How to promote healing with physical trauma-informed practices

| November 23, 2022

Thoughts, feelings, and emotions are what make us human, especially as we interact with others and build a collection of individual experiences. Those experiences then impact how we respond to future events. 

More likely than not, you or someone you know has experienced trauma in one form or another and it has significantly altered how they see the world. As part of the Johns Hopkins community, we want to be supportive of each other, and develop the skillset to connect friends and peers to resources that might help someone on their healing journey, including physical trauma-informed practices and survivor support.

Trauma and the mind-body connection 

When a person experiences a trauma, including gender-based violence (which includes sexual harassment, stalking, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence), the body instinctively enacts methods to keep that person alive. 

The thalamus will stop all executive functioning in the brain in effort to protect the body and mind for basic survival. The body also releases hormones (catecholamine and cortisol) whose purpose are to keep the person alive by preparing for a flight, fight, or freeze response. Oxytocin and opioids eliminate pain or even increase sensations of pleasure. 

The levels or amount of each of these hormones vary from person to person and from event to event. Because of these variations, no two people who experience a trauma will respond the same way, or in ways that others might expect. 

For these reasons, memories of trauma are stored in areas of the brain most closely associated with perceptions and emotions. It can be helpful for healing processes to be somatic, or done through the motion of the body. It’s important for survivors to find a path to healing that works best for them, while attenuating the body memory to unlock, process, and ultimately heal from their trauma. 

Trauma-informed practices and the healing process

Trauma-informed physical practices are characterized by promoting environments of healing that are understanding of how trauma impacts the body and center the lived experience of individual survivors. They encourage survivors to incorporate physical movement into their daily lives as part of their healing journey. Examples of trauma-informed physical practices include yoga, climbing, outdoor pursuits, or other forms of recreation. These physical practices incorporate self-regulation strategies to increase body awareness, increase connection to bodily agency, and promote safety. 

Within these practices, survivors are encouraged to connect their bodies and minds in ways that feel secure by practicing personal empowerment through choice, autonomy, and agency when participating in physical activity. This approach allows or survivors to observe the sensations and emotions that they are experiencing, while actively participating in activities on their own terms. 

This strategy can look like modifying specific poses during a trauma-informed yoga practice, or making the decision to not participate in a particular aspect of any physical activity. These practices give individuals the opportunity to improve their self-confidence and process their thoughts or feelings, especially in relation to any trauma they may have survived. 

Ways to find and make use of trauma-informed practices 

Physical activity that incorporates trauma-informed practices is a great way to better process emotions, because it centers an individual’s wants and needs in the moment. Here are some things to do if you are looking to participate in recreation as a way of healing from past trauma. 

1. Ensure that consent and autonomy is at the forefront of the activity you choose to participate in. Consent practices are an essential way to promote self-confidence when making decisions for oneself and what feels right for them in the moment. If you are participating in any activities, like swimming, kayaking, climbing, or yoga, make sure that it is a practice where the space is open for you to communicate what you’re feeling and gives you the space to take a step back if you’re uncomfortable. By having the ability to voice your needs and engaging in practices which center around consent, this allows trauma survivors to take the lead as they are the experts in their own lives.

2. Do research on the studio, organization, or space to see if they incorporate trauma-informed practices in their activities. In advance of the activity, ask about what it entails to get a comprehensive understanding of what you’re going into and what education is provided to instructors about trauma-informed practices to ensure that you’re making the best decision around whether that activity is best for you.For example, if you are participating in a yoga class, do research on the studio and/or instructors to make sure they are trained in trauma-informed practices. LA Yoga magazine recommends asking the following questions:

    • What is your consent policy around physical assists?

    • How do you ensure your classes are accessible to those who have experienced trauma?

    • Do you encourage students to rest and take classes at their own pace?

    • Do your teachers receive any form of trauma-informed training during their 200-hour certification?

3. Reflect on what is best for you and what you need to participate in the activity in a safe and healthy way. Healing is not linear and it’s valid to do what you need to ensure your own mental, physical, and emotional well-being after experiencing trauma. Be introspective about your capacity to engage in a physical activity, what you need from your instructors, what spaces feel safest, and what activities make you feel empowered and confident. If you are triggered or are in distress when participating in these activities, it’s okay to take a step back and reassess what your needs are, rather than being re-traumatized or harmed in any way.

Survivor support and resources 

If you or someone you know has been affected by gender-based violence (GBV), please feel free to access any of the resources listed below. By supporting survivors, we can play a positive role in creating communities that are not permissive of GBV.   

There are two types of resources available to those who have experienced GBV: confidential and non-confidential. 

While privacy is always at the center of the work of all university staff, confidential staffers can provide help and support and hold on to the details you share (who, what, where, when) without the requirement of any involvement by other JHU staff, including those in the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE). 

Those who are non-confidential are required to share some information with OIE and can also provide support. If you are uncertain if a staff member is confidential or not, we invite you to ask them and also consult this list. If faculty and staff are not listed here, they are non-confidential. 

Confidential Hopkins Resources 

  • Counseling Center: 410-516-8278 (Press 1 for the on-call counselor). Serves all full-time undergraduate & graduate students from KSAS, WSE, and Peabody, and on-campus SOE students. 
  • Counseling Center Sexual Assault Helpline: 410-516-7333. Serves all Johns Hopkins students. 
  • Student Health and Wellness Center: 410-516-4784. Serves all full-time, part-time, and visiting undergraduate and graduate students from KSAS, WSE, and Peabody, and on-campus SOE students. Serves post-doctoral fellows enrolled in KSAS, WSE, SOE, and Sheridan Libraries. 
  • Religious and Spiritual Life: 410-516-1880. 
  • Gender Violence Prevention and Education: [email protected] or 443-927-3548. Serves all Johns Hopkins students. 
  • Tyler Conzone, Coordinator of Gender-Based Violence Prevention, Education & Response: [email protected] or 443-927-3572 
  • Alyse Campbell, Associate Director of Student Health & Well-Being: [email protected]: or 410-516-5133 
  • Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program (JHSAP): 443-287-7000. Serves BSPH, CBS, AAP, SAIS, SOE, SOM, SON, and EP students, and immediate family members. 
  • University Health Services: Serves BSPH, SOM, and SON students, residents, fellows, trainees, and spouses or domestic partners. 
  • University Health Services (UHS): 410-955-3250 
  • Mental Health Services: 410-955-1892 

Non-Confidential Hopkins Resources 

Peer-Led Resources 

Community Resources