On the Embodied Nature of Trauma, Emotion, and Social Connection

In this article I explore current understandings of trauma, particularly developmental trauma, and look at the fundamentally embodied nature of human emotion and social connection. I then go on to look at how this knowledge is relevant to Alexander Teachers today.

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Part 1: Trauma

What is Trauma?

The word ‘trauma’ is most generally associated with the emotional legacy left by overwhelmingly distressing events — war, serious accidents, sexual abuse etc. However in reality trauma arise from a much wider range of events and situations than is often realised; technically it refers to any event to which our emotional response is so great that our system is unable to adequately process, integrate and deal with it at the time. Increasingly it is being realised that this can include not only acute traumatic events—say a car crash—but also much more common events such as a shocking relationship breakdown or bereavement, and also longer, chronic situations which offend human dignity or natural needs, and in which a person feel trapped. Examples of this might be if a person is caught for many years in a soul-destroying job which does not fulfil her natural expectation of respect and stimulation, or long-lasting domestic abuse, devaluation and control by a partner. Such events can cause emotional distress which for a variety of reasons is neither able be discharged nor properly processed.

In addition to these kinds of events in adulthood, there is also developmental trauma, which is trauma that happens in the early years of life (especially around ages 0-5). At this age all of us are extremely vulnerable to the influence of those around us. Because we are not able to properly regulate our own levels of psycho-physical arousal, and depend on co-regulation from others around us to help us do this, it is very easy for our system to become overwhelmed. In addition we are born with a very specific, evolving set of pre-determined needs and have a natural expectation that these will be met by our care-givers. If they are not then this is generally experienced by the very fragile and unprotected organism as a fundamental threat to existence. In this situation the very high level of fear, anger and shame around this which may not be able to be safely expressed, will often end up stored traumatically in their system.

Living as we do in cultures which are very different to those which our system evolved to deal with (Liedloff, 2009) in which many ‘respectable’ child-rearing practices are at massive variance with what the developing child needs, such developmental trauma is very common. The implication of this for the Alexander Technique teacher is that a high proportion of people who come to us for help will have some level of trauma stored in their system. Because recent advances in understanding have shown us that trauma is in many ways a body-based phenomenon and can be invoked by touch, kinaesthesia, and other sense stimuli, it is particularly important that we have some basic understanding of what it is and its implications.

Effects of Trauma

When many people think of the effects of trauma they think of PTSD which is a specific problem where people have vivid flashbacks, nightmares and constant intrusive reminders of an acute traumatic event. However trauma does not always manifest in such an overt way. It can also, particularly in the case of developmental trauma, manifest in more subtle ways such as constant low-level anxiety, dissociation, unconscious avoidance of ‘trigger’ situations, difficulty regulating arousal levels, and fragmented responses and sense of self (Aposhyan, 2004, p. 118). People with early developmental trauma may in particular experience the world as being fundamentally unsafe, have difficulty in knowing what they are feeling, and have disdain for emotional displays by others (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, pp.126-131). All of the above may result in difficulty in forming and maintaining productive and deep human connections.

Trauma - Brain and Body

There has been a good deal of scientific research into trauma in the last couple of decades or so, especially in terms of brain research, and we now have a reasonable understanding of how it works, and of the general body/brain processes involved. The following is a highly condensed and partial summary from Rothschild (2000).

Memory is fundamental to trauma, and in sense we can say that trauma is in fact about memory. In trauma the body/mind is remembering something that happened, but in a dysfunctional way. Human memory can be divided into two types — explicit and implicit. Explicit memory is:

“what we usually mean when we use the term ‘memory'. Sometimes called declarative memory, it is ‘comprised of facts, concepts, and ideas. When a person thinks consciously about something and describes it with words—either aloud or in her head—she is using explicit memory’.” Rothschild (2000, p. 28)

Implicit memory on the other hand:

“bypasses [language]. It involves procedures and internal states that are automatic. It operates unconsciously, unless made conscious though a bridging to explicit memory that narrates or makes sense of the remembered operation, emotion, sensation, etc.” (idem. p.30)

Implicit memory is therefore very much very much to do with sense impressions, including of the kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses.

Very briefly, what happens when people are in traumatic situations is that their normal ability to process and make sense of their implicit impressions of what is happening, and to store these as explicit memories, becomes overwhelmed. As a result the implicit memories (which mostly consists of sensory and kinaesthetic information) remain unprocessed in the body and brain without being drawn together into a single gestalt that can be filed away as ‘past’ in an understandable fashion. This means that the different sensory and emotional aspects of the experience remain fragmented and unrelated in experience to each other and to the past and present life of the organism. Essentially these experiences remain in the system but in way that, when experienced, makes them feel eternally present. The experience is that this is happening now. Given this, the organism responds to the past threat as if it was occurring in the present.

If the emotions attached to these fragments of implicit memory are too difficult or painful to experience in the person’s current state of organisation then they may be suppressed, which is a survival mechanism to ensure that the individual can continue to function. We have noted that such implicit memories are sensory in nature, and hence have a somatic basis. It is therefore usual that their suppression occurs through excluding parts of the somatic self from full awareness through muscular tension and holding, a phenomenon that Reich (1990) called ‘armouring’. This is particularly the case with developmental trauma where the infant organism needs to maintain the approval and love of their care-giver at all costs lest they are abandoned (abandonment is experienced as a threat of death by a young child) .

A useful and more recent account of this phenomenon and the underlying theory is give by Fogel (2013, p.196) who states that:

“Armouring is a form of suppression that results in the shutting down of sensory receptors and a corresponding lessening of activation in the interoceptive and body schema areas of the brain related to that part of the person”

As Mowat (2008) notes, this is of particular relevance to AT teachers because hands on work encourages people to let go of muscular holding, which can allow the suppressed emotions back into consciousness. In addition, because trauma is based in sensory experience, people can also be triggered into it by physical stimuli which correspond to the original event. It’s quite possible that simply taking someone into a new alignment or arrangement where they wouldn’t spontaneously take themselves can trigger traumatic material, and there is a danger of re-traumatisation if we are unable to recognise and deal with that appropriately.

The Impact of Developmental Trauma on Use

One aspect of developmental trauma which we need to be aware of as Alexander Teachers is the extent to which it can underly poor patterns of use (see also Mowat 2006). Often AT teachers look to later events, for example school (e.g. Dimon 2015 pp.37-59) and blame the premature introduction of skills for which the child is not neuro-developmentally prepared for the deterioration of use which seems to afflict almost everyone in contemporary western culture. While Dimon is certainly right about the impact of school, for many children the problem starts a long time before then. It may start in the first few weeks of life. For example, if a child doesn’t learn implicitly from her mother that she is safe, welcome and ‘held’ there is likely to develop a fundamental difficulty with sensing her own body and boundaries, feeling she exists, and that the world is safe.

As AT teachers we often operate from the assumption that the mechanisms underlying good use are accessible and that we just need a change in thinking to access them. However when a person has (for example) a fundamental difficulty in feeling safe in her body, or even in her own existence, then this will have knock on effects on all the later stages of development. It’s difficult to connect with the ground if we can’t even feel safe and welcome in our own body.

As we’ve seen, often people hold painful traumatic material at bay using muscular tension. These muscles may need to ‘let go’ in order to allow the person to come into healthy postural support. In these cases the individual can find it impossible to release without allowing those feelings to come into awareness; or they may adopt a ‘halfway house’ where there is an improved level of use while within that pattern they are nursing parts of themselves which are still held on.

It seems to me that developmental trauma lies behind a lot of what some still describe as the ‘unteachable’ pupil. The tendency to characterise pupils this way started with some first generation teachers who would describe people who had difficulty engaging with the Technique in a very negative fashion—for example this reminiscence from Marjory Barlow (Barlow, & Davies, 2002):

She was in terrible distress one day when she came for a lesson. She says, “You know I’m full of guilt because I’ve had to tell a pupil that I can’t go on teaching them!

And I said “What was the trouble?”

“Well,” she said, “I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere and I felt absolutely shocked to pieces at the end of the lesson.

”I said, “You’ve done the right thing!” and I told her what FM. said about the vampires. She burst into tears and flung her arms around my neck and said, “Thank you, thank you.” It was such a big weight off her mind.

Though things are hopefully better now, one still hears references now and again to unteachable pupils, and I suspect there does remain a latent view among some of us that if a pupil can’t absorb what we are saying it is because they are not capable or unwilling or worse. To me it makes more sense to ask whether the basic conditions of safety are in place for them to learn, and if not, how we might go about improving the situation, rather than labelling them as ‘flawed’ in some way.

Healing Trauma

In the past, trauma treatment was often focussed on the the fairly indiscriminate catharsis of held feelings. It was believed that simply releasing the muscles and associated emotions was sufficient to bring relief. More recently it has been realised that often the situation is not quite as simple as that. According to Rothschild (2000 pp. 63–64) the way we as ‘practitioners’ respond to such cathartic events has a considerable impact on whether such releases of feeling will be helpful and integrating or unhelpful and and dis-integrating.

As we have seen, Trauma occurs when distressing implicit memories are stored at a somatic level without being processed and integrated into the time-based structure of explicit memory. When this traumatic material comes into consciousness (assuming it has been excluded which is not always the case) there is often a powerful therapeutic benefit in allowing the feelings to dissipate through some form of catharsis or abreaction. However this in itself is not sufficient. What is needed is not just for the feelings to be released but for the memory to be integrated into our explicit, time-based structure—as would ideally have happened at the time of the incident. Then it is no longer experienced as something present but as something past, and it is in this that true healing lies. Without that integration the somatic/traumatic memory will remain in the system and people can in fact repeatedly cathart the same trauma for years without actually shifting the underlying pattern. Another danger with unregulated catharsis is that the person lets go too fast and their system gets over-aroused as in the original trauma, resulting in re-traumatisation.

In order to facilitate the kind of integration that is needed, it is essential that the process is taken at a steady pace so that the person remains fully aware, and their ‘adult observer’ is present alongside the past memory they are re-experiencing (initially this often needs to be by co-regulated with another person because it’s a skill that has to be learned). In this way the traumatic memory is able to be processed properly and to resolve. In my opinion a basic level of skill and understanding of how to do this is pretty much essential for any one who works hands-on with the body in a way which facilitates emotional release. This is not to say that AT teachers should be trained to deal with matters like complex PTSD, but to deal safely with the sort of trauma and particularly developmental trauma that can come up for AT pupils is well within bounds of what is possible in three years full time training. An analogous example is cranio-sacral therapists who are often very skilled indeed at this, and who gain that skill alongside other ones on trainings which are frequently shorter than those AT teachers undertake.

Implications of Trauma Research for Alexander Teachers

A traditional view among AT teachers which I’ve heard expressed many times has tended to be that we should “gently discourage” expressions of feeling in the lesson and send the pupil away to sort them out on their own or with a therapist. Historically I think there has also been a commonly expressed view among AT teachers that the nature of our work is somehow special enough that we can reliably trust that, for our pupils, traumatic material can be depended on to arise naturally as it needs to and be integrated unproblematically without any overt involvement on the part of the teacher. I think this view is optimistic. While this can and does happen, it is by no means guaranteed either that material that needs to be cleared will arise in the environment we create in the lesson, or that if it does so it will spontaneously be helpfully processed and integrated.

People’s emotional armouring can get blocked in different ways. Sometimes—particularly if there is no strong emotion attached to it—traumatic memory can be let go quite straightforwardly through shaking or shudders or other types of release which all AT teachers are familiar with (although I personally was told many times to stop the leg shaking which clearly, in retrospect, was a release of shock energy which would have better been welcomed than banished!). For other forms of stuckness a shift in intellectual perspective or understanding might allow things to change, and gentle discussion around the topic can help. But sometimes, when strong negative emotions are involved, the person may be unable to spontaneously let go without the support of a safe space held by a trusted ‘other’ due to the shame around revealing what is experienced as a deeply flawed part of the person. In this case a person needs to feel a deep level of permission and acceptance in order to let go.

People are very different, they have different responses and different needs, and one size does not fit all here. It’s not realistic to imagine that in our limited ‘Technique’ we have found a universal key to unfailingly unlock people’s traumatic material at just the right time, in just the right amount in just the right way. Alexander Technique is not the Goldilocks equivalent of Baby Bear's porridge in the field of personal development!

Part 2: The Social Nature of Use

Historically the Alexander community hasn’t given as much thought as they might have done to the role of emotion and social connection in psycho-physical development. The most popular developmental approach in AT is probably the (very useful) Dart Procedures, which give us a progression from fish all the way to upright functioning human, but are basically silent on the question of interpersonal interaction! This is strange because it is obviously through such interaction that we become who we are, and if we take the idea of psycho-physical unity seriously it is clear that our emotional interactions are inextricably linked to our physical development. The new-born child is completely dependant on it’s care-giver, not only for physical sustenance but for ongoing help in the most basic task of regulating her arousal levels, which in humans is a learned skill. Likewise the child depends on the physical feedback and mirroring of those around her to help her to discover her physical boundary, to learn to regulate her movements, and to perform basic activities which other animals learn naturally. A human raised by animals, for example (which happens from time to time) will be unable to walk. For humans, much of our ability to perform basic physical functions is not programmed into our genes, but is held in our culture and is passed on (for better or worse) through early social interaction. This initial helplessness has an advantage in the later flexibility it gives us. Rather than follow a immutable script like other animals, we learn to ‘use’ our underlying mechanisms and put them together in different ways, and we can only do this with the help of somatic and kinaesthetic information held in the rest of the tribe.

This means that for us, our physical development and social connections are one system. In an earlier article on polyvagal theory I pointed out the connection between our Social Engagement System, our arousal system and our attention system. Put simply, as fundamentally tribal animals, our attention and arousal systems evolved to operate socially, they were designed from the ground up to orientate us to other people. Any approach to improving our psycho-physical functioning which does not take this into account is selling us short of our inheritance, because the system is designed to work in relation to, and to be tuned with those around us.

Allowing Feeling In

Given what we have seen above—the relation of developmental trauma to use, the possibilities and dangers of hands on work, and the clear connection between social/emotional and physical development, it is extraordinary to me that among so many AT teachers there’s often a spoken or unspoken prohibition against actually connecting with the pupil’s feelings in a straight forward way and allowing emotion into the room (see also Briggitta Mowet 2006). Here’s a true story which was told to me by a pupil and which I reproduce here with permission. The person concerned was a singer at college, and was having Alexander lessons on the advice of her singing teacher. During one lesson the AT teacher was working on allowing freedom in the ribs on the in-breath. The pupil suddenly felt a wave of emotion:
“How was that?”, said the teacher.
The pupil said, “I’m feeling a bit emotional”.
“Really?” said the teacher, looking a little worried.
Nothing daunted the pupil ploughed on. “Yes, I suddenly had a really strong memory of being in the school choir. The teacher didn’t like me and used to call me out in front of everyone else. I became terrified of not being good enough”.
“Well, teachers in those days weren’t very aware were they?!”
And the subject was rapidly changed. The pupil was left feeling frustrated and upset because she had wanted to cry, and knew in her heart that this was what was needed, but felt that this was not welcome. It was some time later (with another singing teacher) before she was able to access that feeling again, and actually respond the way she wished. The difficulty with her breathing which had eluded her throughout her previous AT lessons suddenly resolved and she was never troubled with it again.

I’m not telling this story in order to call out a particular teacher (I’m sure that there’s much in my practice that could be called out if someone wished to). I’m telling it because it’s symptomatic of a more general experience that people have in AT lessons, and that I have had myself in the past. I don’t think that it’s good enough any more for an ostensibly ‘whole person’ approach to personal development in the twenty-first century, which has so much wisdom from other practices and from science to drawn on, to be unable to deal with this sort of situation in a more refined, conscious and emotionally aware way. Human beings are not islands, and our feelings are designed to be held expressed and shared in relationship. We are not designed to be sent away from the tribe with our embarrassing, troublesome, dangerous feelings to process them on our own, and the demand that we do so in itself encodes a subtle disapproval and rejection of the emotional core of the person that is being evoked by the lesson. When a person expresses a feeling of vulnerability in the presence of someone else there an innate expectation that this will be met and held by the persons presence, eyes and voice. When this doesn’t happen at best it’s disappointing and disempowering. At worst it it can be re-traumatising. The demand that the pupil “go elsewhere” may well come not from what is in the best interest of the pupil, but from our own discomfort about witnessing other people’s feelings, or insecurity around our skills in dealing with them.

It’s easy to mistake the AT, which is a cultural artefact, for something more universal than it actually is. In fact like any other similar practice, it is a collection of principles, ideas and activities that is held, and evolved, in a social context. For the AT this means that the genesis of its emotional attitudes lie in the still rather emotionally repressive post-Victorian cultural world in which FM and the early teachers lived. In this culture—even among those who were more ‘enlightened’—there was an atmosphere in which expressions of feeling were seen as highly suspicious, and in which the self-contained, in-control ‘male’ individual was seen as the ideal to which all should aspire. Deviations from this ideal were often fairly ruthlessly suppressed and punished by the culture at large. I believe that this is fundamentally against people’s best interests, and against how our psycho-physical system was designed to operate. I think in so far as the remains of this attitude lingers we are both out of tune with the times we live in, and failing to offer our pupils the full range of help that we can.

Teacher, Therapist or Teacher-therapist?

Alexander teachers make a strange claim when they say they are engaging in a straight-forward teaching relationship while at the same time: suggesting they can help people to fundamentally change their relationship to themselves, the world, their emotions and others; lying these people on couches; holding their heads in their hands; listening to them tell their stories; touching, moving, and guiding their bodies; quietening their nervous systems, and facilitating emotional release. Though AT is primarily educational I feel that to characterise the above as a simple teaching relationship is simply not an honest and complete assessment of what is going on in these interactions. I feel that in holding to such an unrealistic viewpoint we deny our pupils the full extent of what would be possible if we were to embrace and own the full extent of what we’re already doing in a more conscious and considered way.

In this article I’ve pointed to how our social and physical systems are inextricably intwined. I’ve also pointed out the prevalence of trauma of one sort or another in our pupils, and suggested that we have a responsibility to think more carefully about how we deal with it. In the next one I will finally be getting round to looking at very practical ways we might go about this if we wish to do so without compromising our primary orientation as educators—and will show that there is much about AT training and practice that actually makes us very well suited to expand our practice in this way.


Aposhyan, S. M. (2004) Body-mind psychotherapy: principles, techniques, and practical applications. 1st ed. New York: Norton.

Barlow, M. A. and Davies, T. A. (2002) An examined life: Marjory Barlow and the Alexander technique : in conversation with Trevor Allan Davies. Berkeley, Calif.: Mornum Time Press.

Dimon, T. (2015) A New Model of Man’s Conscious Development. San Francisco: Day Street Press.

Fogel, A. (2013) Body sense: the science and practice of embodied self-awareness. New York: Norton.

Heller, L. and LaPierre, A. (2012) Healing developmental trauma: how early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationship. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

Liedloff, J. (2009) The continuum concept. London: Penguin.

Mowat, B. (2006) ‘The Impact of Psychotherapy and Counselling on the Alexander Technique’, The Alexander Journal, (21 (Spring)).

Mowat, B. (2008) ‘The Use of Touch in an AT Context: A Developmental and Therapeutic Perspective.’, in. 8th International Alexander Congress, Lugano.

Reich, W. (1990) Character analysis. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rothschild, B. (2000) The body remembers: the psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York London: Norton.