Healing Traumatic Experience: Somatic Practice Supports Body’s Efforts to Recover
Nov 01, 2016 11:39PM
● By Valerie Candela
Trauma is not in the event, it’s in the body. Anything that is too much or too soon can be overwhelming to the body so there are “little traumas” and “big traumas”. In a perfect world, life is easy, fun and goes exactly how we plan. Unfortunately, life is not perfect. Relationships are messy and people are limited. Children experience physical, mental, emotional and spiritual abuse. Health issues can be overwhelming. Medical and/or dental procedures can leave emotional scars. Loss and death can bring loneliness, regret and sorrow. Family conflict and financial devastation can feel life-threatening. Watching a child suffer causes deep pain. Intergenerational trauma feels unfair and hopeless. The scars of the past influence who we are today, for better or for worse.
Our bodies remember each and every experience of our lives. When we take time to notice, we can re-experience feelings and sensations associated with a particular memory. Take a moment and remember a relaxing and peaceful time on the beach, feeling the warm sunshine; hearing the sound of the ocean, watching the children play; smelling the suntan lotion and tasting the salty air. Notice that the body begins to relax; notice breathing and any other body sensations. Spend several minutes noticing. Now, just for a brief moment, imagine that the beach experience was a near shark attack. Notice how the body reacts rather than responds.
The body knows. The body is brilliant and its primary goal is to protect itself. When we experience threat, the nervous system organizes to survive; it will automatically try to escape with fight, flight or freeze. If the escape is “successful”, the system recovers and strengthens. If the escape fails, the system will experience dysregulation. Depending on the occurrence, frequency and/or magnitude of dysregulation, the body’s physiology may change and constrict over time. Eventually, with continued distress, a person may experience symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, hypervigilance, rage and or self-sabotaging behaviors. Dysregulation brings on more dysregulation.
The body remembers and holds onto set patterns as a source of defense. The past colors the present. We adapt to the way things are because we need to function in life. We need to be in the world, keep it together and act “normal”. When someone experiences an overwhelming event—and if the body’s activation or resolution cycle does not complete—the person may experience trauma. This is an individual process as not everyone will perceive the same situation in the same way. The triggering event prompts a threat response and the person’s perception creates their reality.
Dr. Peter Levine (TraumaHealing.com) developed a healing process named Somatic Experiencing, which is a systematic approach whereby the person gradually accesses the energies and sensations that are connected to an experience. This gradual, titrated process allows the body to complete mini-activation or resolution cycles, which then bring relief to the system. Over time, the body is able to reorganize and heal. This process is gentle, mindful and profound. When it comes to healing, there is no quick fix. Traditional talk therapy is helpful but does not include the body in its process, which often leads to temporary relief or distraction. Somatic Experiencing focuses primarily on the body. Once the nervous system reorganizes, healing begins.
In general, children are highly sensitive and their nervous systems have radar-like abilities to instantly register signals around them. Parents generally report improved self-awareness and self-regulation, less anxiety, fewer or no nightmares, less depressed behavior, more willingness to try new things and improved school experiences.
When it comes to children, healing is possible. The truth is that it’s not only the child who has a “problem”, and it’s not only the child who needs to change. The family is a “system” and the whole system may need to focus on self-regulation. This is especially important if there is deep emotional hurt hidden under anger, frustration, blame and shame. In order for the child to truly change, the system may have to change. Once united, healing happens and takes time.
The healthier we are, the healthier our children are. They will mirror their caregivers, which is why they are our greatest healers. As we heal ourselves, we heal our children.
Valerie Candela has a body-based therapeutic practice for adults and children in Stamford, Newtown and Southbury. Connect at ValerieCandela.com.