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Meet Me In The Middle...Exploring Trauma and how an integrative approach to healing can us bring back to center.

January 15, 2020

What causes life in the extremes? Why do we often find ourselves reacting to people or stressful situations instead of responding? Why is it so difficult to live in the middle when ultimately, that’s where we find peace? The answer to all of these questions can be found in an exploration of trauma and trauma conditioned responses.


TRAUMA

What is trauma or what is considered a traumatic event? A trauma is an incident or event that leaves an indelible mark on us, causing physical, mental, spiritual, and or emotional damage or harm. When a trauma is experienced, a person will need time as well as outside support to regain balance and heal. Unresolved trauma can cause long term damage to health and well-being, as well as causing sometimes irreparable damage to relationships. In extreme cases, it can effectively cripple one’s ability to live a normal life. While we connect trauma to an event, it is important to note that “Trauma is in the nervous system and body, and not in the event; an event that is very traumatic to one person may not be traumatic to another, as people differ very widely in their ability to handle various kinds of challenging situations due to different genetic makeup, early environmental challenges, and specific trauma and attachment histories.”-Dr. Peter A. Levine


THE 4 F’s-FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE, FAWN

Trigger reactions are governed by the nervous system and can result in fight, flight, fawn, or freeze responses. These can include: anxiety, panic, racing thoughts, dissociation, gastrointestinal discomfort, memory loss, difficulty breathing, and more. The Vagus nerve is always involved when we experience a traumatic event and again when we experience triggers. The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system. It originates in the brain stem and innervates the neck, chest, abdomen, viscera, and colon. It can affect heart rate, respiration, and digestion. As we look at the our survival responses, we can see the Vagus nerve at work.


With fight, our bodies gear up for battle. This can include adrenaline surges and a tunnel vision focus on striking first. Flight is the need to flee and escape above all else. When we freeze we can become paralyzed and often there will be dissociation from the body and surroundings. Fawn is an attempt to please the perceived attacker/threat. All of the fight, flight, fawn, and freeze responses are in fact intended to be survival mechanisms. They are hard wired into our primal brains and while they may be difficult or uncomfortable to endure, they are the body’s attempt to keeping us safe and alive.


We see prey animals in the wild exhibit these responses and behaviors all the time. Though we may often view ourselves as superior in intellect to animals, we still share many of the same primal characteristics. A major difference between prey animals and humans that experience traumatic events is that animals have the ability to shake off the nervous system’s fight, flight, fawn, and freeze responses. In this way, they are far superior to us humans. We on the other hand, can get stuck and the unresolved trauma requires us to work through the experience in a different manner in order to heal.


LET’S TALK TRIGGERS

So remember when I said that the fight, flight, fawn, and freeze responses where about trying to keep us safe and alive? That sounds like a positive thing, right? So what’s the problem, you might ask. The problem happens when we get stuck and that trauma doesn’t find a way to release itself from our bodies and minds. In essence, the experience becomes trapped within us and this in turn causes us to go to extremes when we are triggered.


Trigger is a term that gets used quite a bit these days. You might have heard someone declare that they’re triggered, that’s triggering, or something needs a trigger warning. But what exactly does this really mean? To put it simply, a trigger can be anything that causes a person to flashback or re-experience a traumatic event.


Triggers can elicit a trauma response in the body similar to what was originally experienced. Triggers are deeply personal and can vary widely from person to person. They can be conscious or subconscious, largely depending on how much of the traumatizing event is remembered or repressed. For example, a person who is robbed at gunpoint by a man in a blue flannel shirt may later be triggered by a stranger or loved one who wears a similar blue flannel shirt. In this example, the person may not be conscious of what it is about the new person that brings back painful memories and somatic, or bodily reactions. Other times, it is easy to see why something might be triggering. For example, a sexual assault survivor may become triggered when watching a movie that depicts a similar assault.


These examples may seem extreme or understandable when considering triggers but it is also very common to get triggered and go to extremes while dealing with all sorts of day to day situations. This is because we are all wired differently and what is traumatizing to one person may be processed or experienced differently by another. None of us have lived perfect, pain free, idyllic lives. We are human, and being human is often messy business! Odds are, we can all share at least one traumatizing event from our lives. It might be a humiliation we suffered in childhood, an accident that affected us physically, mental or emotional abuse…the list could go on and on. (This is yet another reason to practice kindness, we truly never know what another person has gone through!)


WE HAVE TRAUMA…NOW WHAT?!

Trauma has been studied extensively for years. While we have found many different ways to address trauma, what we haven’t found is one perfect, be all end all way to heal it. Unsurprisingly, this is because we humans are incredibly complex and there are myriad elements involved in the why’s and how’s of healing. What we do know is that talk therapy, while absolutely wonderful and effective in its own right, typically will not be enough to heal trauma if not used in conjunction with other modalities. Likewise, various bodywork techniques and spiritual approaches may be fantastic and powerful, but used alone they are unlikely to affect permanent change.


So what then is the best approach to this work? The answer lies in utilizing an integrated approach that combines psychotherapy with somatic bodywork practices. This integrated approach to healing trauma is by far the most effective treatment. This is due to the fact that we cannot separate mind from body. Perhaps you’re familiar with the term “issues in the tissues.” Our experiences and memories are held within our very cells. Every time we are triggered, and that memory tape starts to roll in our minds, our nerves fire and our physical body reacts; essentially we are re-experiencing the trauma all over again in body and mind. The mind, body, and spirit must all be tended to and nurtured if we want our trauma to resolve.


Another aspect of healing trauma is addressing our shame. This can be so painful, so deeply rooted that we fear to speak it or acknowledge it. Yet, releasing our shame is an absolutely critical part of our healing process. “Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”—Danielle Bernock.


In general, humans long to be seen, heard, and validated. Just as we need touch and connection, we need to have space to share our authentic selves with one another. Shame can be so powerful that it locks down our energy centers or chakras. It can cause physical pain in our bodies. This is part of the truly incredible mind, body connection. So finding ways to clear and release shame has to be part of the greater picture of how we treat trauma.


TOOLS FOR TREATMENT

So let’s take some space to consider a few of the ways we can support ourselves as we heal. I always say give me the best of science and western medicine to choose from and give me the best of holistic or alternative medicine to work with as well. Let the best of both worlds come together in a blissful union to help us create optimal health and wellness. Despite what it may seem, there are many ways for these two to integrate and yield incredible results. After all, we are made up of mind, body, and spirit and all parts must be treated if we want a happy, healthy whole.


There are many wonderful forms of psychotherapy available. While I am not a trained psychotherapist, I am a strong believer in the efficacy and power of this work. If you’ve worked with me, you know I often say “are you human? then you need therapy.” From talk therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy to EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) to dialectical behavioral therapy…there are many options to choose from. I would add hypnosis to this as well, as it can be a powerful tool when working with the subconscious mind. Many people find that support groups or group therapy provides just the safe space for sharing and witnessing that they need.


From a bodywork point of view, there are many techniques you can learn on your own and just as many modalities available from practitioners. Some modalities to consider when addressing somatic trauma are reiki, craniosacral therapy, somatic experiencing, massage therapy, holotropic breathwork, and bioenergetic therapy. There are many more approaches but all of these are solid choices when working with trauma.


Skills and techniques we can learn and use on our own include: breathwork, body scans to check in with our bodies and notice/acknowledge sensations and emotions held in the tissues, set and hold healthy limits and boundaries, resiliency skills, engaging all five senses when feeling anxiety or panic, physical exercise to move energy through the body and help us to ground, yoga, music or sound therapy, healthy eating to support gut health and brain health, meditation, visualization, and creating art. Many of these practices including bodywork, therapy, and resiliency skills can specifically target the Vagus nerve and help us regulate our trigger responses.


CHOOSING A PRACTITIONER

What I encourage for clients who are looking to find a psychotherapist is the same thing I suggest when seeking a bodywork practitioner. Do not put yourself in just anyone’s hands! Take your time and don’t be afraid to shop around so to speak. Ask about training, credentials, and experience and don’t be afraid to interview a potential therapist or practitioner. You want to be comfortable with your practitioner and if there is no trust, you won’t get very far. Be sure to take your time and honor your intuition. If something doesn’t quite feel right, it’s ok to say no thank you and move on to another person. It’s also ok to outgrow a particular person or practice. We aren’t static and as we move through our healing process, we may find that we need to explore new modalities and connect with new practitioners. Also, while we can definitely learn from one another’s experiences, it’s important to remember that what works for one person probably won’t work quite the same for another. So don’t be afraid to try different modalities or practitioners because good therapists won’t be threatened or upset by this. Ultimately, you want to work with people who are invested in your healing and open to what is best for you.


CLOSING THOUGHTS…

Healing trauma is a process and it requires patience, gentleness, and self-love. Sometimes it is a life-long journey or spiral as we move through different layers of material. There is no one size fits all way to heal and there is no form of bypass or dissociation that will create real, lasting deep healing. A popular expression that sums this up is “we must feel it to heal it”. I have found this to be true and I will add to this that we must take it in and allow space for us to fully feel, process, integrate, and release.


I often tell clients that healing work will be some of the hardest work they will ever do and it will also be the best work. We all need support and tools as we navigate the wild unknown of our healing path. Fortunately, we have the wisdom and experiences of those who have forged paths before us to draw inspiration and insights from. These modalities and techniques can act as powerful tools of transformation and they might just be the lantern that leads us out of the dark. For in reality, we will find ourselves blazing our own trail in a way that only we can as we make our way back to the middle.


I wish you every success as we all work to grow and heal.  While we may not have caused our trauma, it is our responsibility to heal it.  We might find ourselves in an extreme but with time, self-love, and an integrative approach we can learn to live in the middle. - Rowynn.