I completed the first training of the Intermediate Level of Somatic Experiencing this month. It certainly deepened my understanding of trauma. We focused on pre and perinatal trauma which is trauma that occurred before we had the language to express it. Trauma can occur in utero for the fetus if it is exposed to toxins and/or stress hormones. We have the ability to use the freeze response even this early in life. Once the spine has developed we then have access to the fight or flight response where we can use the spine to engage in a swimming movement to get away from what is dangerous. We can then have birth trauma and trauma in infancy. Often our nervous system never gets a chance to develop fully and we then have young nervous systems as we grow up into adulthood. How this appears in the nervous system is called Global High Intensity Activation. How this looks is the sense of being “on” all the time and only having an off switch when overwhelmed and collapsing with fatigue. Relationships are difficult to form since forming intimate relationships requires us to be able to use the social engagement system which never had a chance to develop. The social engagement system allows us to enter into relaxed states when we are interacting with safe people. Without it we cannot distinguish safe from unsafe people. Healing these injuries is a lengthy process as it takes time to develop some capacity in the nervous system. When I have worked with clients with these types of nervous systems we can spend a lot of time just learning how to stay present in the here and now. Just to let you know, this was me for a long time. It wasn’t until I found a counsellor who had some training in somatic psychology that I became aware of this. She pointed out that I had no awareness from the neck down and looking back, I lived in a dissociated state. I would live my life through cycles of taking on too much and then crashing from fatigue or overwhelm and burning bridges with relationships and in the workplace in the process. Sound familiar? It took a while for me to learn body awareness and to be able to stay present in my body for longer lengths of time. The amazing thing is that despite the early traumas, our bodies have an innate impulse to move towards greater health. Given the opportunity to complete protection responses that never got the chance to complete, we then have access to vital life force energy to then live our best lives.
I just started my training of Somatic Experiencing in June this year and have completed the second level this October. I wasn’t sure I needed more training in the field of somatic psychology but I’m glad I did. Research in the neurosciences and the field of trauma have progressed significantly in the past 10 years. This has contributed to a better understanding of the field of somatic psychology and why these approaches are so powerful. I find that Somatic Experiencing works like laser precision to identify and treat trauma. There are very specific reasons for using a certain intervention that is meant to work with the central nervous system. One thing that I really appreciate is how important slowing down the process is in the supporting of the body to self-regulate. What self-regulation means is the body being able to operate in the most optimal, health-promoting way. Trauma causes dysregulation and trauma survivors are haunted by a nervous system that can never find peace. The worst part for survivors is blaming themselves for the trauma and their symptoms. Interestingly enough, trauma is not just the result of one traumatic event in one’s life but can be the accumulation of stress over the course of one’s life. The amazing thing is that the body is always looking for ways to self-regulate and return to health despite being dysregulated. Why slow things down? Well, speeding things up is one way we use to not feel the pain of the trauma. This is not the same as depression which is a slowing down of the nervous system but there is still agitation in it. A regulated nervous system can savour an experience rather than speed past it or not notice it all. We need to be slowed down enough to pay attention to the moment and fully feel the experience. I will be continuing with the third training in February next year and this will complete my first year of training. I am excited to deepen my knowledge and experience of my own nervous system and to be able to share this with the clients I work with.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychophysical experience which disrupts the functioning of individuals afflicted by it. A traumatic event continues to intrude with visual, auditory or body symptoms such as accelerated heart rate, cold sweats, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, and jumpiness. Victims relive the life-threatening experience, reacting in mind and body as though such events were still occurring. Symptoms of PTSD can be brought about again by external and internal reminders of the traumatic event. Internal reminders of the event can be as simple as increased heart rate and respiration or body posture reminiscent of the event and external triggers can be things such as color, sight, taste, touch, and smell.
It is thought that what causes PTSD is the storage of traumatic memories in implicit memory that are not linked to explicit memory. What this means is that the traumatic memory gets stored in our automatic and unconscious memory system and bypasses language and our ability to express the traumatic memory. Implicit memory is at the core of body memory. One of the goals of trauma therapy is to help individuals understand their bodily sensations. If we can identify and name our emotions associated with internal body states using awareness, we can reconnect the bypass that took place.
Some people can be predisposed to PTSD from stressful events during early development: neglect, physical and sexual abuse, failure of the attachment bond, and individual traumatic incidents. It is thought that individuals who suffered early trauma and/or did not have the benefit of a healthy attachment may have limited capacity for regulating stress. With assistance from a loving caregiver, an infant learns to regulate their emotional responses with touch, sound, and eye contact. Without this early learning to regulate stress by an attuned caregiver, later traumatic experiences might be remembered as highly charged emotions and body sensations or it may be that survival mechanisms such as freezing and dissociation have become so habituated that more adaptive strategies never had a chance develop.
However, infancy is not the only chance an individual has for developing healthy attachment. Many children make up for it later in life with a best friend or special teacher. And many adults find a healing bond with a mature love relationship. Others find the bond in the psychotherapeutic relationship where developing attachment, body awareness, and learning boundaries assist in creating resilience and building resources.
In our culture, the body is seen as tainted, sinful, our weakness, and our lower animal self. Ignoring our physical needs and the body is built right into the fabric of our lives. In order to heal ourselves, we need to care for the body, live within it and in accordance with its needs. When we listen to the small, still, wise, intuitive voice within us, the voice of our own body, healing can occur. We reclaim body wisdom first by understanding the influence society has on how we think about and care for our bodies. Our culture gives us messages that our body is our adversary. We are taught to ignore fatigue, hunger, discomfort and the need for care and nurturing. We learn to look outside ourselves for answers and we become afraid of our natural body processes and emotions, learning to suppress our emotions early on.
Our emotions and thoughts are physically linked to our bodies via the immune, endocrine, and the central nervous system. All parts of us think and feel and the mind exists in every cell of our bodies. Our inner guidance comes to us through feelings and body wisdom first. Our beliefs, heavily influenced by our culture, are unconscious and do not come from the intellect. They come from the part that became lodged and buried in cell tissue in the past. In order to heal, we have to re-enter our bodies and experience them. Understanding comes after you have allowed yourself to experience what you are feeling. We need to learn to trust our emotions. In our culture, we are taught that there is something wrong with pain. We are brought up to fear, deny, and judge our negative emotions and feelings as bad. Sadness and pain are natural parts of life and great teachers. We have an innate ability to deal with pain and the body knows how to do this. When we allow a full emotional release, we feel cleansed and free and insight comes after we feel our emotions. If we are encouraged to stay with what we are feeling, to go into it, make the sounds we need to make, yell and cry as long as necessary, the body will innately heal. Only our connection with our inner guidance and emotions are reliable in the end. Recovery from our culture requires living fully from the inside out.