autonomic nervous system into a state of hyperarousal and hypervigilance," says Vora. "Like you're in that peak moment in a horror movie when the music is accelerated, and you know something bad is about to happen."
So can unprocessed trauma actually become "stuck" or "stored" in the physical body?
While it may not be a totally scientific way to explain what's happening, there may be some merit to this whole idea of trauma being "stored" in the body—especially when thoughts of the traumatic event are so upsetting and uncomfortable that they get buried as a self-preservation mechanism (when this happens consciously, it's considered suppressed trauma; when this happens unconsciously, it's considered repressed).
"Trauma often represents the violation of all we hold to be dear and sacred. Such events are often simply too terrible to utter aloud, and hence they often become unspeakable," says Shaili Jain, M.D., a clinical associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine and author of The Unspeakable Mind. "But when these traumatic thoughts and memories remain unspeakable or unthinkable for too long, they often impede our brain's natural process of recovery after trauma. They become stuck points that inhibit the mental reintegration that is needed for healing to occur."
This, of course, can prolong the fight, flight, or freeze response and have very real physical consequences. Consider PTSD, which "brings disruption to hormone secretion, neurochemistry, and immune system functioning, all of which contribute to diseased cells, organs, and other bodily systems," says Jain. "Chromosomal studies have shown that PTSD patients have shorter telomeres—the segments on the ends of chromosomes that are a measure of cellular age—than their healthy counterparts do. Up to 35% of chronic pain patients also have PTSD, and there is an even higher overlap between fibromyalgia and PTSD."
Symptoms of traumatic stress can also become somatized (i.e., present as genuine physical complaints as opposed to complaints of emotional distress) when the psychological nature of the symptoms is too scary or daunting for the patient to accept, considered taboo by society, or not understood by the physician, explains Jain.
So in this way, physical manifestations of trauma very much exist in our bodies—even when we may not be consciously thinking about the actual trauma.
Some experts, including Gordon, do view this as our body storing or holding on to trauma. "Everything that happens to us emotionally or psychologically happens to our bodies as well. It's all connected," he says. "If you look at people who go into a fight, flight, or freeze response, just look at the way they hold their bodies—they're tense, they're tight, their whole body is set up to protect them from a predator. And I believe this tension is connected with the traumatic experience in ways we don't completely understand."
Similarly, Vora believes trauma can essentially become stuck energy within the body, "especially when it overwhelms our cognition and overwhelms the systems in the brain." This is a belief shared by many energy healers and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners—along with the idea that memories key to unraveling and processing someone's traumatic experience could be held in the body. Of course, this would be hard to prove, but it's certainly interesting to think about.
"There isn't just one aspect to our memory of trauma. There's a sort of linear, factual aspect to it, but when we experience trauma, we also experience it in our body. There's a feeling associated with it—and in some ways this feeling may interrupt our factual recall of the event," says Jill Blakeway, DACM, LAc, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, founder of The Yinova Center, and author of Energy Medicine. "So I think there are two aspects of memory, and the one that's in the body that people tend to store gets less attention."
If trauma becomes stored or stuck, could it be released with a physical stimulus like touch, movement, or breathwork?
So, given the possibility of trauma actually being stored in the body, we have to ask: What's the actual deal when you burst into tears during a massage? Is this (or similar practices) actually "releasing" stuck trauma from the body, or perhaps helping you get to a place where you can more readily process it and heal both emotionally and physically?
Psychiatrists and healers have their theories on the topic, and they say certain types of physical movement or therapies that involve a physical stimulus may be a good adjunct to traditional trauma treatment. Some invariably say, 'I have no idea why I'm crying, I don't know what's wrong with me,' and it leads me to believe that I've moved an area of stuckness that contains memory," says Blakeway. "That would be very consistent with Chinese medicine, where we say that repressed emotions, things that we can't deal with, become stuck chi. Or, put another way, that emotional trauma creates dense, energetic forms in our body. And then, because it's uncomfortable, we just don't go there—those become areas of stuckness and tightness."
For some patients, this improved flow and balance simply brings a feeling of relief and lightness; for others, she believes it may help draw someone's attention to certain suppressed or repressed experiences that need attention. "Often patients on the table then start to have memories of things that they haven’t really thought about lately," says Blakeway. "Sometimes they'll say to me, 'It's not that I don't know this happened to me; it's just that I don't go there very often in my head.'"
For patients with a trauma history, or who experience a resurfacing of traumatic memories during a session, she always refers them to a therapist. But she does believe combining more traditional trauma-focused therapies with something like massage could be more effective than psychotherapy alone—which, she believes, was the case for one particular female patient.
"I've treated a number of rape victims who have gone on to have problems associated with stagnation in their pelvic cavity," says Blakeway. "I had one patient who had been raped in college and developed endometriosis. It had been an earth-shatteringly horrible experience for her, and she was extremely vulnerable. So I co-treated her with our massage therapist, and we just very gently helped her to unravel the experience in her body. What was interesting was that her endometriosis shrank even though we were treating the sort of psychological ramifications of it. This holding on, this clenching in her lower abdomen—which presumably started during the rape—and this wish never to go there again in her head meant that she wasn't flowing. And we just got things flowing very gently. She was seeing a therapist at the same time, and we were all contributing pieces to the puzzle. But I don't think all of it could have been handled by just talk therapy because I don't think she could put words on all of it in the same way as she could just release it. She went on to get married and have children. I wanted this not to define her, so she could be bigger than this experience—and she achieved that."
The way you manage one of these "emotional releases" is key.
While having a sob-fest as a result of one of the aforementioned practices can be extremely cathartic for some, unearthing buried emotions and memories could be legitimately frightening for others—depending on the severity of their trauma. And everyone we spoke to for this piece mentioned just how important it is to manage any newly stirred-up emotions or memories in a delicate and appropriate way.
"I wouldn't say the emergence of [these emotions and memories] per se is a good thing; it's only good if it can be processed in a safe environment," says Roberts. "Just like with PTSD, having flashbacks is not helpful. It's only helpful if they're treated and can be diminished."
Vora agrees, adding that things like massage, yoga, and acupuncture can be great but only if you have a way of containing what might come up. "Big strong emotions will come up, and sometimes it's something that you can't even put your finger on. You just feel a certain way—you feel angry, sad, or afraid," she says. "And so I think it's helpful to either support yourself through those moments with a journaling practice or to have some sort of therapeutic conversation. It's a gift when these things come up, but you want to be able to usher them up and out gracefully."
As far as trauma-focused therapies that may be particularly helpful, Vora is a big fan of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and somatic experiencing, both of which work with the trauma stored in the body and don't simply patch over a traumatic experience or your thoughts and feelings about it verbally—which can be ineffective and sometimes even retraumatizing.
With EMDR, physicians guide patients through guided eye movements while asking them to recall certain events and then shifting their thoughts to more pleasant events, which is meant to dampen the power of past trauma. "I have a lot of radical remission survivors who had great healing from EMDR," says Turner. "Scientifically, EMDR has been shown to significantly decrease activity in your amygdala and hippocampus. So you're basically taking this stress response that is kind of always on and quieting that down."
Somatic experiencing, developed by psychologist Peter Levine, is a body-oriented therapy that assesses where a person is stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze responses and provides tools to resolve these physiological states. Both EMDR7 and somatic experiencing8 have been shown in studies to be beneficial for the treatment of trauma and PTSD.
But what if you have legitimately no clue why you just had a sob session at your massage therapist's office—but suspect it may be connected to something in your past? To help you get to the bottom of unexpected emotions that may crop up, something like journaling and writing down what comes to mind when you experience these emotions may be helpful. "I recommend that people write down their experience. It's important not only to bring out these emotions, but it's also important to be able to express them, at least on paper and ideally with other people," says Gordon. "If a trauma occurred early in life, it may take a while for us to connect these feelings with these events because they may be buried very deeply."