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I know IT's in my Body

by Emma Gilmore(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 286 - May 2023

Giants in the trauma resolution field all point to the same truth – that trauma is stored in the body not the mind. If you are a bodyworker with sophisticated touch skills, you are in the ideal position to help the body let go of these disturbing tissue memories and move towards healthy function of both body and mind.

  • Babette Rothschild tells us The Body Remembers, 
  • Bessel van der Kolk tells us The Body Keeps the Score,
  • Peter Levine tells us that “trauma is treated in the body, not the mind.”
  • Gabor Mate states “trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you.”

All these statements point to the same truth - that trauma alters body state and function. The involuntary neural circuits, which drive trauma physiology also control instinctual, emotionally led behaviours.  These range from anger, to aggression, to withdrawal and dissociation. I became aware of this in 2014, as this case study illustrates.



Picture Credit:  geralt  on Pixabay


Clinical experience: In 2014 a client walked into my treatment room and explained to me that she had done many years of talk therapy, it had helped – but – she explained – I know “its” in my body. She did not explain what “it” was. However, what is clear to me, is that “it” is the physical manifestation of trauma, from her lived experiences.  Her body was carrying the story of her life, her biography from her embryological beginnings was being expressed as symptoms.

She explained to me that as a teenager, she had been coerced into an abusive relationship, and subsequent marriage, where she suffered sexual, physical, and psychological abuse for many years. She talked about high stress levels, internal anxiety, muscular pain in her heart, muscular tension in her whole body especially shoulders. As well as seeking my support, she had support from social services, regular counselling sessions, a supportive GP, a good homeopath, and tai chi teacher. It was encouraging to me that she was resourced enough to have gathered support around her and she was embodied enough to be able to feel and describe her body tension.

The abuse she had endured had changed her neurophysiology, it had affected her nervous system in multiple ways; her ability to stay present and respond appropriately to current situations was inhibited, her ability to sleep and rest was greatly reduced, her interpretation of the world around her and safety she felt within the world, was adversely altered (she constantly felt on edge, expecting her ex-husband to jump out of the bushes). She was presenting in a freeze state and the body tissues were also affected. This state manifested as a protective posture, contraction, rigid body, shallow breath, hypertonic musculature, and tissue density (which in turn creates pain and impaired function, including restricted movement). The hypertonic musculature creates reduced fluid flow through the tissues; over time, this causes the skin to look and feel waxy. More specifically, she had pain in her heart, poor digestion and many more symptoms. She had a court injunction to prevent her ex-husband from coming into contact – so although in theory she should feel safer – she did not - the trauma of her past had changed her neurophysiology.

Understandably before the hands-on session commenced, my client needed a very clear explanation of exactly where to lie, what to wear and where was I going to place my hands. Once a clear explanation was made, I invited my client to lie supine [face upwards] on the couch; the supine position is important, to enable me to see her face and track her expression throughout the treatment.

Initially I explored to see whether she could feel the contact of the couch beneath her, this sensation of contact was slightly available to her. We took some time together for a body scan and she was able to rest a little bit deeper into the support provided by the couch. I could witness as she did this, that she was able to settle further. We then explored an external resource,[1] she had a cat that she loved and cuddled, she visualized being with and stroking the cat, heard the cats purr and smelt the fur, this supported my client to settle deeper. She began to access her parasympathetic nervous system and she felt safe enough to stay there. I initially witnessed the change in her breath and her voice as she settled, her body softened and then a stilling in the room was palpable, as she dropped further into a parasympathetic state.

The skill of accessing the parasympathetic nervous system, and the ability to stay there – rather than rebounding back into a fight flight or dissociative state – is a skill that needs to be taught to those with a trauma history. Part of this re-education of the nervous system, can be done and in clinic, it can also be taught as home care.

I sat at her head end, with a broad awareness of the whole of her body and made light contact with my hands at both her shoulders; there was a palpable trembling[2] and nervous system activation[3] in the whole system. I felt deeply into my own resources and used my presence and my own Nervous System to support her into co-regulation.[4]. The client’s nervous system began to discharge some of the cortisol and adrenalin trapped within, it is this charge contained within the system which causes symptoms (including pain and contraction). As the discharge is processed different sensations and movements come through the body including:

  • Trembling or vibration – local or systemic;
  • Restlessness of limbs – a thwarted fight flight response;
  • Impulse to move, run or kick – a thwarted fight flight response;
  • Tingling – local or systemic;
  • Cramp like sensations – usually in legs due to a thwarted fight flight response;
  • Heat – unresolved history, often times anger and frustration being processed;
  • Cold – unresolved history, shock leaving the system.

To give permission to the client to allow any of these movements and to listen to these sensations is essential, as this facilitates change. Use verbal skills to normalize the sensations felt, be aware that emotions can arise and move though. By resourcing ourselves, holding a safe space and giving permission for the change to take place, the client can really allow the process of reintegrating patterns of overwhelm and a return to greater health of body and mind. Ensure that the client is still able to access their resource and at the same time to stay present with the felt sense. Part of the client’s attention should be on their resource – to ensure feelings of safety; and part of their attention on the layers of sensations being expressed from within the body physiology. There is a need to dip in and out resource (to continue with feeling of safety) and the felt sense (to stay embodied with the process), this facilitates safe, fundamental, and lasting change.

As well as allowing the discharge in the form of full body trembling during session work, my client was also able to access this state alone, thus facilitating further change. After 4 sessions of treatment my client reported “feeling really good considering the last 6 years, I am really grateful that I can respond at a deeper level.” We continued with regular session work, and her trauma history was safely and effectively processed. She moved from a state of contraction and freeze to a sense of physical freedom and “much more emotional control”. Her awareness of her felt sense deepened with time. Initially her awareness was of of pain and contraction of musculature, especially shoulders; as this resolved her awareness moved to her jaw and throat, then her digestive organs, over time chapter by chapter, the embodied story of her life was safely expressed all the holding patterns were resolved. As her body physiology changed, so did her words; “I am feeling less vulnerable;” “I feel relaxed and empowered”, “I have a sense of freedom.”

“Body sensation, rather than intense emotion is the key to healing trauma”
 Peter Levine

Acknowledging and befriending with curiosity, the felt sense allows the process; emotions surface in a safe and contained way, memories are given the chance to re-integrate. As the nervous system processes the contained charge, there is simultaneously a tissue and fluid response throughout the system.

“The vehicle through which we experience ourselves as organisms is the “felt sense”. Entering the realm of the felt sense is for many like entering a strange new land, a land often visited without ever bothering to notice the scenery.” Peter Levine

It is helpful to ask the client to use descriptors to explain the sensations as they arise and move through the body. By engaging the with the body tissues and truly observing the felt sense – resolve takes place, emotions are processed, the embodied reality our biography, of our lived experience is expressed through and from the system. Resolve from symptoms takes place as does improved function of both body and mind. It feels safe to truly inhabit our body mind complex and life’s challenges should diminish.

“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” Bessel Van Der Kolk

 Notes and References

  1. Resource – explore something that supports and resources, a memory of a favourite place, a pet. Use the senses to engage the client in the process. Ask them to describe what they see, smell, hear, textures that they feel. This engages the parasympathetic nervous system as the positive memory is brought to the fore and they settle into the memory.
  2. Trembling – takes place as the Nervous system discharges cortisol and adrenalin, which has been trapped within the system, causing symptoms. As these discharges a tremble passes through, the limbs or whole system.
  3. Nervous system activation – The autonomic nervous system is one of the major neural pathways activated by stress. In situations that are often associated with chronic stress, or trauma, the sympathetic nervous system can be continuously activated without the normal counteraction of the parasympathetic nervous system.
  4. Co-regulation– we can support clients to regulate their nervous system by regulating our own nervous system, using our breath, our words, and our own resources to drop deeply into a parasympathetic state will help them to access an otherwise in accessible parasympathetic state. This way we can share our calm with someone with a trauma history.



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About Emma Gilmore

Emma Gilmore APNT Dip BCST Founded School of Bodywork in 2009 and sold the business in 2023 to pursue her interest in how Trauma is held within the system. Our every experience from our embryological beginnings are stored within the physiology of our body and these can be accessed and safely processed through Trauma Informed Bodywork. Emma’s passion for the benefits of bodywork are enthusiastically transmitted through her national and international teaching. An advanced bodywork therapist specializing in Fascia Informed Bodywork, with a deep knowledge of human anatomy, fascia and the delicacy of the human condition, Emma shares her knowledge of how physical and emotional trauma manifests in our physiology causing pain, discomfort and pathologies, as well as the potential for its release through bodywork.

Emma is currently researching a book on the manifestation of trauma in the body. She writes regularly for Massage World Magazine and is an Expert Regular Columnist for Positive Health PH Online. Having been a bodywork therapist for 30 years, Emma shares her detailed knowledge in an accessible and engaging way; she encourages students to quiet their own system, to enable a deep listening, thus the client's system can express itself in safety. With these skills, clinical practice deepens and we  witness the delicacy yet resilience of the human form and the complex, intricacy of the stories held within the system. Emma’s journey through the world of bodywork has been a very personal one of self-development and healing and it is with this understanding and sensitivity she shares her knowledge.  Emma may be contacted via Tel: 07557 262 357;        


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