Healing: Somatics & Trauma
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Why Politicized Healing?
Trauma is a contraction held within the body that becomes nonresponsive to our current time experience. We are “shaped” by our traumatic experiences. They inform our perspectives, impact identity, relationship, physiology, emotions, behavior, thinking/interpretation, place and our sense of belonging. Trauma breaks safety and betrays relatedness, on the levels of mind, body, and spirit and alters one’s connection to community. Trauma is an individual and social experience.
Our somatic approach to trauma is as both an individual and collective experience. Individuals can experience specific incidences of trauma that deeply impact them, and the people they are in relationship with, for years. We are also living amidst family and community practices, public and private institutions and broader social norms that support and perpetuate violence and domination. In this work we look toward both the individual experiences of trauma and the social context in which we are living to understand, heal, and transform.
Working with trauma through the psychobiology is a powerful way to move from managing traumatic symptoms to transforming trauma and our lives. Transforming trauma includes being able to change the deep reactions that linger long after a traumatic experience is over--the fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociation responses which emerge automatically to protect us. While they are initially life-saving responses, they tend to create havoc over time. Through somatics we are able to learn presence and boundaries; the ability to re-establish connection with oneself, others and our community; and we can connect to what makes our lives meaningful, garnering our resilience and courage to live into that.
Neuroscience and Trauma
Looking through a neuroscience lens at trauma and healing can be understood in terms of the neurobiological response and patterning created through any impactful experience (positive and negative) or any practice we repeat to access safety and/or love and belonging.
In the last twenty years, a tremendous amount has been learned about the physical and emotional effects of trauma. Although there are important differences between types of trauma, there are also many similarities. If you have been sexually abused as a child, you have a lot in common with people who have gone through other types of traumatic experiences—an orphan living in a war zone, a shopkeeper held up in a robbery, a driver in a head-on collision, a veteran struggling with memories of war. In some cases, trauma is linked to a one-time event; in others, the experience is severe and ongoing. But in every instance, victims suffer a devastating combination of terror, helplessness, and loss of control.
An easy way to think about trauma and the human brain is that the reptilian brain (the oldest part of our brains in charge of basic instincts and reproduction) and the emotional and stress centers in the brain go into overdrive when we are threatened. There is a high level of neuronal activity in these areas, with the corresponding release of chemicals to assist in survival reactions. The most recently evolved part of our brains, the neocortex, which also houses the speech center, is nearly shut down (showing very low levels of neuronal activity). When endangered, our brains and bodies are driven to seek safety and to protect relationship, both of which are essential for human beings. These survival reactions are not oriented toward understanding what is happening or making sense of it at this point. Phrases like “speechless terror” are literal; certain shock and survival states show almost no neuronal activity in the brain’s speech center. It is normal that people cannot control or change survival reactions to traumatic experiences by “thinking them through.” In order to heal trauma, we must work with the parts of our brains and bodies that are mobilized for survival. What’s so groundbreaking about this new understanding of the body and trauma is that it allows us to develop more relevant tools and interventions for healing.
When people are confronted with traumatic experiences, like sexual abuse, they experience an immediate physiological reaction. All animals show biologically driven responses to a threat to their own survival or, in the case of social animals, a threat to the community (pack). In humans, the instant a threat is perceived, the brain and body react, signaling the pituitary and adrenal glands to release a flood of stress hormones. These hormones—among them, adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine—make survivors of trauma hyper alert, preparing them to take some kind of survival action. The fight-or-flight response is familiar to all of us. When this happens, the body gets ready to act by pumping blood into the larger “action” muscles, speeding up the heart rate, raising the blood pressure, and accelerating or holding the breath. Non-survival functions like hunger, sleepiness, and digestion shut down. Reproduction is also a non-survival function, and often this is impacted, especially through repeated trauma. Several interesting studies are being done on chronic reproductive issues for sexual abuse survivors.
When survival actions like fighting or fleeing may bring more harm or are not viable (as is the case for many children surviving abuse, and oppressed groups), the brain and body make another choice—the freezing or dissociating. During this response, painkilling endorphins and opioids are released, and the person shifts from action to immobility. When people talk about not fighting back or being unable to move, this is literal. Tense muscles become still, and breathing and heartbeats slow to barely perceptible.
After the danger passes, our brains and bodies are designed to return to balance, or a non-hyper alert state. People often become suddenly aware that they are exhausted, hungry, or in physical pain. Our biologies inherently know how to do this. Through a process which often includes shaking and trembling, sweating, crying, and yawning, we release the increased chemicals, return the breathing to normal, relax the mobilized muscles and, if dissociated, sink back into our own skins. We come back to a coherent, calmed state, and can usually see more choices and possibilities that are positive. When restoring balance is allowed to happen fully—and even better, when it is supported by others—there are usually few resulting symptoms of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The human psychobiology is oriented toward survival, love and belonging, and meaning or being able to make a difference. Survival is obvious: a deep drive to be and remain alive. Connection is about being loved and loving, being accepted by the group and purpose is being able to contribute to other people or make an impact. We are social animals, and at a very biological level we orient toward connection and making meaning with others. One thing that is so difficult about many forms of trauma, and intimate, community and state violence is that these experiences often put the need to survive/safety at odds with the need to be connected and loved. They become split, and this creates many long terms negative consequences.
In collective traumas, people, as social animals, can often move into collective calming behaviors. It was repeatedly noted after 9/11 that New Yorkers were uncharacteristically kind to each other in public, that relations with police were warm, that there was an increase in calming physical contact. All of these behaviors are automatic and designed to calm the “collective body.”
Many things prevent the natural process of discharging the hyper alert or freeze response and returning to a calm and cohesive self or group. Often this is prevented by a lack of knowledge of the process and the social stigmas associated with this type of release. When, post trauma, allowing the psychobiological process isn’t viable, people override it by contracting the body even more to prevent what may seem like a strange or out-of-control emotional or physical experience. They may hold their breath and tighten the eyes and jaws so as not to cry, contract the stomach and gut to “push the experience down,” while telling themselves something like “it doesn’t matter anyway” or “I’m not going to let them get to me.” An adult may tell a child, “Quit shaking, it’s over, it wasn’t that bad, why are you such a scaredy-cat, anyway?” The child then has to stop what is a natural healing process, by overriding their crying or shaking. This override prevents the healthy release and equilibrium response. Today, very few people feel comfortable allowing themselves or supporting someone else in allowing the release, shaking, and emoting that can return the mind/body to equilibrium after traumatic experiences. It is to be hoped that this healing process will become more socially familiar and acceptable in the next generation.
The suppression of the release response lives on in the body as contractions that become chronic over time. Many survivors of trauma report that they no longer know how to cry. Or, that whole parts of their bodies are numb or seem missing. It is not that these emotions or those parts of the body are actually gone; rather, they have been suppressed or contracted to the point of being inaccessible. The need to release those states, to complete a healthy response to a violation, doesn’t just go away; it gets more deeply pressed into the body and the muscles. In somatics we say that the person then begins to shape his or her self, ideas, worldview, and actions around that experience. It is impossible not to. “Out of sight, out of mind” does not truly describe trauma. Rather, the traumatic experiences may be pushed out of conscious view into the more unconscious realm of the body, where the survival reactions, contractions, and somatic “shaping” continue to impact one’s life.
When the body begins to thaw, or process the traumatic events, we will encounter both the contractions with which these responses were repressed as well as the incomplete responses to the trauma itself. It’s as if the body’s response to the original trauma was interrupted and has just been waiting. A somatic process includes therapeutic conversation, somatic bodywork, and new somatic practices. Through these we access the traumatic contractions, help them to soften, and support the psychobiological release. This in turn changes one’s sense of one’s self, who one is in relationship, and opens choices and new actions. Somatic practices help a survivor embody new ways to address their need for safety and connection that the survival reactions took care of. They support the mind/body to learn new ways of being and acting, rather than solely new ideas that aren’t operational. Through the integral process, the inherent healing responses of the psychobiology can now be followed and supported, and new competencies embodied.