Are you a trauma victim?
Nightmares, anxiety and depression can be symptoms of unresolved past hurts. These cutting-edge new mind-body techniques can help you to move on.
Life is a series of traumatic events – birth, starting school, puberty, sickness and loss – that we navigate with varying degrees of grace. These passages are difficult, yet our minds and bodies are magnificently engineered to get through them, and they form the real substance of our lives. Occasionally, however, we confront something too extreme to tackle. It could be a major event, such as a natural disaster or an accident, or as insignificant as getting a slap in the face.
According to Peter Levine PhD, originator of Somatic Experiencing®, Director of the Foundation for Human Enrichment, author of Waking the Tiger, Healing the Trauma, and one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, it is not the event that is innately traumatic, but the way we process it. “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ‘trigger’ event itself,” he explains. “They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged. This residue remains trapped in the nervous system, where it can wreak havoc on the body and spirit.”
When faced with danger, all mammals, including humans, have three primary responses available to them. The first two, fight or flight, see the release of hormones like adrenalin fuel our ability to attack or escape with strength and speed. The third response, to freeze or ‘play dead’, is less well-known, but Levine believes it is the key to unlocking the mystery that is trauma because it is involuntary and instinctual, not under our conscious control. A troublesome reaction only turns into trauma when we don’t complete the process and move through and out of this frozen state.
While observing animals in the wild, Levine noted that they instinctively discharge all their repressed energy and seldom develop adverse symptoms. “Human are not as adept in this area,” he says. “When we are unable to liberate these powerful forces and feelings, we become victims of trauma. The residual energy gets trapped in the body, leading to anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic and behavioural problems, which are all ways in which we contain or corral the undischarged residual energy.”
One rainy Friday morning, Jill Nickson was driving to the market to prepare for a dinner party that night. She swerved to avoid an oncoming car and careened off the narrow country road, hit a few saplings and bounced hard into a deep culvert. “I was badly shaken and my back and neck were very sore,” Nickson remembers. “My insurance covered physio, which helped my back, but I felt over-sensitive and I lacked confidence. I knew that I was still somehow holding the accident in my body.”
Nickson made an appointment with Kala Bodkin, a somatic therapist, counsellor, craniosacral practitioner, and author of Crash Course, a guidebook on resolving auto-accident trauma. Somatic therapists believe that the body has its own healing mechanisms. While conventional approaches to healing trauma can involve avoidance and coping strategies, somatic healing engages the patient to tune in to the experience and, ultimately, self-regulate their response through body self-knowledge.
Bodkin calls her approach to therapy ‘health orientation’. “Most healthcare professionals focus on disease, but health is rarely defined,” she says. “Health is not just a state of wellbeing; it refers to your life force. Real health relates to your entire being. If you are in the problem, you are overwhelmed by it, under the water with it; we call this being in the ‘trauma vortex’. So, rather than focus on the knot in your stomach, I want you to begin to feel spacious.”
Somatic Experiencing® practitioners have a great vocabulary. For example, if you are in the ‘trauma vortex’, Bodkin will work with ‘titration’, literally chopping the trauma into bite-sized pieces. She will then help you find your ‘resource’, something that activates an inner sense of wellbeing when you see it or remember it, and then loop or ‘pendulate’ between the relaxing resource and small bite-sized moments of physiological arousal triggered by the trauma. All the time, you are ‘tracking’ the different sensations in your body and describing them.
A great gift
During her two-hour session with Bodkin, Nickson was gently steered back and forth from her ‘resource’ to the scary moments of her accident when everything was out of control. “I remember using my hands to express what the feeling was like and then, at some point, my hands made an unwinding motion. It felt like everything was happening in reverse and my spine softened and released – this was amazing, and the best part!” she says. “It as being an intense experience,” she adds, “but I could relive it without being scared, whereas when the accident was happening, I was frozen, everything went in slow motion. Afterwards, I was tired, but in a wonderfully relaxed way, as if some weight had been lifted and I could finally rest deeply again.”
“Trauma resolved is a great gift,” says Levine. “It returns us to the natural world of ebb and flow, of harmony and balance. Having spent 25 years working with people who have been traumatised in almost every conceivable fashion, I believe that we have the innate capacity to not only to heal ourselves, but our world.” Nickson agrees: “My experience of the accident and the therapy clearly showed me that my body can allow its own healing. With the guidance of someone who knows how to move you through a trauma, your body will let go of the holding, the shock and the pain.”
Are you sympathetic or parasympathetic?
Depending on the situation, your nerves will take one of two paths to your body’s organs: the sympathetic or the parasympathetic. During stress, the sympathetic pathway is used; this has the effect of quickening your heart rate and increasing blood flow to your muscles and brain, which are all necessary if you are about to fight or flee a hungry lion. The parasympathetic system on the other hand, slows down your heart rate and constricts your lungs. Both systems are needed for proper heart function.
According to somatic therapist Kala Bodkin, people like Jill Nickson are more ‘sympathetic’ and therefore more likely to come for treatment because they recognise that they have a problem. A parasympathetic person, however, “will stash the problem away somewhere – these people fear losing control and they are trickier to work with because they have their brakes on so hard,” she says. Bodkin describes herself as a sympathetic type, who has had to learn to slow things down in order to deal with them. “One of my favourite sayings used to be, ‘Bring it on’, because I had high expectations that I could deal with anything” she says. “However, I have discovered that if you slow down, you can actually deal with things faster.”
Many of us live in a state of constant over-activation, which places too much stress on our glandular and adrenal systems, making it harder to discharge traumatic energies. Levine uses the metaphor of a moth drawn to a flame to explain how we may unknowingly and repeatedly create situations in which the possibility to release ourselves from trauma exists, but without the right tools and resources, we fail. Bodkin suggests a shift in focus as a first step. “Start looking at what works when you have a problem, the parts of your life where you are supported,” she says. “If you can’t sleep for worry, don’t focus solely on the problem. Shift your focus to something simple and positive in the moment – like your warm feet under the covers.”
Like Somatic Awareness, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is in the vanguard of trauma therapies that aim to help people move through a traumatic experience without having to relive the pain of it.
While out walking one day, psychologist Francine Shapiro was caught up thinking about her many troubles when she realised that moving her eyes back and forth to observe her surroundings alleviated her anxiety. She experimented with variations of this eye movement with her patients and found that they also felt better. In a clinical situation, EMDR therapists ask patients to hold their traumatic memories in their minds and, while doing so, to also track the therapist’s back-and-forth finger movements with their eyes, as if they were following a hypnotist’s swinging watch.
How does it work? No one really knows, but numerous controlled studies show that EMDR does produce improvement in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as those triggered by rape. It is thought that, at the time of a trauma, strong emotions interfere with our ability to completely process the experience, and that moment becomes frozen in time. EMDR involves recalling the traumatic event and ‘reprogramming’ the memory in the light of a positive, self-chosen belief, while using the rapid eye movements to lock in the process. EMDR appears to directly affect the brain, allowing the patient to resume normal functioning without reliving the frightening images and sounds of the event over and over again.
Although a relatively new therapy, EMDR has quickly gained official acknowledgement. It has been accepted by the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Department of Defence, and the Australian Centre for Post-traumatic Health recently recommended it as a treatment for acute stress disorder (ASD) and PTSD.comments powered by Disqus