How Movement Therapy Can Heal Traumatic Stress

It may sound like child’s play: I’m walking barefoot, balancing two Jenga pieces in my hand. I squeeze one wooden block between my right thumb and pointer finger while the other block rides on top. It takes focus to balance the two pieces when I stand still. As I move, the challenge increases exponentially.

This deceptively simple “game” can have a profound effect. I’m playing it in the name of trauma-informed movement, a burgeoning subset of fitness aiming to complement traditional trauma therapy.

I’m part of a certification-workshop group in New York City that includes personal trainers and athletic coaches, social workers, and other mental-health professionals. The leader is Jane Clapp, a Toronto-based trauma-recovery specialist and strength-and-movement coach who has developed courses for practitioners and survivors alike, helping them learn to use the body to support healing.

Clapp’s demeanor is kind and calm. Maintain focus and balance the blocks while walking, she advises. Maintain focus and balance while switching hands. While lowering to sit on the floor and coming back to standing. While lying down and rising back up. While making figure eights with our hips. While swirling our upper bodies as though they are windmills. All the while, don’t let the wooden blocks topple to the floor.

Oh, and don’t forget to breathe.

“This is dual awareness, the ability to maintain awareness of two, or more, aspects of experience,” she explains. In this case, the two aspects are balancing the blocks and moving through space.

Dual awareness is one of several techniques used for treating trauma. The required focus plants participants squarely in the here and now rather than in the past or future. It can help draw their attention outside of themselves when internal stimuli, such as a speedy heart rate or shallow breathing, are overwhelming.

Ultimately, dual awareness is a tool designed to establish that the present is safe and trauma-free — a time when success (balancing the blocks) is possible and failure (dropping the blocks) is not the end of the world.

“Trauma changes the brain. It primes survivors to perceive threats everywhere and respond as if they are in constant danger,” Clapp says. “If you feel frightened or unsafe, your brain will specialize in feelings of fear. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation.

“The good news is the brain is plastic, meaning it can be…

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