Point of View

The Social Roots of Trauma

Staci Haines on Where Our Bodies, Culture, and Healing Intersect

Magazine Issue
March/April 2023
Staci Haines

“Everything is interconnected” is a truism not just in medicine and mysticism, but also in psychotherapy. Most practicing therapists today hold some version of this core belief in their work with clients. We know childhood affects adolescence, and adolescence affects adulthood. We know our emotions live in our bodies, and our bodies and minds are inseparable. We also know our clients don’t inhabit walled-off, impenetrable silos: they’re both shaping and being shaped by their environments all the time.

And yet, when we work with individual clients, it’s easy to see their issues out of context, like cell samples in a petri dish. We may work in earnest every day, empathizing with our clients, challenging their irrational beliefs, and yet far too often, progress can be slow or even negligible. As we become more aware of the societal issues they struggle with, we may feel overwhelmed by how little it seems we can do for them within larger, oppressive systems. When a reduction in symptoms or an occasional therapeutic breakthrough feels insignificant amid the tidal wave of traumas in the world today, what can a therapist truly offer clients and communities?

Somatic clinician Staci Haines, in her books The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice and Healing Sex: A Mind–Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma, has some answers for us. Rather than framing trauma as an anomaly within a group or a family, she connects the dots between individual issues like intimate partner violence and societal issues like heteropatriarchy and white privilege. Using her unique professional alchemy of somatics, social and environmental justice, and trauma-informed treatment, she offers a variety of creative entry points into individual and societal healing. Whichever avenues readers choose to transform themselves and their communities, they have an inspiring and devoted guide, clinician, and teacher in Haines.

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Ryan Howes: Your devotion to innovative trauma work is impressive. What initially got you interested?

Staci Haines: I come from a family where there was intimate partner violence and child abuse. As I was doing my own healing work, I got exposed to an embodied approach, and was blown away with how well it worked. At the same time, I was studying psychology and large-scale social movements and became fascinated with the adaptations that folks use as they navigate systemic trauma. I found my hope in the long line of social-justice movements. I saw how my life was so different from my mother’s because of those that had put their lives into social change. I’ve now been in the field of somatics and specializing in trauma and social justice for 30 years.

RH: How is your somatic approach to healing different from others?

Haines: In the Strozzi Institute lineage that I’m a part of, there are four core components to the method. The first is somatic awareness, or how we bring our attention to the sensations, aliveness, movement, and contraction happening through the whole of our psychobiology.

The second is a deep integration of somatic practices with roots in Aikido, a noncombative martial art meant to resolve conflict without violence. It’s also known as the martial art of peace. Often with trauma, survivors haven’t learned core skills that are relevant to navigating healthy relationships, like consent or boundaries, or how to make a direct request, or even how to be connected to one’s own needs. These practices help us proactively practice what we might not know how to do, which is an important part of change.

The third component is somatic opening. The history of unprocessed survival reactions in us is lodged in our body’s tissues as contractions or numbness or flooding. One of the approaches to help process these reactions is somatic bodywork, including actual physical touch.

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And the fourth component is an integration of social context to understand that we’re always navigating and being shaped by our social and economic conditions. Many of these conditions are the root causes of violence and trauma.

Other somatic schools that have been integrated into Western psychotherapy often shed body-based practices and somatic bodywork to fit more into that model. Few somatic or Western therapeutic traditions integrate a social analysis.

RH: I’m interested in the combination of somatic work and social justice that you talk about in your book. For you, how are personal and collective interventions connected?

Haines: How are they disconnected? In my view, they’re inseparable.

There’s a public health model that was popularized during the international AIDS crisis: we need changes at the individual, family, community, institutional, and societal levels to end the spread of HIV. It’s the same with trauma.

Trauma is rooted in the “power-over” dynamics of social oppression. When we ask ourselves why child abuse or intimate partner violence is so rampant, we must look at broader social norms around violence, domination, and gender training. Deep-seated social and economic issues—like racism, transphobia, and poverty—get lived as individual, family, and community experiences.

You can see this in how the COVID pandemic has impacted Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities more intensely than white communities. These communities tend to have less access to high-quality healthcare and culturally relevant mental health services. There are numerous studies on how unconscious bias—racism—plays out through health professionals’ taking the health and mental health needs of nonwhite people less seriously.

RH: Say I’m a therapist working in a big town and a client comes in with trauma. How can I intervene on the institutional or the community level? Or am I just to work with the individual?

Haines: One of the important things for practitioners to explore is our own social locations and shaping from this. Who are we? How were we raised around race and culture? How were we trained around gender, sexual orientation, class, and immigration status? Then we need to recognize social shaping and history in others. I’m a white cisgendered woman who’s queer and was raised working-class. Let’s say I’m working with a Black heterosexual woman. It’s critical that I can ask, “How is it for you to work with a white practitioner? Is there anything you need, given this?”

Most of us have been trained to see people individually and in the context of family, but we need to see that community, institutions, social norms, and connection to land are places of pain and/or resilience that can be explored too. We can listen to and ask questions about our clients’ experiences of bias, gender training, community violence, or capitalism. Our ideas about success, healing, and relationships are influenced by social norms. We can prepare ourselves to understand and effectively work with a wide range of lived experiences. There aren’t a lot of therapy schools that train us in deep social analysis. There’s more integrated training in social work schools, but often we have to go and get that training on our own.

With somatics, we recognize that we embody the social norms and conditions that we were raised in and live inside of, whether or not we agree with them. I’m an antiracist, but I’ve still been shaped by white privilege and white supremacy, and I have to ask myself, “How does it show up in me as a practitioner? How can I work most effectively across differences? How do I continue to grow and change my social consciousness so I’m not perpetuating harm?”

RH: How do you practically integrate all the things you’re talking about into the therapeutic setting?

Haines: It can help to be clear on what the heck somatics is. Soma means a living organism in its wholeness, and it’s the best word we have in English to use when we mean that mind and body aren’t separate. Soma is our physicality, our emotional range or lack thereof, our embodied belief systems, and the actions we take and don’t take. It’s also our style of contact or connection.

When we’re healing in somatics, we’re shifting ourselves from inherited, protective, and reactive states to an embodiment that’s more aligned with what we care about. This gives us a wider range of choices and responses in current time, rather than automatic reactions, even when we’re under pressure. We can unpack and transform core wounds and the corresponding survival strategies. This allows not only for new insights, but an ability to be, relate, and behave in ways that are more values-aligned, more connected to ourselves, others, and purpose.

Somatics understands that we all have our adaptations for safety, belonging, and dignity. It’s how the mind/body is built. Often these need updating through somatic therapy and practices. A core practice of somatics is a basic centering practice. This helps us learn to be present, in our bodies, and connected to what we care about. Another core practice is embodied consent. For most of us this is a relearning of an embodied yes, an embodied no, or even an embodied maybe, which might sound like, “Well, I don’t know, I need more information.” Or “I don’t know; I need a few days to think about it.” While this may sound basic, learning new embodied skills like consent, boundaries, or making requests both offers clients new choices and helps thaw the deeper protective strategies caught in the body.

Practices are relevant for us as practitioners too. Many practitioners have an amazing ability to pay attention to their clients and feel and sense them deeply. But they often disconnect themselves to do that, so there’s a whole set of somatic practices we can also do for ourselves. Can you stay connected (feeling and sensing) to your own back, your center, and your hips, while being highly sensitive to another person and picking up information from them? Where are you in the midst of this conversation? Can you attend to another and then come back to yourself, again and again? One of the fastest ways to reconnect with ourselves is through the felt senses, finding ourselves in our bodies, and recentering.

RH: Your book Healing Sex goes to the core of consent and maintaining a sense of yourself while connecting with another.

Haines: It asks, “How do you have boundaries? How do you even know what’s pleasurable to you?” This is especially useful with trauma, where it’s often important to leave our bodies to adapt, appease, or hide ourselves away. All these things are such wise responses to trauma. To me, to have mutual pleasure, mutually consensual intimacy or sexuality, requires embodied skills.

RH: Your book The Politics of Trauma addresses that point on a more systemic, global level, right?

Haines: It explores how community and social norms can be traumatizing, the predictable trauma of oppression, and how we can collectively grow, change, and heal.

For example, we did some work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Domestic workers, like farmworkers, were left out of the workers’ rights that were won and legislated in the 1940s, and they’re still not covered under most labor laws today. Domestic workers are often Black and women of color, some may be undocumented immigrants, most are poor or working-class women. We did somatic work with them in a group of 60-plus people, over 16 days, spread out over a year.

This looked like collective somatic practices: like centering, requests, and boundaries, and an extension practice toward their social vision of dignifying domestic work and the care economy. The work included somatic storytelling around what shaped them, their lived experiences, and why they care about equity and respect for all workers. We also did guided somatic bodywork, where these leaders got to care for each other in their healing, and be cared for.

We explored with them what we call inherent resilience, the idea that “if you’re still here, you’re more powerful than what happened to you.” We learned what brought each of them resilience and looked to how to practice that on purpose.

The idea behind this collective somatic work is to give social change organizers and leaders access to embodied healing, and new, relevant somatic practices. The aim is for this to support them in more powerfully accomplishing the social and policy changes that foster equity and dignity.

Therapists are often trained to ask, “What’s wrong, and how can I help you with what’s wrong?” But somatics teaches us to first inquire, “What do you care about? Who do you want to become? What difference do you want to make? What quality of relationships do you want?” The idea is to transform toward something, not solely away from something else.

Healing and social change are distinct processes, but they can be co-serving. Somatics with a social analysis can more holistically meet people in their lived experiences and healing needs, and therapists can get involved in social-change organizations and activities. Social-change leaders and members can access healing and become more resilient and resourced in their work on behalf of all of us.

RH: What’s next for you?

Haines: Living, growing, and taking care of my family and community. Along with working with collective projects for social and climate justice groups, I’m launching an online program this year to make this work more accessible. In my small private practice, I mostly work with social-movement leaders. I focus on them because they’re holding so many others and fighting for a life-affirming future for all of us, and most of them have experienced some level of trauma.

Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.