Engaging the Body in the Healing Process

Movement is important for everyone because all people have bodies in some shape or form. Movement is especially important for kids from hard places, however and specifically those in the foster care and adoptive systems. Incorporating movement in everyday activities is not that hard either. It simply takes some intentional effort that can promote holistic healing.

Why is movement especially important for kids from hard places? Because the body stores trauma. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (1994) was one of the first to write about this, but his theory has since been validated by many others (Eckelkampl, 2019). Humans feel emotions as sensations in the body (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, & Hietanen, 2013). The body can remember specific responses in association with trauma (van der Kolk). It can also become unbalanced in its autonomic processes (specifically the fight-flight-freeze response) because of experiencing trauma (Eckelkampl). The body really suffers on many levels from trauma. Since the body suffers from trauma, movement can be one way to help release trauma and its associated symptoms.

How can movement help release trauma? It can help release tension from stored up emotions (Ishler, 2021). It can also help rebalance the nervous system (Ecklekampl, 2019). As therapist Kaitlin Kertesz explains, movement is helpful because “changing your physical cues can affect the way you feel overall.” In the process of moving from old environments that are often physically unsafe (as well as emotionally and mentally unsafe), to new placements, foster and adoptive children can benefit from engaging their bodies, demonstrating the true shift of state that is occurring.

What types of movement can benefit foster and adoptive children? Deep breathing is a good place to start (Sweeton, 2017). Deep breathing tells the body that it is not in danger, that it is getting what it needs. It also helps the thinking brain stay engaged, rather than flipping the lid (Piercy, 2019). Mindful practices like yoga, qi gong, tai chi, and meditative walking can help slow down the body and reconnect the brain (Ishler, 2021). Dance and even intentional shaking can release tension. Martial arts can increase confidence. Some studies have shown that specific “power poses” can reduce cortisol (Clear, n.d.). Trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry suggests regular, repetitive rhythmic activities as the basis for repairing relationships and promoting resilience (Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute, n.d.). When kids are in a regulated and related place, often accomplished through movement, they learn better. Kinesthetic learning, learning through moving and doing, may be a great way to do this (Ability Path, n.d.). Bottom to top, top to bottom, movement benefits the whole child.

Is movement a substitute for therapy? No, but it may be used in conjunction with therapy. Therapies such as EMDR and somatic experiencing engage the whole body. Therapists may intentionally include the body in activities for regulation, relationship, and reasoning, too. The goal of incorporating movement into the lives of children from hard places is not to be the healing, but to be part of the healing, because healing involves all part of the person, including the body.


Ability Path. (n.d.) Children’s learning styles.

Clear, J. (n.d.) How to be confident and reduce stress in 2 minutes per day. James Clear.

Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute (n.d.)

Eckelkampl, S. (2019, October 9). Can trauma really be ‘stored’ in the body? Mind Body Green Health.

Ishler, J. (2021, September 16). How to release ’emotional baggage’ and the tension that goes with it. Healthline.

Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J. K. (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), 646–651.

Piercy, R. (2019, October 28). Flipping your lid: Understanding and communicating emotional dysregulation. Total Health West Berkshire.

Sweeton, J. (2017, August 20). To heal trauma, work with the body. Psychology Today.

Van De Beuken, F. (2017, February 6). Somatic experiencing primary therapist highlights importance of building a sensory vocabulary. Trails Carolina.

van der Kolk, B.A. (1994). The body keeps the score: memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harv Rev Psychiatry, 1(5):253-65.