Home Small Group Leaders Articles for Small Group Leaders The Role of the Body in Healing After Trauma

The Role of the Body in Healing After Trauma

spiritual healing

One year ago, I stepped into a crosswalk and was struck by an oncoming bus.

The trauma of the accident has made me reflect much on the role the body—both the physical body and the church body—plays in spiritual healing and recovery.

That it even happened seems surreal—like a bad dream or a too-vivid movie about someone else’s life: the close-up I saw of the bus just as it was about to strike me, the voices I heard of people surrounding me as I lay in the intersection, and the stabbing knives of pain I felt throughout my body over the following hours and days. For someone with a well-developed imagination, for whom the best-written stories become just as much a part of my mind as my own experiences, it would seem these memories could just be stored away in a part of the brain that retains information about things that happened to other people.

But my body doesn’t make that possible.

Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Healing

There is the lingering pain, of course, from the fractures to my spine, shoulder, ribs and pelvis (now permanently stabilized by a large titanium screw). Then there are the visible scars from the chest tube and the staples, as well as the bruise on the inside of my knee, still faintly visible a year later.

But my body retains even more than these reminders of trauma, memories carried deeper inside, beneath flesh and bones—visceral memories. It is this visceral dread that causes my body to react to scenes in the news or movies of people being struck by vehicles. I had no idea until my accident just how common these scenes are. It makes me flinch involuntarily at passing vehicles while I’m running. (It took me quite a while not to envision every single vehicle that came toward me hitting me.)

I confess that before experiencing this trauma, I thought that emotional (as well as spiritual) healing consisted primarily in thinking the right things and believing the right things. I didn’t understand the role the body plays. Yet, the original meaning of the word “emotion” is “a physical disturbance.” Emotions originate in the body, not the mind. And as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies.” Because trauma is an embodied experience, the book shows, those who have suffered trauma must pay attention to the sensations of their bodies in order to recover:

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.

For healing from trauma to take place, Van der Kolk says, “the body needs to learn that the danger has passed” [emphasis added].

Although I have known, loved and talked to many traumatized people, I never really understood this phenomenon until I experienced it for myself.

I have a friend who, years ago, was hit by a car while walking at night and suffered irreparable injuries. For many years afterward he always wore fluorescent orange shirts so he could be seen easily wherever he went. I didn’t get it. But I do now.

I have another friend who went on a job interview and was raped afterward by the man who interviewed her. It has taken her a long time to learn to trust her own judgment about all kinds of life decisions, and I didn’t really understand why. But I do now.

A year out, the hardest part of my trauma now is not being able to trust what my own senses are telling me.

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Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018). She is co-editor of Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan 2019) and has contributed to numerous other books. Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Religion News Service, Books and Culture and other places.