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  • Writer's pictureSama

The Effects of Unresolved Past Trauma on the Immune System

Due to the Corona Virus situation in California, I am currently in a self imposed quarantine due to the fact that my husband works with very elderly people and would have to stay home if I were to be exposed to any cold or flu type symptoms in my in person massage and yoga clients and/or developed any symptoms myself. After discussing the risks to his clients, and my passion for my online business, we decided I could take a temporary leave of absence from in person services to focus on my online educational services.

This is not very stressful for me. In fact, I am delighted. Yes, we will need to tighten our belts as my in person services have tended to provide a good portion of the income I bring in, but as introverts, both my husband and I are savoring the socially sanctioned retreat time that we tend to lean towards anyways.

Another reason this is not so stressful for me has to do with the main topic of this article. I am current with the situation, meaning I am not piling emotional responses I have stored in my body from past stressful and traumatic situations onto the current situation. This is a deliberate choice, to live life in the present. It is easier said than done, however.

I have not always felt as current with my emotional responses as I do now. For many years I could not develop and sustain intimate relationships with potential romantic partners due to all of my unresolved childhood trauma around my parents' relationship. And even after marrying my husband, it has taken much sustained focus on resolving ever more subtle layers of those early childhood trauma responses to develop the harmonious partnership I have longed to create with him. We have worked on this diligently together, and with the support of numerous mentors and therapeutic professionals, our relationship is now a nourishing sanctuary we can both retreat to in times of stress.

We have both learned how to differentiate between emotional responses that our current circumstances merit and the backpack of unresolved emotions we might still be carrying from our past. We also know we can count on each other to bring our awareness to any backpack material that may try to attach itself to our current situation. This is a continual process that helps us to stay calmly in the present, or return there sooner and sooner as we get better and better at it.

I feel this skill is central to a strong immune system. When we don't attend to this necessary process of differentiation, our stress response is much greater than any current situation merits, often as big and intense as would be appropriate if every traumatic thing that has ever happened to us and all of our ancestors were happening right now simultaneously. This translates into prolonged sustained intense stress response for most people, and the immune system damage this does is well documented with medical research that shows how stress hormones damage our tissues and systems over the long term.

I had been working quite extensively with my own personal early and ancestral trauma recovery for many years before the first major collective environmental trauma visited our community, the Valley Fire. It was very clear to me that the skills I had learned to care for myself with yoga, meditation, nutrition, herbalism, and simplicity oriented lifestyle choices facilitated my recovery from the stress of our community and spiritual sanctuary being destroyed by wildfire. It was also clear to me that I needed to learn more, as I still suffered from health issues due to lowered immunity and energy depletion from the stress.

I also became aware of how debilitated many fellow community members were by the fire who did not have already established stress reducing practices in their lives. This boosted my motivation for sharing the practices that have been the most helpful for me over the years and deepening my my understanding of how past unresolved trauma effects us. As the latest research about trauma recovery has come out in books like The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Vanderkolk and In and Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine, I have become aware of how spot on my instincts were to explore somatic, body centered personal and professional healing modalities. I had studied Psychology in college, graduating with a BA in 1993, but chose to explore massage therapy and yoga instead of getting my counseling degree. Back then, somatic approaches to counseling were not yet being explored.

Nowadays, it is becoming much more well known that old traumas reside in the body, in the form of muscles retaining tension patterns and stress hormones that were not discharged during and after the initial traumatic event. Bodyworkers , yoga practitioners, and more recently, somatic therapists, have learned ways to support unwinding these tension patterns. One of my favorite unwinding practices is behaving like wild animals after the hunt. I teach a variety of breathing and movement practices in my Trauma Recovery Yoga Classes that imitate how animals discharge the stress of their everyday lives. It is quite effective.

This wild animal practice easily evolves into emotional release practices using breath and vocal sounding to discharge emotions from past stress and trauma that we did not take the time or have the permissive space in our lives to process. These practices help to neutralize the stored stress hormones in our tissues and bring us home to current wellness. If we don't make time and space for these types of practices, what I have seen in countless clients is a chronic state of stress response that keeps us full of damaging stress hormones and tension patterns, making us more prone to illness and injury.

I find these somatic practices to be more effective than most talking therapies, as is supported by the research outlined in the Vanderkolk book mentioned above, for several reasons. Talking therapy that is not combined with some sort of somatic healing practice can, and often does, simply bring the nervous system into a state of reliving the original traumas, adding the the chronic stress load in the body. Somatic practices actually help neutralize and normalize the stress response, returning the nervous system to resting and wellness mode. I feel we need to deliberately choose to spend more time in rest and wellness mode to disrupt the addictive nature of the chronic stress response and return to our most healthy way of living, which is to only be in fight and flight mode when we are actually running away from a tiger or getting out of a similarly dangerous situation. This would only be going on ideally 10 minutes out of the week.

Most of us in today's world however, end up in fight and flight mode most of the time. With no safety nets in our society and the constant drive to keep struggling to get to the top of the heap for fear of landing at the bottom in full awareness of the suffering awaiting there, there is not a moment's rest to be had. This state of affairs has resulted in the compromised immunity that so many experience.

So what are some ways that you can start bringing remedy to this aspect of our reality, you might ask? Here is a list of practices and lifestyle choices that have helped me to reduce the ongoing unhealthy effects of sustained trauma response:

1: Prioritize some sort of relaxation oriented practice like meditation, restorative yoga, deep breathing, massage therapy, hydrotherapy, and/or other practices you find relaxing. (Notice that I list restorative yoga, as I find athletic yoga practices to be less effective at producing the deep relaxation needed as it keeps us on the hamster wheel of constant high speed performance that is at the root of our chronic stress response.)

2: Spend as much time in nature as you can. Activate your senses and immerse yourself in the sensory beauty of the natural world.

3: Explore ways you can slow down the pacing of your life. Celebrate ways that things slow down for you that you haven't chosen, like perhaps related to the quarantine situations in response to the Corona Virus.

4: Enlist therapeutic allies like somatic and trauma recovery therapists, bodyworkers, acupuncturists, meditation teachers, and ministers to support you on your journey to reduce stress and recover from past trauma.

5: Prepare your own nourishing food. Join the slow food movement. You might even explore starting some of your own food from seed. You don't need to have access to land for this. A sunny windowsill and some potting soil in a pot can produce a lovely mini herb/veggie garden that will add a sense of connection and empowerment to the meals you prepare, as well as higher quality nutrition.

6: Disconnect from stressful media content. While it is important to stay informed, we can pull back before it feeds into fear and panic oriented trauma loops. And if you find it difficult to pull back, bring this observation to your therapeutic allies for support breaking free of the addictive stress loop.

7: Learn about adaptogen and other nourishing herbs that help neutralize stress, sooth the nervous system, and boost immunity. Including herbal nutrition in your daily life can be deeply healing.

8: Explore ways that you might start or deepen solidarity based relationships and activities with people in your local and global communities. As we emerge from isolation and start living as though we are indeed not alone, we can all breathe a deep sigh of relief to find and nurture friendships all around that we can rely on and help in our collective moments of need.

This is a short list of some of the personal choices and changes that have made a difference for me on my journey from chronic stress, anxiety, and depression resulting in chronic illness, towards a life of joy and vibrant health.

I would love to hear about any practices and/or choices you are considering or are engaged in that make this difference for you. Please share in the comments below or by reaching out in an email or chat message.


Sama is the founder of the Womb Centered Healing Temple, and online collaborative space for people of all genders to reconnect with the life generating powers of the womb and how to heal our relationship with this inner power. One of her latest offerings here is a Womb Trauma Recovery Yoga class that meets on a live video call weekly. To learn more, visit the sign up page here:

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This article serves as a strong reminder to take care of self in order to honor nature and the world around us. Life is constantly taking me away from my yoga practice, better sleep and meditation. However, due to the current pressure to stay in doors, I have witnessed within myself a natural return to meditation and reading. I have recently returned to my yoga practice even if it is only 20 minutes per day and stay in tune with my body, heart and spirit.

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