Vocal Psychotherapy and Trauma
12 May 14
by Christina Cheshire, BMT
If you bring forth that which is within you,
Then that which is within you will be your salvation.
If you do not bring forth that which is within you,
Then that which is within you will destroy you.
~ the Gnostic Gospels
What is Trauma?
Trauma can be the result of a perceived life-threat or the result of cumulative stress. A person who has experienced trauma may feel unsafe, withdrawn, disconnected from others, angry, indecisive or irritable. They may avoid thinking about the traumatic experience, may have nightmares and may experience an array of physical symptoms including fatigue, aches and pains, insomnia, confusion, a racing heartbeat and may startle easily (Robinson, Segal and Smith 2014). Dr. Peter Levine describes that“trauma may result from a wide variety of stressors such as accidents, invasive medical procedures, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, war, natural disasters, loss, birth trauma, or the corrosive stressors of ongoing fear and conflict…trauma is not caused by the event itself, but rather develops through the failure of the body, psyche, and nervous system to process adverse events” (Lavine, 2014).
Dr. Lavine observed that animals who were preyed upon experienced trauma the same way humans do: a surge of energy and increased heart beat (fight or flight response). Once the threat of danger subsided the animal’s parasympathetic nervous system released this surge of energy, returning the body to homeostasis or a state of equilibrium, resulting in involuntary movements such as shaking or trembling of the muscular tissues and deep breathing. The animal would then continue what it was doing before the trauma (Lavine, 2008, p.89-90).
What often happens with humans who experience trauma is that they do not allow their parasympathetic nervous systems to execute it’s job, returning the body to a state of calm, which causes the pain of the trauma to be stuck in the body. There are many different ways to release this trapped trauma, some examples are: Breath-work, chanting, toning, singing, yoga, the Kundalini experience, martial arts and Somatic Experiencing.
Music and breath can cause us to be conscious of our bodies and bring up emotions, images or associations lodged in our subconscious minds. People who carry trauma do everything to stay out of the present moment in order to not feel pain. Many people who have had traumatic experiences become addicted to habits and states such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex..etc… to escape the painful memories, feelings or sensations related to the trauma.
Vocal psychotherapist Diane Austin has pioneered a technique to help clients work through trauma. Some goals of treatment include, but are not limited to, release of emotions and access to subconscious feelings, images and associations (Austin 2008, p.153). Austin has developed techniques that include breathing, chanting, vocal improvisation, vocal holding, free associative singing and song singing.
Vocal holding is a technique wherein the therapist plays a 2-chord progression on the piano while the client explores vocal realms which may include making sounds, humming, toning vowels, or singing words. The therapist accompanies the client by singing along; at the same time, in a dialogue, in a harmonizing way, in a dissonant way, or with silence. The rhythmic singing of vowels and the predictability and repetition of the two-chord progression supprts the client in a safe space and can cause the client to enter a trance-like state and provide them with a gateway into their subconscious mind (Austin, 2008, p.147).
This is one brief explanation of how music therapy can be applied to assist people who have experienced trauma to release the emotions stuck in their bodies in order to return to a state of peace and equilibrium. For a more in depth explanation of the theory behind Austin’s vocal psychotherapy and specific examples, please see her book (listed below) or her website: http://dianeaustin.com/music/.
Austin, D. (2008) The Theory and Practice of Vocal Psychotherapy. Pennsylvania: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Lavine,P. (n.d.). About Somatic Experiencing. In Trauma Healing. Retrieved May 9th, 2014, from http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/index.html.
Lavine, P. (2008). Trauma and Spirituality. In Measuring the Immeasurable : The Scientific Case for Spirituality (85-100) . Colorado: Sounds True.
Robinson, L. Segal, J., and Smith, M. (March 2014). Emotional and Psychological Trauma. In Helpguide.org: A Trusted Non-profit Resource. Retrieved May 10th, 2014, from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/emotional_psychological_trauma.htm.