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Befriend Difficult Emotions, Don’t Obliterate Them

A traumatic event might last for only a few moments, but the impact that it can have on a traumatized person’s entire being may last years–even decades–beyond the event.

Trauma reorganizes our minds, brains, bodies, and perceptions. It doesn’t just change the way we think: it alters our capacity to think at all.

When someone has experienced a trauma they often look to compensate for the loss of control they felt over the event. This means that they try to control what they interpret as their inner chaos. The focus on suppressing the thoughts and sensations that arise from this inner chaos disconnects them from the present, affecting their ability to engage in relationships.

These attempts to control their reactions can manifest many emotional and physical symptoms and may result in long-term health issues such as:

Memory and attention loss
Sleep disorders
Inability to regulate arousal
Chronic fatigue
Other autoimmune diseases

Recovering from chronic illness for people who carry trauma requires that the person becomes familiar with–and even befriends–the physical sensations they experience. Guiding a traumatized person through the process of befriending these sensations is challenging. But, with a gentle and mindful approach, it is achievable. And it can be life-changing.

Recognizing Trauma Through Dissociation

Dissociation is a way of compartmentalizing a traumatic experience. Physiologically, a traumatized person might experience it as feeling “frozen”, or feeling numb, either all over or in certain parts of the body/self (particularly any part that was central to the traumatic event). A traumatized person might also have the feeling of leaving their body, as though they witnessed the event happening outside of themselves.

In an effort to maintain control over their physical sensations, a person who has experienced trauma might split off the event. Rather than re-experience the sensations from the trauma in order to reconcile them, those feelings and sensations are boxed up and stored away.

But those pieces–the images, sounds, emotions, and physical sensations related to the traumatic event–begin to take on a life of their own. Those fragments often creep into a traumatized person’s daily life, where they are re-lived over and over again. Until the trauma is resolved, the traumatized person remains in a constant “fight or flight” mode, as their body constantly secretes the stress hormones that are meant to protect us from immediate physical danger. For a traumatized person, the immediate physical danger remains present, somewhere in their mind.

Dissociation exists to protect the traumatized person: therefore, forcing embodiment is counter-productive. Yoga and somatic therapy are recommended for gradually integrating increased tolerance, regulation, and symptom awareness.

Addressing What Happens In The Body

Anyone who has experienced the “fight or flight” sensation knows that trauma can affect the physical body’s functions. As long as the body is told it is in danger, resources are given only to those systems required to get out of danger. Therefore, effective trauma treatment should address:

  • sleep
  • appetite
  • digestion
  • arousal of the nervous system
  • touch

As discussed above, dissociation interferes with addressing physical sensations. When the traumatic experience is compartmentalized, traumatized children and adults are unable to match the bodily sensations they are currently experiencing to the past traumatic event.

As Van der Kolk says in “The Body Keeps Score”:

“Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

Mindfully Healing

For a traumatized person, being asked to notice sensations may be distressing or triggering at first, but this is where the healing begins. Guide the individual mindfully: if images and physical sensations overwhelm the traumatized person, the somatic or yoga therapist has tools to mitigate the flood of sensation and emotion.

By bringing them along slowly and gently, the therapist can help the traumatized person handle and change their arousal state by focusing their client’s attention on their physical state. Behind the label of fear or anger might be sensations like pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, feeling hollow, or some other sensation. Identifying these sensations anchors the arousal to the present moment. This helps the traumatized person make sense of the past while transforming the present and future.

Finding Our Way Forward

Resources are a way for the traumatized person to come back into embodiment if they notice they are triggered by an image or event. The therapist can help the traumatized person recognize when they are triggered, and then find their individual resources to draw on, whether it’s awareness of the breath, finding a space in nature, enjoying a favorite treat, or something else that brings a feeling of pleasure and relaxation.

The past loses its power over us when our inner world feels less dense and chaotic. When its grip is loosened, we are less likely to fall back into the old patterns of our emotional brains.

“Only after learning to bear what is going on inside can we start to befriend, rather than obliterate, the emotions that keep [us] fixed and immutable.” (Van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps Score”)


  • Thank you Nicole, for sharing your knowledge. For nearly 25 years, beginning at age 15, I was involved in an abusive relationship with the man I eventually married, despite the abuse. Living in a very dysfunctional family…the oldest of 4, with an alcoholic mom, and depressed and weak dad…I was often the parent to my parents, and eager to escape. Svengali, who had, along with emotional issues, addiction issues as well, entered my life, and remained until I got the help I needed and gained the strength and courage to leave. Unfortunately, my 3 children also suffered. We’re all healing, as we grieve the loss of Steph, beloved daughter and little sister to her older brothers. An important thing to remember in therapy, is that in my case, and I’m sure with others as well, I had no clue what was going on, or that I had the power to change my life. For that I am eternally grateful.

  • Nicole, this is so beautifully and thoughtfully written. Pieces like this help to de-stigmatize seeking guidance and support. Thank you!

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