Accessing the Mind-body Connection to Heal Trauma in Play Therapy

Helping your clients overcome the impact of trauma in play therapy requires you understand the role of the sensory aspects of trauma memories.

Do you want to have incredible success for your child and adolescent clients healing the impact of trauma? Cognitive strategies alone don’t fully address the impact of trauma. Trauma is stored via sensory elements in traumatic memories independent of cognitive aspects of the event. What the heck does that mean?

parents yelling and female child covering her ears

Have you ever smelled something that brought back fond memories of an event in your life?

For example, the smell of eggs cooking in bacon fat brings me right back to camping at the lake when I was young. I’d wake up in the summer mornings while tent camping in a secluded campsite off a quiet cove under the cover of shady trees. My mother would be cooking eggs and bacon on the camp stove. The smell of bacon and eggs cooking immediately brings back fond memories of camping with my family.

Or have you ever seen something or felt something that reminded you of an experience from your past that was scary or unpleasant? The sensory aspects of your experience in that moment brought back all those unpleasant memories and activated all those unpleasant emotions?

Memories store sensory aspects of the event that are not directly connected with conscious thought. This is also true with sensory memories connected with traumatic events. For example, consider a female victim of rape whose attacker had a strong odor of cigarette smoke that she smelled during her assault. The smell of cigarette smoke can access the sensory aspects of her traumatic experience and activate her memories of the event. This can immediately trigger intrusive memories of that traumatic experience without fully understanding what’s happening cognitively. These intrusive memories will likely activate the fight-flight-freeze response and emotion dysregulation.

What are the sensory aspects of trauma?

Every experience you have includes sensory aspects of the memory. Like my memory of camping and my mom cooking bacon and eggs in the morning. You aren’t typically aware of the sensory aspects of your memories until they are activated. Trauma is stored in the body and mind via sensory information. When a trauma memory is accessed via sensory information it will trigger a trauma response. Exploring the sensory aspects of trauma allows your clients to identify potential trauma triggers so they can learn coping skills to manage them.

I regularly tell my clients, “Trauma makes you feel like you’re crazy. You’re not. Something crazy happened to you and now you’re figuring out how to thrive despite what happened to you. You’re not crazy.” It’s important to challenge distorted meanings clients make of their trauma responses. That requires psychoeducation about the sensory aspects of traumatic experiences and memories so they can understand what’s happening to them. This is how you can empower them to heal. To be truly effective helping children and adolescents heal, play therapists need to understand that trauma activates threat responses through sensory circuits. This is key (after developing safety) to guiding your child and adolescent clients through the healing process.

Quote about understanding sensory components of trauma

How can play therapy help to access these sensory components of trauma?

William Steele and Melvyn Raider (2001, Structured Sensory Intervention for Traumatized Children, Adolescents and Parents: Strategies to Alleviate Trauma, The Edwin Mellen Press) stated,

“When that memory cannot be linked linguistically in a contextual framework it remains at a symbolic level for which there are no words to describe it. In order to retrieve that memory so it can be ‘encoded’ and given a language and then integrated into consciousness, it must be retrieved and externalized in its symbolic perceptual (iconic) form.” (p. 33-34)

You can aid your client to access the sensory aspects of their trauma. Play therapy and the use of expressive modalities can provide the ability to symbolically express and resolve traumatic experiences that can’t be accessed through traditional cognitive methods. These are critical tasks to accomplish in play therapy so your client can manage their fight-flight-freeze responses. Identifying the sensory aspects of their trauma memories will also assist your clients to process and heal from their experience. Using a play therapy approach that’s grounded in theory and informed by research provides a foundation to use play therapy and expressive arts activities to accomplish these tasks.

Using Play Therapy to Address Trauma Effectively & Ethically

Working with traumatized children and adolescents using play therapy and expressive arts requires you to have training and supervision so you can be effective. Training provides the ability to learn methods for addressing trauma. This knowledge ensures you understand the research and theory underlying the method you plan to use. Learning a framework grounded in theory and research ensures you can guide your client through the treatment process. It also teaches you how to use the clinical decision-making process to apply the information with your specific clients. Consultation/ supervision ensure you take that knowledge and apply it effectively and ethically for your specific clients. Theory drives application and application requires you know how to use the information to guide your decision-making process through the various stages of treatment. Choosing a supervisor/consultant who can provide the guidance you need is important. Choose wisely.

female adult play tea with female child dressed in princess costumes


  1. Trauma is stored in the body and mind and accessed via sensory memories. This is a critical point to remember when working with traumatized children and adolescents.

  2. Play therapy and expressive modalities can access traumatic memories when cognitive strategies alone cannot help your client retrieve and resolve their experiences.

  3. It’s important to ensure you obtain trauma training and supervision/consultation when using play therapy with traumatized children and adolescents. Training provides the knowledge and consultation teaches you the clinical decision-making skills to apply that knowledge with your specific clients. You have amazing gifts to offer! Learning how to access your therapeutic superpowers requires an investment in yourself so you can make a difference in the lives of your young clients.

Want to learn more about accessing your play therapy superpowers to help your clients heal?

Check out my free resources to integrate play therapy in your clinical work with children and adolescents.

Need more support to develop your amazing therapeutic gifts to help children, adolescents, and families heal in your community?

Check out my upcoming trainings here

You can also schedule a free 30-minute video call with me to see if my online group and individual supervision/consultation services are a good fit for you. (No pressure- promise!)

Categories: Play Therapy, Trauma