The Body of War and Peace

The Body of War and Peace – by Mark Walsh.
Originally published in The Embodiment Journal, Volume 2

This article outlines how the causes of war, and trauma caused by war, are embodied, and how peace-building can be done through the body, outlining fundamental concepts and embodied interventions.

Violence remains popular, and to understand its causes and what can be done about it, we need to understand the body. Those committing acts of violence and likewise peace do so through, and with a body. Our way of being, whether it be warlike or peaceful, is embodied or somatic – meaning how we live as bodies not just the common understanding of the body as “brain taxi” (as Francis Briers likes to say). “How we move through space is how we move through life” (Stuart Heller) and if we move in harmonious relationship or not is based on our pattern of awareness, movement, posture etc. The body both expresses and creates ‘how we are’, including our propensity for war and peace. As a fighter at heart, exposed to violence at a young age, intensive study of the martial arts later and who has worked in areas of conflict on four continents, these matters are not just theoretical to me but passionate engagements. I hope this article is of some use to people involved in embodiment, healing and peace-building which, as we shall see, are one activity.

Trauma and the body overview
The first thing to consider is that war causes trauma, but ALSO, that trauma causes war. “Hurt people hurt people” as Will Bowen said. Trauma is held as a pattern of being, feeling and moving, or usually the lack thereof in the body, as Dr Bessel Van der Kolk’s article,’The Body Keeps The Score’[1] expresses. This is now widely accepted even among conventional therapists and trauma has brought embodiment to the wider therapeutic world, as in this domain it simply cannot be ignored. The main symptoms of trauma related conditions such as PTSD involve such things as hyperarousal, numbing (goes alongside freezing), psychosomatic illness, reliving and emotional/relational difficulties through issues with intimacy and self-regulation[2]. These are clearly bodily. The list of trauma symptoms is sadly long, so in an article of this size I’ll just consider some core aspects and their embodiments:

Hyperarousal is a bodily state of stimulation when people are stuck long-term in what is normally a temporary ‘fight-flight’ level of readiness, with all the psychological and physiological correlates of this such as variation in heart rate, hormone levels and cortical activity. Hyperarousal interferes with listening, makes people more prone to anger (neurologically this is sometimes referred to as an ‘amygdala hijack’ as blood is diverted from the neocortex to more ‘primitive’ parts of the brain – if you’ll excuse some very crude neuroscience), sleeplessness (too much adrenaline and noradrenaline), anxiety (cortisol levels are up), etc.[3], and crucially for conflict means people are more likely to perceive situations as threatening and respond in anti-social/violent ways. Basically trauma can easily make people rush habitually, make them irritable, uptight, on edge, have difficulties concentrating and make them ready to fight. This happens to individuals (look at how many ex servicemen are in prison[4]) and culturally, as I am struck by every time I work in areas of conflict. As one Afghan elder commented to me, “people are so quick to anger these days over nothing, like they see enemies everywhere” (paraphrased). Happily this hyperarousal can be addressed short-term through state management and long-term through trauma releasing as will be discussed.

The other key trauma feature relating to conflict is numbing – when people feel overwhelmed they stop feeling as a protective mechanism. As one of the main ways this happens is through chronic tension (called ‘armouring’ by body psychologists including Reich) and numbing, lack of movement and therefore awareness go hand in hand. Awareness shrinks, twists (we see this with shame particularly) or becomes out of balance – embodied trauma expert, and founder of the field of embodied peacemaking, Paul Linden calls the former “smallifying”, as a healthy expansive radiant awareness, and I mean this literally, is lost.

The ‘freeze’ response is a part of numbing that should also be considered for a richer upstanding of trauma. Freezing – sudden numbing and immobilisation – can lead people to not react when they need to, often leading to guilt if, for instance, someone doesn’t fight back during a sexual assault or while on the front lines. A good somatic tool-box therefore includes mobilisation techniques for freezing, as well as relaxation ones for fight-flight.

Interpersonal challenges
Numbing the body leads to negative physical health symptoms of various kinds and effects embodiment on many levels. One of the key ones, combined with hyperarousal, is interpersonal difficulties as our capacity to empathise and connect with others requires that we feel. If I cannot feel myself I cannot feel others, and if I am in a rush and feeling agitated and unsafe I won’t want to. Trauma causes disembodiment which makes people literally psychopathic, at least temporarily. This is a strong word but the correct one, and the reason for the seemingly endless cycles of war-trauma-war-repeat in some parts of the world which may be hard to understand by those who have always been safe. Trauma interrupts our ability to find love, safety, trust and belonging on a bodily level. Ironically the felt sense of these very things is healing for trauma, whether it be through an intimate relationship or a therapeutic one that provides these loving conditions. You won’t see the word ‘love’ in many academic papers but understanding the bodily loss of this state and support in re-establishing it is crucial to trauma-recovery and peace building.

Trauma related issues with belonging can cause a shrinking and hardening of one’s circles of concern, meaning life becomes ‘with us or against us’ and ‘us vs. them’. This can be seen as a solidification of the ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups and has somatic correlates. I have seen this with every traumatised culture I have worked with such as Greeks and Turks, Russians and Ukrainians, Jews and Arabs/ Gentiles, etc. The only exception to this I have observed is with Tibetan refugees who seem almost miraculously inoculated from hate by Buddhist practices and culture. They are frankly impressive in their coping and much can be learnt from them. Mindfulness and Buddhist ‘heart practices’ such as metta meditation which is specially designed for both self-care and to extend ones circle of concern can be key foundations for trauma recovery.

Numbing can also express as boundary issues where people become passive victims unable to say no, over assert boundaries aggressively or do not notice or respect the boundaries of others. Sadly I have seen all of these individually in abused children for example and also culturally in many populations, which may be seen as rude/invasive or overly passive. Trying to understand the Israel-Palestine or Russia-Ukraine conflicts for example, without appreciating this will likely be confusing or frustrating. Embodied work around ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is very useful when this is present, as ‘boundaries’ are not an abstract therapeutic concept, but the way in which a body is predisposed to relate.

NB: While expressed slightly differently – e.g. Russian tense jaws and Israeli movement style (fast, abrupt and linear in Laban[5] movement terms) – limited variations of these somatic patterns exist cross-culturally. They are even in other mammals as you will see in a dog or cat that has been mistreated. We have an intuitive sense of them in others which can register as fear, or a sense of someone being ‘not right’.

Wider cultural and political considerations
Compounding individual trauma is the general cultural backdrop. With the pace of modern life, disembodying technology use, industrialisation and a general culture of disembodiment in the modern world, it is no wonder trauma is becoming an epidemic even in relatively safe countries.  The UK for example has a lifetime prevalence of 80% likelihood of a person experiencing a traumatic incident, so trauma education is relevant to everyone. While violence has always existed and may even be on the decline[6] what is new is a common lack of community, lack of spiritual meaning, disconnection from nature and disembodiment as a general norm, all of which are massive vulnerability factors for acute (short term) trauma responses becoming a longer term condition such as PTSD or GAD and ‘normal recovery’ – the fact that most people are naturally resilient and recover from trauma – being arrested.

Politically we could consider that elites throughout the ages do not want an embodied, untraumatised, feeling population in touch with their own values, as they can be less easily manipulated. Disembodiment is not an accident but a design, a design that benefits the ruling class. Environmentally we could consider that the way we treat ourselves, each other and the planet are the same, and to lose connection to one is to lose connection to all. Disembodiment is a root cause of environmental destruction as well as war, as not feeling is at the root of both. Trauma cuts us off from the ‘big body’ of the environment as it cuts us off from ourselves and others. I make no apologies for a radically political paragraph in an embodiment journal as I believe that without this wider understanding we will become not only inefective in our work but complicit in this wider state of affairs.

Centring and state management
The somewhat vague embodiment bucket-term ‘centring’ refers to various kinds of state management and self-regulation techniques. See for example the ABC centring technique[7] or Wendy Palmer’s techniques – there are many methods. The principle behind the majority is reducing the fight or flight response through posture, awareness, breathing technique etc, and re-establishing awareness, balance, relaxation, etc (though it’s a mistake to think of them as synonymous with this). Centring techniques are extremely important for helping traumatised hyperaroused people learn to manage themselves again, and also for peace building dialogues. As Paul Linden (in my researched opinion THE world leader on centring) said at an Aiki Extensions Inc peace-building event in Cyprus with the UN, attended by aikido teachers from around The Middle East:

“Imagine the person across the negotiating table from you killed a member of your family. You want to talk peace but how do you feel in your body? What do you do?” (Paraphrased).

I have seen peace dialogues and conflict resolution efforts derailed time and time again by bodily fight-flight-freeze response. In fact, I invite readers to think of the last thing they did or said that they regret, almost certainly you were in the FFF response as neurologically it makes us mean and stupid (scientific jargon available on request!). Words alone are not enough to make peace, we must literally make or shape peace in ourselves first. Happily I have also seen ‘centring breaks’ used successfully to support constructive conversations, as I did for example in Sierra Leone between factions of the military. I have said much more on centring, how one practices and the necessity for this, how it can be included in yoga or martial arts practice, etc elsewhere. Google/Youtube search if interested in more depth. [Editors note – Mark’s Youtube Channel ‘Integration Training’ has a huge number of high quality videos on embodiment and over 7 million views)

Embodied trauma releasing and other treatments
As well as short-term state management there are various techniques for reducing the chronic embodied trauma symptoms. Many of them use a ‘charge’ or ‘energy’ model which I am not a great fan of, but what I do like is that they work. The best known examples are EFT which uses tapping on certain points, David Berchelli’s Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) which involve facilitating shaking while lying down, both of which can be learnt and self-administered fairly quickly, and EMDR which is an eye movement technique that is National Health Service approved because of its evidence base. I have used all of these personally and rely upon them to stay sane while working somewhere colourful and immediately after, and have found even cynical aid workers open to them if presented in the right way. There is also Hakomi which includes traditional body therapy and mindfulness, and Somatic Experiencing.  Both take longer and require years of training to administer but are widely respected.  There are also numerous other embodied methods. My current method of choice is Francis Briers’ standing trauma releasing form which is similar to TRE in effect but more accessible due to its verticality!

Embodied approaches to building empathy
The primary way we connect is through the body, through touch and coordinated movement specifically. This is why people touch before they talk, why dance is part of courtship worldwide, why soldiers march and why physical activities such as sport are great for building bridges. This understanding can be incorporated into peace building activities in culturally appropriate ways. This can be as simple as encouraging hand shaking or walking side by side (a great coordination or practice) or through the use of explicit techniques such as the classic hand-on-heart listening exercise – YouTube search ‘Mark Walsh’ and ‘listening exercise’ to find a video showing this (lower intimacy versions are possible – I have a scale), through taking breaths together to ‘sync’, to singing etc. The basic principle is getting people to touch, move and breath in sync, in whatever way doesn’t freak them out.

Embodied Shadow Work
The most extreme ‘othering’ that is both a cause and a consequence of conflict, is when aspects of the other (e.g. the Germans, Jews, Arabs or whoever) are actively repressed and denied. This splits the self and means triggering by that group is even more likely and even stronger, and can really get in the way of peace work. When you see an Israeli seemingly overreact and scream in the face of a Palestinian (or vice versa) you are looking at not only the current rational reality of conflict, but the (unhealed) history and also the ‘mystery’ of disowned self being denied and projected.

Disowned parts of the self can be re-owned through embodied voice dialogue work or simple activities such as moving or standing like that group for a period of time – usually there is an initial discomfort that seems unbearable followed, if a person sticks with it, by an almost disturbing empathy as someone starts to see the world through their enemies’ eyes.

Note that this work requires extremely strong group holding and mature therapeutic-level facilitation skills so is not to be taken lightly. It can bring up a lot of painful issues for participants (who must be both willing and well resourced), and there can also be surprising and sudden somaticisation. This is true of any trauma work – do your own work first! – but particularly true of embodied shadow work. In one early experiment with this in the Middle East I became so dizzy I had to sit down and my co-facilitator left the room to be sick after less than 3 minutes! Proceed with care.

This paper has outlined some of the embodied effects of trauma and what can be done about them. It’s a huge subject so it has just scratched the surface but I hope it will inspire curiosity, learning and embodied practitioners applying their skills to healing and peace work. Perhaps hope is the best note to end on after considering such a thorny subject. So on that note, let me comment that the biblical warning that the sins of the father will be visited onto the son for seven generations, which I hold as a warning of the lingering effects of trauma, need no longer be true.  We have the understanding and the methodology to change it: That’s worth celebrating and worth acting upon.

I have made a number of accessible Youtube videos on this topic:

Embodied peace building

What is Trauma –

The body and trauma

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma –

Psychological Trauma / PTSD Resilience –
PTSD Trauma and Relationships –
E-books by Paul Linden such as Embodied Peacemaking and Winning is Healing (about abuse recovery) are excellent –

Babbette Roschild has written several good books, David Berchelli (TRE) is now widely taught, Waking the Tiger and other books by Peter Levine are good and there are many good PTSD self-help books.

Mark is Director of Integration Training Ltd, the Embodied Facilitator Course and Achilles Resilience Training. He is an aikido blackbelt, long term meditator and has trained in numerous embodied systems such as yoga, body therapy, forms of dance and other martial arts.

He has extensive training and facilitation experience, primarily around leadership and resilience/trauma with large and small organisations in the UK and abroad, including: Unilever (London/ Switzerland), The UK House of Lords, Virgin Atlantic, Harrow Primary Care Trust (NHS London), The Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex, Brighton), Shell, Axa, The Natural History Museum (London), Emerging Capital Partners (US/ Africa), Liberty Global (international telecoms blue-chip) and the Army of Sierra Leone. He also spent three years organising projects, training and conferences for the international organisation Aiki Extensions Inc in areas of conflict. This included leadership training, stress management and conflict resolution work in the Middle East alongside the UN, in the slums of Brazil and with an HIV awareness charity in East Africa..

[1] first published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1994, 1(5), 253-265

[3] [‘Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage an account of researches into the function of emotional excitement’ by Cannon, Walter B, published in 1915

[4] according to the criminal justice campaign group No Offence it’s one in ten prisoners – The Independent, Sunday 15 July 2012

[5] [Editors Note: If you are not familiar with Laban’s work, he studied and taught dance and choreography and developed ways of very specifically classifying movements to the extent that choreography could be recorded in notation like music]

[6] Stephen Pinker: The Better Angels of our Nature

[7] You can find a video teaching this on Youtube here: