Last Updated on January 15, 2022 by Jason Harris
A Great Release
Deep lunge, right foot forward and outside of my hands, hold it, embrace it, breathe, all in the breath. This was a couple weeks ago. My first time doing yoga for any prolonged length of time… because ya know… the whole “man-card” thing (eye roll emoji). It was just me and YouTube. There was a deep slow release in my muscles and so many emotions welled up inside. Anger, pain, sadness, gratitude, frustration, grief, regrets, compassion, grace. I embraced, accepted and slowly released them all as I continued to slowly breathe deeply. I started to weep deep tears of grief and gratitude. This surprised me. The first and only time (so far) this has happened to me while doing yoga.
I learned after that deep traumatic experiences apparently tend to be implicitly “stored” in the muscles of the hips. These are among the first activated when our fight/flight system is activated, and we prepare to engage or run. Apparently exercises opening the muscles of the hips are known amongst yogis as being some of the best to help heal deep emotional pain.
The following days of that week, I felt many emotions and memories surface, sometimes in a somewhat disturbing and confusing manner. Emotions and memories that had been locked deep away, some of them for decades. I continued to practice 20-30 minutes of daily yoga as well as other mindfulness techniques, sitting with and honoring these feelings and experiences. And I experienced healing!
Up to that point, I had participated (sometimes for years) in various cognitive and emotionally based therapies. But I hadn’t yet experienced deep healing like this. Healing that seemed to reach to the deepest implicit and subconscious levels of my being.
I’m feeling so much better despite knowing there is still much healing ahead.
My Trauma Leaving the Mormon Church
Leaving the Mormon Church was incredibly traumatic. Continued healing has required supportive friends and associates, as well as learning to relate in more healthy ways to my thoughts, emotions and body. This post is intended as a brief roadmap of therapies academically proven to assist in healing from traumatic experiences in hopes that others may find this helpful in their own healing journeys. I share some of the rationale behind therapies and approaches mentioned and have personally found some of these modalities very helpful in my own healing journey.
This post does not delve into Mormon specific elements of a faith deconstruction and reconstruction though I have discussed these elsewhere with recommended resources to assist in this process.
Nothing in this post is intended to be a substitute for mental health therapy by a skilled and licensed therapist.
During my healing journey, I have learned three interconnected areas of our nervous system are affected by psychologically traumatic experiences. 1. Our cognitions/thoughts (neocortex of brain). 2. Our emotions (limbic region of brain). 3. Our somatic system as connected to our fight-fawn, flight-freeze systems (e.g. sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system connections to inner chest, abdomen and muscles). (Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma)
Accordingly, therapies aimed to help us fully heal from traumatic experiences or backgrounds need to target 1. our cognitions, 2. our emotions and 3. our somatic experiences/stored unconscious somatic memories.
Connecting with ourselves, our environment and others around us can both facilitate healing and be a marker of healing.
Mindfulness/Awareness is an essential foundation of therapies targeting all three domains. Compassionate curiosity is at the heart of mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can be strengthened through practices such as breathing meditation and yoga work or just being mindful or aware of what one is experiencing internally and externally throughout the day. Imaging studies show structural changes in the brains of those who regularly engage in mindfulness activities!
The importance of mindfulness can’t be overstated. Following are just a few examples demonstrating this:
Cognitions: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is used by most therapists and has tremendous data supporting its efficacy in the right settings. A subtype of CBT, Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is often used to help heal emotional or psychological trauma. At the core of CBT is being mindful of automatic negative thoughts and cognitive distortions one is experiencing and then reframing these into more realistic and accurate ways of thinking. Examples of such cognitive distortions include “all-or nothing” thinking, “black and white” thinking and catastrophizing.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another evidence-based therapy that utilizes cognitions and emotions while mindfully executing certain eye movements. It is thought to help re-organize and re-consolidate memories in a more healthy manner, similar to REM sleep. It is especially efficacious in treating trauma incurred later in life.
Emotions: In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) one must be mindful of the thoughts and emotions one experiences, “positive and negative,” and learn to just observe them and sit with them compassionately, in a non-judgmental fashion. I wrote more about my own journey with ACT in “Discovering and Embracing my Emotions, Healing From a Mormon Paradigm.”
Similarly, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) involves radical acceptance of what we are feeling and operates under some of the same principles of mindfulness.
Both ACT and DBT have mounting evidence for their efficacy as well.
As part of emotional healing during deep grief, it’s essential to sit with all of the painful emotions. Sometimes in a very personal way. “Ugly bawling” for instance can be incredibly healing. My spouse, with experience as grief therapist would agree.
Somatic Experiences/Memories: Practices such as Yoga require mindfulness of what we are experiencing at a deep somatic level. DBT principles of mindfulness, breathing and “radical acceptance” are also used during yoga. Trauma victims such as veterans with PTSD are often deeply helped by yoga. In part this may be by helping acknowledge, accept and release and heal unconscious “somatic memories” stored in the viscera (e.g. abdominal and chest contents) and muscles.
As shared above, I have personally found yoga to be very helpful in my own healing journey though this is something I have only recently adopted. For years I thought being mindful during regular exercise (such as running, rowing, swimming and lifting weights) would be sufficient for targeting the somatic element of healing. And it WAS helpful. However, I hit a wall in my recovery process and didn’t yet have much of an understanding about the somatic element of healing from psychological trauma until the past few months. Listening to “The Body Keeps the Score” really helped me to better understand this element of somatic “implicit memory” in trauma.
I decided to give yoga a try after noticing tremendous emotional “centeredness” and presence in two relatives and some friends who had been practicing yoga regularly and after reading results of studies supporting its efficacy in helping combat veterans heal from PTSD. I’m GLAD I did/am! As noted above, even a few days after starting yoga, I experienced leaps forward in my own emotional healing journey. Somatic focused healing!
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is, all types of therapies target one, two or three of these functional three systems in various ways and fashions. Each of these three functional systems are interconnected and all require mindfulness to heal. Therapies that target only one or two functional areas will usually be inadequate for optimal healing from severe psychological trauma. This includes somatic based healing modalities such as yoga that ARE often very effective, but also by themselves do not adequately target the cognitive and emotional networks needed to induce full healing.
As we heal, our ability to connect with ourselves and others is enhanced. As mentioned earlier, connecting with ourselves, our environment and others around us can both facilitate and be a marker of healing.
Other Types of Therapy
Other therapies not listed above include: Internal family systems therapy, “Ego work,” Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and other “Attachment-based” therapies, Narrative therapy, Psychoanalysis, Jungian Analysis and “Shadow work,” Relational therapy, various group therapies, Music therapy and various types of approaches to connecting with others, connecting with nature and/or connecting with a higher power. I have personally benefited from some of these as well.
Innova Trauma Center
My spouse is just starting as a therapist at Innova Recovery Residential Trauma Treatment Center. Here are sections of a brochure from the center. One may notice how the different therapy modalities listed all target various aspects of 1. Cognitions 2. Emotions 3. Somatic Experience/Memories. All while facilitating healthy connections with ourselves, our environment and others! Legit!!
Sources I have Found Most Helpful
In addition to working with therapists using some of the therapies above, I have also found the following books and resources very helpful:
Good luck in your healing journey!
Good luck in your healing journey! I know from personal experience healing is often gradual, but IS possible! And sometimes there can be major break-throughs and rapid spurts in healing as well! Hopefully the roadmap I’ve shared might be helpful to you. In addition to the resources above, I have shared numerous links to professional therapy services HERE for any interested. Many of these links are specific to a Mormon Faith Transition.
Trauma targets and can permanently affect (unless healed) interconnected networks affecting our 1. cognition, 2. emotions and 3. somatic systems tied into our fight-fawn, flight-freeze systems. Experts insist these three regions must be targeted for healing from the most deeply disturbing experiences. I’ve personally found this to be the case in my own life as well.
The past several years, as I’ve continued to heal, my ability to connect with myself, others and nature in a more healthy and life affirming manner has improved greatly. This in turn has helped facilitate further healing.
I’m thankful to live in a time when we understand these principles of health and healing at a very deep level. May you also experience healing and health in your own continued journey! Namaste
Jason Harris is a Neurologist/Neuro-Ophthalmologist, Dad and Husband who shares his experiences leaving the Mormon Church and reconstructing a new World-View. He believes all religions and scripture are man-made and believes there is Divinity in all of them.