Releasing Toxic Stress, Trauma, And Adversity From The Mind And Body Through Yoga

The effect of toxic stress, traumatic events, and adversity on the mind and body varies from person to person, but it has been well documented and studied that if events and circumstances are so overwhelming that a person is unable to quickly recover by integrating/metabolizing these experiences into their lives and being at any point, toxic stress, traumatic events, and adversity can all have long-lasting and devastating consequences for their victims’ mind, body, and life. And the impact of unresolved stress does not just end with individuals. Through the resulting karma (which simply means actions that have a cause and effect in the world) that comes from people’s responses to overwhelm, toxic stress, traumatic events, and adversity can also have devastating effects on families, communities, societies, and the world as a whole as well.

Events/circumstances such as natural disasters, social and economic disenfranchisement, irreversible environmental pollution, devastating loss, forced migration, war, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, vehicular accidents, child abuse, emotional abuse, oppressive/aggressive workplaces, living in dangerous neighborhoods, racial, sexual, or religious discrimination, witnessing the violation or trauma of others, or psychological shock of any kind which may just be anything from a rocky relationship to a hard time finding work, etc can all have long-lasting and devastating impacts on a person’s life and psyche.

Although everyone responds to traumatic and stressful episodes in different ways (because we are all unique individuals who have different histories, support systems, contexts for existence, awareness, and capabilities that determine our healing capacities and timeframes), one basic pattern is the same amongst all people who experience trauma, toxic stress, and adversity. If trauma, toxic stress, and adversity are not resolved or integrated into a person’s being effectively integrated into one’s mind and body to break any destructive healing responses that may have started at the time of one’s initial system shock, over time, a person’s stress system can become so over-activate and hyper-aroused, that it becomes difficult (although never impossible) to undo the effects of any internal (and/or subsequent external) devastation that may have or will result from a given situation.

When stress is severe, responses in the body and mind are heightened and every function that occurs below the diaphragm becomes suppressed while everything above the diaphragm becomes hyperactive. This chronic state of hyper-arousal, over time, can lead to pain, a weakened immune system, and can create a higher likelihood that one will not only eventually experience many additional problems in life, but this hyper-arousal also increases a person’s chances of developing autoimmune diseases in the long-term as well.


Please refer to the document below for a pictorial overview of common trauma response patterns/cycles and how they can get stuck in destructive feedback loops.


Data shows that when one experiences trauma, toxic stress, and/or adversity and gets stuck in a trauma feedback loop:

  • A person’s hypothalamus activates, and adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, which are your stress/fight/flight/freeze hormones: this occurs at non-dangerous times.
  • Respiratory and cardiovascular systems are affected making the transportation and uptake of oxygen and other important chemicals, hormones, and molecules obsolete.
  • The liver converts glycogen to glucose causing blood sugar levels to get out of balance.
  • There is a decrease in the functioning of one’s digestive system, reducing the ability of the body to absorb nutrients, effectively process foods as fuel, or to eliminate toxins appropriately.
  • Blood pressure increases while muscles tighten in the body leading to headaches/migraines, back, neck, and shoulder pain, and a variety of other physical and mental discomforts including insomnia.

Behaviors and emotions are also impacted by this type of stress cycle as individuals respond to these inflamed systems psychologically and physiologically, triggering toxic responses (referring to the chemical reactions in the body and their associated actions) for extended periods of time. Once these responses become ingrained responses that are automatically perpetuated by one’s autonomic nervous system, harmful inflammatory responses can then become persistent to the point that some affected individuals may even start to falsely believe that these responses are who they truly are and have a hard time releasing them.

A victim of trauma, toxic stress, and/or adversity may become so hyper-aroused and easily overwhelmed (even during normal non-threatening situations) for so long, that these ingrained responses of avoidance that makes them think of themselves as just “shy,” for example, or irritability that makes them think that they are just “mean” or “whiny people,” can be mistaken for both personality disorders and senses of identity. Trauma responses, however, are never who a person truly is; especially the responses that lead to anxiety, depression, and/or a number of other mental/social disturbances. Trauma responses are just a person’s body and mind attempting to heal itself despite how unlikely to accomplish this goal these responses may be or seem.

A traumatized mind and body that gets stuck in an off-kilter feedback loop is simply responding to falsely perceived threats that have hopefully already ended and are no longer required to heal an initial shock to a person’s system.


So, What Do We Do With This Knowledge?

To avoid getting stuck in a limiting or destructive trauma pattern or feedback loop, skills are needed to release toxic stress, trauma, and adversity from the body and the mind.

And when one is able to develop these skills, his/her respiratory and neurological systems relax, breathing, digestion, heart rate, and hormone distribution are normalized, and one learns to self-regulate emotions and triggers in order to live a happy, productive, pain-free, and healthy life.

Yoga (but many other things accomplish this goal as well, like art, dancing, writing, etc), is the perfect tool for healing destructive trauma feedback loops because the practice not only normalizes disturbed systems, but also increases one’s capacity to self-regulate on a physical, emotional, social, and spiritual level, increasing resiliency and overall quality of life.


Yoga allows each of us to intentionally transform ourselves and our lives into more whole and healthy expressions that support our optimal thriving and positive movement forward since we can use Yoga to become and feel more safe, confident, and grounded in our bodies and minds, and, therefore, more detached (in a healthy way) to any emotional and physical pain that we may be experiencing due to hyper-arousal caused by past trauma, toxic stress, and/or adversity.

When one becomes overwhelmed, or burdened, by the pain of the past or present, Yoga offers grounding effects that support self-regulation for effective coping and response. Grounding is the process of becoming present in the moment to then consciously use the mind to distract oneself from destructive thoughts, emotions, and actions. This detachment from the past, to become conscious and present in the “now,” then allows an affected individual to safely manage any situation that they experience without becoming overwhelmed (all while growing in strength and resiliency). And the best part about this is that the grounding benefits of Yoga can be utilized at any time, can be done without anyone else even knowing about you doing them (if you so choose), and can be done in any space. All you need to get started is yourself.


You may choose to revisit (or visit) our Weekly Assignments and Check-ins for more practice and information on Yoga’s grounding effects, but, for now, here is how you can use any of the limbs of your Eightfold Yogic Path to get grounded in your present moment and body when trauma and stress responses arise. Please note that the first step to grounding is becoming aware of what is happening to begin with, so self-observation at all times is key:

3 Types of Grounding Techniques That You Can Use When Triggered By The Effects of Trauma, Toxic-Stress, or Adversity

(Their Applicable Yoga Translations)

1

Mental Grounding: (Prataharas and Dharanas) | Focus your mind, and simply observe your environment, yourself, and/or your mind itself in detail without attachment or judgment.

  • Look out around you and acknowledge: “This is a bench; the wall is a warm-grey color; the floor is mostly flat and even; etc).”
  • Recap a safety statement or mantra to yourself when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Describe an action that is occurring in real time in great detail.
  • Read a book, article, or nutrition label consciously (paying attention to each, and every, single, word and punctuation).
  • Count to 100 or to 10.
  • Recite the alphabet. Recite it backwards.
  • Perform any present-focused, but neutral, observation of your choice.

Mental grounding is a great way to work with your mind to distract it from the past, and to bring it into the present through conscious awareness and self-regulation.

2

Physical Grounding: (Asanas and Pranayamas) | Pay attention to the sensations in your body.

  • Stretch.
  • Breathe consciously.
  • Sing.
  • Dance.
  • Tap your fingers together (one at a time to your thumb) for a minute or two while feeling each point of contact.
  • Juggle.
  • Do jumping jacks or jump rope/skip.
  • Hoola hoop (one of my favorites).
  • Bring a grounding object with you throughout your day (something that you can carry, or wear, at all times) as a reminder to stay present.
  • Walk slowly, deliberately, and consciously.
  • Eat something with full awareness of the flavors, textures, temperature, etc.
  • Fidget with the objects around you.
  • Paint.
  • Color.
  • Craft.
  • Run cool or warm water over any part of your body if you cannot simply take a conscious shower.

Physical grounding is a great way to work with your body to become present again in the now moment.

3

Soothing Grounding: (Yamas and Niyamas, Dharanas and Dhyanas): Think pleasant thoughts or completely clear your mind of all thoughts through meditation.

  • If you choose to think thoughts, say/think nice things to and about yourself.
  • Picture people, or places, or things that bring you a sense of joy and/or safety.
  • State a reassuring mantra to yourself or out loud for as long as you need to.
  • Think about something that you are looking forward to in your moment, day, or week.
  • Or, simply think, or think of, anything else that is comforting to you in your own mind.

Soothing grounding is a great way to work with your mind to remind it to feel safe again in your present reality, which is safely in existence, and safely in your personal being.


With practice and effort, one can undo the negative effects of trauma, toxic stress, and/or adversity.

Healing is possible, and there are a number of different tools, particularly Yoga, that can help with accomplishing this goal.

The nice thing about implementing Yoga as a tool for your healing is that not only will it help with healing itself, but it will also take you far beyond recovery toward living a full, healthy, thriving, life that gets you closer to being/expressing your highest self in the world as well (if you choose to continue taking this path after your healing has been completed).


Suggested Reading:

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Embodied Healing: Survivor and Facilitator Voices from the Practice of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga

Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma

Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma

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