January 1, 2022

It’s probably wrong, in a technical sense, to think of trauma as energy stored in the body. The human body is made of cells, after all, not electricity.

But, as the saying goes, “All models are wrong – but some are useful.”

By thinking of trauma as stored energy, I can make sense of several phenomena that have biological reasons, but not ones that I find as easy to understand and act upon.

Like me, you probably laugh after an awkward moment, cry after a loss, yell after a jump scare, and shake after narrowly evading an accident.

All of these make sense if you think of stress as a thing that needs to be released – through laughing, crying, yelling, shaking, or other movement – and will get trapped if it doesn’t.

This has some implications for treating and preventing trauma. These implications seem to be supported by science, even if the model itself isn’t.

For treating trauma, it implies that physical experiences are just as important as cognitive, verbal, or emotional ones. It’s important to find a therapist or friend who will not only talk you through painful memories, but also create a safe space for you to tremble and wail without shame.

For preventing trauma, it implies that the sooner you can do such things after a stressful event, the better. When adrenaline is rushing and action is needed, you might push aside the instinct to let it all out. But remember not to put it off any longer than needed.

Physical release is one ingredient in healing trauma, not a total cure. But it’s an ingredient that’s often overlooked. So the next time you encounter a sudden stressor, try to take Taylor Swift’s advice literally – and shake it off.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.