Pilates is much more than an exercise method. It can be therapeutic for all sorts of conditions, both physical and mental. It can even help release trauma. Jill Carter, Sandplay Therapist, Creative Arts & Traume trainer explains how. 

Contrary to popular belief, trauma is not just a psychological issue; it can have a profound effect on our physical health too. This is because the mind and body are inseparably linked: the mind influences the body through many biological mechanisms, including the nervous system, the immune system and hormones. In the case of trauma, the brain triggers a fight or flight response in the body when it perceives danger. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Once the danger is gone, the body should return to normal, but in the case of trauma patients, the urge to fight, flight, or flee can get trapped in the body and mind, causing a range of psychological and physical symptoms.

In order to heal, victims need to address the mental and physical symptoms. Trauma-informed therapy that incorporates mind-body practices such as Pilates can be an effective way to do this.

What is Pilates?

Devised by Joseph Pilates in the 1920’s, Pilates is an exercise method consisting of a series of slow and controlled body conditioning exercises that target the ‘core’ muscles in the abdomen, buttocks, back and pelvis. Using a combination of precise, controlled movements and mindful breathing, Pilates improves muscle strength, core stability, flexibility, and confidence.

A proponent of the mind-body connection, Pilates created the exercises in such a way that the body and mind must work together to execute the movements correctly.

This focus on the mind-body connection can relieve stress and anxiety and promote healing.

How can Pilates help release trauma?

Releases tension in the core

When trauma is too difficult to process in the mind, we store it in the body. Typically, it gets stored in the psoas – a deep-seated core muscle that connects the lumbar vertebrae to the femur. The psoas is responsible for the flight or fight and freeze responses in the body.

Pilates focuses on releasing, mobilising and strengthening the core muscles, making it a great way to reset the psoas and unravel tension patterns in the core.

Increases body awareness

Some survivors of trauma experience disturbances in their body image. This can range from a mild preoccupation with their physical appearance, to self-injury, eating disorders and body dysphoria. Because the body has been treated as an object by the perpetrator, there’s often a dissociation and separation from the body.

Pilates is empowering as it reminds us of how our body works, how strong it is, and how resilient it can be. Classes often start with body awareness exercises. Students are asked to scan their body and take note of the sensations they feel. Paying attention to the signals your body sends can be a great first step to reconnecting with your body.

Promotes focus and mindful thinking

Trauma can leave us feeling anxious, unable to focus, and on edge. Pilates is a great way to calm the mind and bring our attention to the present.

It’s difficult to practice Pilates with a wandering mind, as the movements require us to isolate different muscle groups and work them mindfully. Students are taught to notice sensations produced by each movement and coordinate with specific breathing patterns. When movement, breath and attention are in sync, it can create a meditative state.

Creative therapies for healing trauma

Pilates, and other expressive arts therapies such as Yoga, sandplay therapy and dance therapy can be extremely effective in treating trauma, especially when used in conjunction with traditional talking therapies. They’re also great tools for you to use to look after yourself as a mental health practitioner.

If you want to find out more about creative trauma therapy, or want to know how you can use Pilates as a creative supervision tool, why not sign up for one of my trauma training courses? They’re the only courses in the UK to explore evidence-based models of trauma therapy using sandplay and expressive arts. For more information, give Jill a call on 07932 694 779.

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