Trauma and the Body
Dr. Dan Allender argues that the healing from trauma cannot occur in isolation from the body. When we learn to read our bodies and understand the bodily effects of trauma and abuse, we open ourselves far more to healing and to the goodness of God.
Updated May 2021
What I want to think about is how to address the issues of abuse and the care of your body. Sadly, we have lived in a world in which Platonic and Neoplatonic thought has separated the realm of our bodies in the realm of ourselves, of our mind. And even if we live in a culture that is making better forays into that intersection, we still have lived for thousands of years under that Platonic ideal that what is important is your spirit: Your body is just the husk that sort of holds the corn, and actually is unimportant and will one day be discarded for the pure spirit to be able to live.
That notion leaves us in many ways in a place where we have not learned how to care for our body as part of our own spirituality. Part of actually serving God and loving God is caring for our bodies. And one of the things that we can say is—we know this phrase, that an army moves forward on its socks. Wet socks will keep an army from being able to function because foot fungus and all the suffering of that discomfort will literally keep an army from being able to move forward. You’ve got to have dry socks to be able to fight a war. And in this sense, you’ve got to be able to care for your body to fight the spiritual wars that we’re each called to address. So if we can start with a very, very simple assumption: our bodies reflect the glory of God. And our bodies are what evil brings harm against most ostensibly and clearly, and therefore for our lives to not attend and tend to good, to our bodies, actually ends up creating more of the harm evil desires. And so we’ve got to give up the notion that what we do is we engage our heart and mind, and somehow our body will come along. We’ve got to be very direct in the engagement of our bodies.
If I can take this concept a little bit further to say that many times, people have said I’ve entered into my abuse and I have suffered and I felt horrible, but I kept going because I knew that in the long run, it’d be the right thing to do. And my response has been kind of a whoa, whoa, no, no, no. We are to go no further in the engagement of our past and the trauma of our story than we can care for our body in the present. Your body cannot endure ongoing stress and trauma without certain levels of attending care. So our task in so many ways is to ask, how are we dealing with cortisol? Cortisol is that portion of our neurochemical process that increases a sense of danger and stress. How are we dealing with the rise of oxytocin, which is the biochemical related to bonding? How are we dealing with dopamine and the experience of what that brings? And that is pleasure.
So our task is to be aware: Do I only seem to have a kind of dopamine rise when I’m doing dangerous things that give me a sense of a thrill? But normal care actually feels sort of tiresome and boring, or I only bond with certain people who seem to be highly dangerous. So my bonding process is not with goodness because it feels too boring. I only bond with people who threaten me and open the door to greater danger. So even the category of what brings stress, there’s always a certain level of arousal with stress. And so we love putting ourselves in positions of heightened demand to see if we can get away with and somehow resolve the kind of crises we set up for ourselves.
Here’s the dilemma. If we do not know how to care for our dopamine, how will we care for pleasure? On the other hand, taking risks heighten a level of cortisol. But indeed, you’ve taken risks with people who are highly dangerous, and therefore you set yourself up for the potential of great harm. We need to tend to our bodies as to who we bond with. What do we get aroused by what levels of excitement do we need to be able to live our daily lives? And as we begin to get a sense of what has actually moved us into the realm to feel these kinds of ways, how do we actually want to tend to care for our bodies?
The classic example is the person who runs, runs, runs, pushes, pushes, pushes, and then takes a break and collapses and gets sick. I have had that pattern 1000 times in my life, and each and every time is because I’m pushing cortisol to a kind of high allostatic load, where I’m constantly in one sense ramped up. And then when I finally begin to rest, my body doesn’t know how to do anything other than decompensate into illness.
So if we will tend to our body and begin to read our body and begin to understand how abuse has affected our body, then we have a way to tend to our body with far greater care than we have allowed ourselves before. And that kind of care becomes a way of not only creating nurturance, but it’s also the way that we open our bodies to taste grace. Taste and see. That’s the simplest phrase in the psalms. Taste and see the goodness of God.
Will you let your body receive goodness? Will you know that, no, you need to rest. You need to walk slower. You need to tend to your body and to allow the stress the anxiety of the tensions that you have suffered not to be just chilled out by watching a couple hours of TV, having a couple of beers, smoking a cigarette, and then somehow ramping yourself back up into the world of stress again. But what would it mean for you to actually have a portion of a day, 20 minutes where you simply sit, meditate, reflect, allow your body to come down and to feel something not just of the pulse of intensity, but something of the pleasure of good care?
That’s too hard for people who have a history of abuse, where shame intersects with judgment and contempt, where we are far more comfortable pushing our bodies to a point of danger and actually excess. That kind of style of relating in our world makes sense for those who have been abused or have known great harm. But actually, it only sets us up to in many ways, become our own body’s abuser.
Yes, we were abused, and yes, we must deal with that harm. But if what we’re doing with our bodies currently is only intensifying the very structures for how we cannot and will not enter into those stories, then we’re repeating the past and the way we’re caring for our body today. And when we do that, we are joining the abuse 20, 30, 40 years later, we are actually becoming our own abuser rather than opening the door to join in God and his redemption and joining the process of being able to play in the goodness of God.