This workshop was anchored in Gioconda’s training with Peter A. Levine in Somatic Experiencing, a form of trauma therapy that uses bodily sensations as a gateway to healing and bringing our nervous system back online after a traumatic event. Most people’s first question then is what do you mean by trauma? We worked with several definitions, but one of my favorites was simply this: trauma is when a perceived threat overwhelms our ability to respond. When you look at the word “perceived” you can see how conceptually, trauma can apply to big things that threaten life or limb and might land someone in an ER or with a clinical diagnosis of PTSD…but it can also apply to the more pervasive perceived threats we may encounter on a daily basis such as dealing with a difficult coworker, everybody in the family including the dog needing your help at the same time, a frustrating traffic jam, and the familiar list goes on… The word overwhelm is important here because if we have the capacity (ability), or skills or support to not be overwhelmed, this event does not have to result in trauma! I also liked the word respond rather than react, as respond implies that when not traumatized, we are making choices, developing solutions that propel us forward, rather than just setting off an unstoppable cascade like a chemical reaction or a slingshot. So, even just beginning with this definition, you can see how this work would be applicable in a wide variety of settings and benefit a great many individuals!
Peter Levine has woven the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths about suffering into his work.
- Suffering is part of the human condition – so we needn’t be shocked by adversity, nor isolated or separate from our fellow humans. In fact, the universality of it is what unifies us.
- We must discover the cause of our suffering – rather than ignoring or numbing. This work is a compassionate turning toward a little at a time with clarity and courage to renegotiate the trauma, not relive it.
- Suffering can be transformed and healed. Bam! Isn't that great news!?!
- We must find the path that leads to the end of suffering. We don’t have to walk it alone! In fact, support and social engagement are key factors in turning toward our ventral vagal parasympathetic (healing) state.
You’ve probably heard of “fight, flight or freeze” as possible responses to threat or perceived threat. Without getting to deep into polyvagal theory in this post, the fight or flight response is a sympathetic nervous system response, while the freeze is a dorsal vagal (primitive) parasympathetic response. We share these responses with most animals, and the freeze response is the most primitive or universal of them all. Without a healthy discharge of energy after a traumatic event, we may circulate through these responses over and over again. It was fascinating and helpful for me to think of example after example of how these processes play out, and hear other members of our group volunteer examples as well. I think understanding how we’re wired aids in a compassionate response inward or outward when we find ourselves or others in these states often unknowingly.
- Hyper arousal: like the gas pedal of the nervous system, we’re getting revved up and ready for action. All available resources are put toward mobilization, away from less immediately important tasks. For instance, we need blood flow to our muscles and free blood glucose available for fuel, but we don’t need our digestive and reproductive function when we’re running from the tiger or fighting off an attacker.
- Constriction: Muscular constriction promotes strength, and overall promotes efficiency. One key aspect of this is pupil dilation – like a camera aperture opening wide to let light in (a low F stop if you are familiar with photography), the focus becomes crystal clear on one object, but blurry in the periphery (as seen in the 1st photo below). This allows us to focus attention on the threat in the moment, but consequentially, we literally “lose perspective” of everything else in the environment. Have you ever been stressed out in a way that you couldn't see the forest for the trees, or forgot to reach out to your social support system?
- Dissociation and denial: These innate strategies can help us get through tough times in the moment, but you can see how they’d be less than ideal if we got “stuck” there. These responses might feel like cold or numb or hollow in the body. More on the dorsal vagal side of the response.
- Feelings of helplessness, immobility and freezing: this is like putting on the breaks, going into shut down mode – like the animal that plays dead in hopes that its prey either won’t find them or will think them ill and leave them alone.
- Compulsion to repeat: usually unconscious, we may be drawn to replicate the initial trauma in an ineffectual desire for resolution
- Hyper vigilance or constantly “on guard”
- Sensory sensitivity
- Exaggerated startle response
- Mood swings or temper tantrums
- Decreased tolerance for stress
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Feeling “spaced out”
- Avoidance of certain people, places, things
- Addictive behaviors
- Diminished sexual behavior (or exaggerated)
- Shyness or social anxiety
- Fatigue or low energy
- Endocrine (hormone) imbalance
- Chronic pain
- Headaches, neck and back pain
- Digestive problems
- Severe PMS or PMDD
- and more….
One of the things that brought me to this workshop was having read Peter Levine’s book In An Unspoken Voice. This book had several case studies in it further solidified for me the fact that the physical complaints my patients were coming to see me for, might possibly have some roots in a disregulated nervous system. This is NOT the same thing as telling someone their pain is all in their head or that they are crazy! But rather that there are many more layers to consider than the pure biomechanical, pathoanatomical, reductionist model of looking at pain.
This week, one of my first thoughts when looking at this list anew was about a potential for Autism Spectrum Disorders to have some relationship to an offline triune brain. I am not a clinical specialist in ASD, but I have some interest since a project I was involved in while in undergrad at UT Austin. To varying degrees, some of the common traits of ASD include extreme sensory sensitivity, hyperactivity, exaggerated startle responses, temper tantrums, difficulty with social engagement, and that constriction of intense focus on one thing at the expense of perspective in the periphery. Because these traits are often present in the population at large, there is a saying of those who work with ASD that “everyone is on the spectrum” – perhaps this nervous system disregulation is what is unifying us. The question then is what is the cause? Autism diagnoses often happen between age 2 and 3, not at birth. There have been theories that vaccinations are to blame, and I wonder if rather than the vaccinations themselves, might it be the “trauma” of receiving the vaccinations that plays into these results? There’s also a question of epigenetic changes due to parental trauma that can be passed on to offspring. Fascinating stuff and could be great fodder for research!
Well, that was much more writing than I thought I would do, and only touched a portion of our 1st day theoretical background...so I will save more for a future post(s). Stay tuned!