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How To Come Out Of Freeze & Into Flow

In order to talk about how to come out of freeze, we need to first understand what it is, and why it comes on in the first place.

Freeze is one of our biological survival strategies. In the wild, the freeze response will only kick on once an organism has already tried, and failed, to defend itself with one of the other survival responses – fight and/or flight, which are governed by the Sympathetic Nervous System. 

First an animal may attempt to run, then if it is caught it may attempt to fight, and if it cannot fight off it’s attacker, only then will the freeze response (governed by the Dorsal vagal Complex portion of the Parasympathetic Nervous System) kick in, in order to prepare the animal for death.

It does this by pausing all functions not immediately essential for survival, bringing the blood more into the core or the body to protect vital organs, lowering the heart rate, slowing the breath and making it more shallow, and numbing the entire system…all to keep the animal from feeling the pain of being eaten. 

However, those big, high-energy fight/flight states are still humming away and available under the surface. If an antelope goes into this state, and then the lion gets distracted from it’s prey, say by a competing predator who wants its lunch, the antelope will sense that it has a window to escape and that flight response will immediately kick back in, enabling it to flee. 

That’s how it works in the wild, but in human animals, who have the same nervous system physiology as the antelope and lion, but very different stressors, threats, and environmental conditions, it’s not so simple.

The bulk of our threats and trauma in western, industrialized society is not the obvious kind. Yes, there is plenty of outright abuse and violence that happens, but the vast majority of trauma in our culture is early/developmental trauma that results from situations that are chronically stressful, but not necessarily explosive or violent; situations that have become normalized and are not generally understood to be traumatic.

For example, in order to develop properly an infant needs present, attuned, well-regulated caregivers who are not themselves chronically stressed, and they need those caregivers, or at least one of them, to be present most of the time for around three years. This is not because of some idealistic notion, this is biological fact.

When an infant is born their nervous system and brain are far from complete in development. The infant needs care, attunement, close attention and minimal stress in order to properly develop the parts of it’s nervous system and brain responsible for healthy social engagement, empathy, and higher cognitive function.

The main system I’m talking about here is the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) — this portion of our autonomic nervous system comes in only minimally formed and is developed and myelinated after birth based off of the caregiver’s VVC, and it is this part of our nervous system that enables us to deal with and come down from stress in a healthy way, engage socially, and empathize with others. We cannot maximize our access to the Prefrontal Cortex — the part of our brain that lets us do things like meditate, create art, problem solve creatively, and think complex thoughts — without a healthy Ventral Vagal Complex.

Without at least one attuned, present, well-informed, and relatively unstressed caregiver that is around consistently for at least the first three years of life our VVC cannot form properly and so our entire system cannot develop to its maximum potential. And how many of us had parents like that? Our society is currently structured in a way that makes that almost impossible.

When an organism such as a human infant experiences this lack of proper care necessary for its development, when they are surrounded by parents and siblings that may be loving, but who are stressed and in survival mode, that baby’s nervous system will interpret this as a threat big enough to engage it’s more primitive survival mechanisms — which do come into the world active and fully functional.

This may mean the Sympathetic (fight/flight) system activates and you have a babe who is crying a lot, easily startled, colicky, rashy and generally upset.

And then, if the stress in the environment (meaning in the parents) is not resolved, if this threat to the infant’s development seems to be pervasive with no end in sight, eventually the little one’s system will learn to bypass fight/flight and go directly to that freeze, or shut-down response. 

I know this may be hard to accept, but the research is very clear at this point. Even a loving home, if it is a chronically stressful environment (meaning the majority of home environments in industrialized society), will over time become perceived by a developing nervous system as a mortal threat. If the mother is overly stressed during pregnancy, this maladaptive wiring can even be established in the womb.

There are many other kinds of experiences that can also lead to this kind of early/developmental trauma, experiences that are not recognized by most as trauma; things like circumcision or even life-saving surgeries as an infant or child, a parent being incarcerated or addicted, pressure to conform to societal or familial norms, witnessing conflict between caregivers with no resolution, and even inherited genetic predispositions from ancestors who were traumatized — all of these things can lead to early/developmental trauma.

When an infant is in this kind of situation its developing system will learn over time to skip right over the fight/flight responses and default to the freeze response, and when this happens, when the freeze response becomes the go-to option for the nervous system when dealing with stress, we end up living in what is called “functional freeze”.

And this is most of us. Most of us in industrialized society are living with some degree of early/developmental trauma and an embedded freeze response. 

This can show up in many ways – a lack of purpose, inability to speak our truth or even know what that is, tendency to put others’ needs before our own or feeling that we are responsible for other’s emotions, lethargy, collapse in the posture, a tendency to isolate, depression and more.

It can also show up in ways that look very different – the ability to perform at a very high level in business or sports or other very demanding fields like music or dance, or a tendency to seek out high-risk behaviours that flood the system with adrenaline. These show up when the person’s system has learned to not feel the effect of the demands placed on it necessary to perform at such a level, or because performing at a high level, or engaging in high-risk activities is the only way for them to feel anything at all. These folks can do very well in life for a time, but eventually there is always a crash, usually involving heart attack, stroke, cancer, or some form of autoimmune condition.

We cannot sustainably live with these high-energy survival states humming away in our system, the cost is too high, and eventually we will end up paying it. So, it is crucially important to understand how to come out of freeze, and part of doing that means understanding what is waiting on the other side – which are those big fight/flight energies. 

Remember the order in which survival energies activate – first is fight/flight, then if that is not successful, freeze. This means that underneath an embedded freeze response there is always a big charge waiting to get out, and that’s the charge that holds our life energy, once we let it out of its box.

A lot of somatic work involves developing the capacity to simply be with the sensations and emotions of the survival responses, and this works very well with the fight/flight responses – there are many ways to channel those energies, and it’s also totally possible to get to the point where one can simply let them move through the system in the form of pure sensation. But it’s more complex with the freeze response.

We can’t just sit with the sensations of freeze and hope to get very far because remember, the freeze response is meant to prepare us for death; it is not an active state, but one of numbing, dissociating, and withdrawal. If we just sit with that we will tend to just spiral further down into more of the same. We need to get at the active, mobilizing force of fight/flight underneath.

Here’s the thing though, the emotional experience of those fight/flight states, which often stem from a very young age when we didn’t have any ability to understand or verbalize our experience, are generally ones of terror and rage. Terror is the emotional ‘fuel’ meant to power our ability to run away. Rage is the fuel meant to power our ability to fight.

These emotions can be quite overwhelming, in fact they were overwhelming – that’s why the freeze came on in the first place, to protect us from that intensity, so it’s very important to understand why these feelings are there, what they are, and how we can work with them.

I think the first thing to really take in is that, fundamentally, the terror and/or rage are not actually terror and/or rage. Let me explain.

These strong emotions are the frozen faces that the fight/flight activation is wearing, because these were the emotional experiences that were happening at the time of the overwhelming experience(s).

But at the root – these emotions are just masks that the energy itself is wearing, and that energy is your life energy. It’s good stuff. It wants to come home to you, but it has been wrapped in these boxes of strong emotions that have felt historically overwhelming. This is why we need to work at the Sympathetic level to change these things – that’s where the juice is.

But first we need to help those big energies find their way out from under the big lid of freeze.

So it starts with not avoiding the freeze and the feelings of hopelessness, despair, dissociation, and numbness that may be there, but also not just simply sitting in those experiences either. We need the middle ground of feeling it, and being curious about the felt experience of it (not the thoughts!) – what does it feel like in your body? If you can maintain a strong internal witness that is able to observe and understand this state, this can create enough internal safety for something else to happen. 

Remember that antelope – it only came out of freeze and into the fight/flight underneath once it sensed the safety caused by the lion’s distraction. Our system is the same, only our threats were not usually a lion, but usually things far more subtle. 

Most often, our  threats were threats of absence, the threat of something that we needed to develop properly – our caregivers attuned, empathic, unstressed attention and presence – not being there. So in order to work with these states, we need to learn how to be that for ourselves. We have to learn how to be that attuned, empathic, caring witness to our own experience.

*NOTE – I will explain HOW to learn to do that, as well as other practices I’m about to mention, at the end of this article.

Once we have learned how to be our own internal witness, we can then start exploring and see if we can start to notice something else in the body. 

Peter Levine, the inventor of one of the modalities I practice called Somatic Experiencing, calls the practice of moving one’s attention between two different things, ‘Pendulation’. So we need to learn how to do this, and then Pendulate between the sensations of the freeze state, and something else. This something else could be an area of the body that feels less freezy, or more alive, or it could be the external environment granted it is safe, or it could even be an image that represents aliveness or mobility in some way.

Pendulation gets energy moving, it starts opening up the box of freeze so that we can get at those boxes of rage and/or terror underneath, which in turn hold the life energy that we need to integrate back into our system.

In terms of how moving our attention gets the energy in the body moving, as far as I know we do not currently have the scientific instruments capable of explaining this precisely in Western terms.

However, in Eastern terms, where they recognize that the highest form of science and technology is consciousness itself, it is easily explained by the fact that we are forms of Embodied Consciousness.

There is no separation between body and mind, so where there is stagnation in the body there is stagnation in consciousness, which is why we often won’t remember certain traumatic events until the frozen areas of the body that are holding them are opened up and moving a bit.

Likewise, we may awaken, and get flow going in the body, by moving the consciousness, and when we get the energy moving those boxes of rage or terror that are holding our life energy become more accessible. Then, once that Sympathetic (fight/flight) energy starts to surface we need to follow our impulse as to how that strong experience wants to express.

As I said earlier, an experienced practitioner of this work can often just allow these sensations to just move through the system without doing much of anything, and this can feel like vibrating, trembling, shaking, pulsing, electricity, or some other similar kind of experience. But learning to just allow that takes practice, and sometimes, because that energy has been stuck for so long, we need to ACT in some way to get it moving.

There are a lot of cathartic practices out there that focus solely on this aspect of trauma healing without understanding the complexities of freeze and the necessity of education and safety. Modalities like Bioenergetics, TRE, Primal Scream therapy, and others – that try to force mobilization of this Sympathetic energy without understanding the level of refinement necessary to allow these big energies to move safely, and in a way that the experience can be integrated. For more on this, see this past article.

It’s true that the Sympathetic energy will often want to be expressed and play out through the body in some way, often is some way associated with fighting or fleeing, and there’s nothing wrong with the motions of hitting or running, or with working with the  sounds of screaming, shouting, or other strong expression. The thing that makes cathartic practices ineffective and potentially re-traumatizing is there is generally NO emphasis on creating internal safety first, or on staying connected to the felt sense of the body, or of titrating the experience (meaning doing little bits at a time).

Like I said, eventually it is possible to just let the Sympathetic energy do it’s thing, to act at a subtle level without necessarily making sounds, expressions, or moving, but very often, especially early on in the work, that energy does want to DO the things it wasn’t able to do, and SAY the things it wasn’t able to say. 

But, our energy has often been frozen in these boxes for so long that we have to help it out by going slowly, and staying connected to the felt sense in the body. We wouldn’t ask someone who has been laying in bed for a year to suddenly get up and run a marathon, and that’s what cathartic practices ask of the system in many ways.

So see what happens if you follow your impulses, but do so slowly, subtly. 

Yes, scream, shout, yell, hit, run, smash, destroy! Whatever. But do it slowly. Mindfully. Stay in touch with your inner witness. Use your imagination. Don’t get consumed in the expression such that you lose touch with the felt sense in the body. 

And remember that fundamentally this work is not so much about ‘releasing’ the energy, it is about reclaiming the energy, by releasing it from its somatic boxes of frozen emotion and sensation, and that’s a process that cannot happen all at once. The nervous system that these energies run through is incredibly complex and it can only integrate so much change at once.

For more tools to help you do this, I recommend reading this past article, and this one.

* * *

Everything I have just described is meant as an overview to help you understand how to come out of freeze and into flow, but this article on it’s own will not be enough for most people to actually do the work. For that, you need a comprehensive education, the practical tools necessary to help you learn to develop your own inner witness and work with the sensations and emotions of survival energy, and it can be very helpful to have good support as well.

The best way to get these things is to start with Irene Lyon’s 21-Day Nervous system Tuneup. Yes, she’s my wife, but I can truly say with no bias, that her 21 day program is the best way to get started. I can confidently say this because I have trained extensively in these modalities and while I have many gifted colleagues, I also know how relatively few truly qualified practitioners are out there. In comparison to the numbers of people who need to do this work, qualified practitioners are like a drop in the ocean, and there are a couple reasons for this.

For one, the somatic modalities I practice, namely Somatic Experiencing (developed by Peter Levine), and Somatic Practice (developed by Kathy Kain) are relatively new, and so there just aren’t that many practitioners yet in total. Out of those who have trained there are many good ones to be sure, but unfortunately I have encountered a lot more who really don’t understand this work, view it only as some kind of somatic ‘add-on’ to their existing mind-based toolset, and/or who are either unwilling or unable to give their clients the kind of comprehensive education necessary to really do this work successfully. If you can find a good private practitioner of these modalities then that’s awesome, but without first really understanding the work it can be hard to even know what to look for.

So please, if you want to do this work, give yourself the gift of a solid foundation by starting with the 21-Day Nervous System Tuneup. For the price of about two private sessions you will get the thorough education, practical tools, and community support necessary to get you well on your way, and this will also make you much more informed about what to look for in a private practitioner should you then decide to go that route.

Happy thawing! 

How to keep up your healing in the workplace, and the world!

The practice of somatic, nervous system based trauma healing is just that… a practice!

Education is crucial, and there are many helpful techniques and tools we can use, and it’s very important to have good support, and a safe environment in which to learn. All of this is important in order to start the healing, but what happens when we have to go out into the world, or into a workplace that doesn’t feel great? 

That’s where the practice part really comes in!

Because once a person has learned how to work with their system in different ways, that good work can’t just stay in the home. It has to continue out in the big, wide world, and most importantly, it has to continue in situations that are extra stressful, for it is by applying our learning and our practice in real time in such situations that we avoid adding more trauma and stress to our system. 

In fact, by keeping up our practice in such non-ideal situations we can expand our capacity and enable even deeper healing.

One of the cornerstones of this work is learning to follow our biological impulses so that we may discover our authenticity, which is something that so many of us learned to repress and hide away, so that we could keep the attachment with our caregivers. 

Those very caregivers were usually the ones that were telling us, in ways both verbal and not, that our authenticity was too much, too stressful, for them to handle and so we learned to shape ourselves in such a way as to be less upsetting, less stress-causing. 

In short, many of us became emotional caretakers of our parents at an early age. 

This is one of key foundations of early/developmental trauma – the need for attachment will always trump the need for authenticity, but they are both biological imperatives, and so the system becomes repressed, which is sensed as a life threat, and we become traumatized.

For a more in-depth explanation on why this happens, definitely check out this terrific video by Gabor Maté on the subject. I really can’t recommend this 26 minute talk enough, it’s something that everyone needs to see, so if you haven’t watched it, please do!

So, what happens when we are no longer in our safe place where it’s easier to explore our impulses and develop our authentic self? What happens if we go to a workplace every day that feels repressive or hostile? 

This statement from one of the participants in my wife’s online program, the 21 Day Nervous System Tune Up, sums it up perfectly!

‘We can’t follow our impulses while working. Even if we feel awful, we have to repress our feelings in order to complete our 8-hr shift. And we must please our bosses. We must show self-confidence. Etc. It’s the last place where we can be ourselves and listen to our body. We are stuck, just like in our childhood.’

I totally get this!

I felt the same way for a long time, but now I’ve come to a different perspective. I’ve realized there is actually a lot that one can do in the workplace, even a non-ideal one, to support their continued healing.

First, on a purely practical note: if you are feeling particularly awful, it is pretty much always an option to call in sick (at least I’ve never been in a workplace or heard of one that will force people to come in if they are sick).

If you are talking about feeling emotionally awful you can still use a sick day here and there, but in the long run this isn’t a sustainable practice, so we need to look at things you can do in the workplace to take care of yourself, follow your impulses, and maintain your authenticity. 

And just a note – all of the following doesn’t apply only to the workplace, you can also implement any of these ideas out in the world in general.

There are many ways to create little breaks for yourself to tune in and express. Just taking five minutes in a bathroom stall to feel your body, maybe do some Healthy Aggression work, or allow a few tears and sighs, can do wonders.

And speaking of the bathroom… There are many ways we can follow our impulses in a basic way – such as going to the bathroom when we need to and not holding it, or taking a few moments to orient out a window, or to a plant. We can use our attention to see if we are keeping up good posture throughout the day, in sitting or standing. We can drink water when we need to (usually we need a lot more than we drink!). We can take a few moments to socially engage with a co-worker, or with a customer. 

All these ways of listening to and honouring our basic biological impulses and needs will do a LOT to keep us feeling better in any situation, and they will also help build the bridge to finding even deeper levels of our authenticity, which can lead to better situations.

You should know that if you are currently in a job that feels soul sucking or just unfulfilling, part of healing trauma often includes stepping into work that feels more in alignment with our purpose, and that doesn’t feel so awful or repressive. These kinds of opportunities can naturally arise as we get more comfortable in our own skin, learn to better honor our biology, and become more aware of what we really want, and who we really are. All of that is part of healing at this deep level.

Before I became a somatic trauma specialist, I worked in the food service industry for 20 years. When I was starting up my private practice, I was still spinning pizzas! 

There were many days I would see a client or two during the day, and then head to the restaurant for the night, and during this time the food service work felt very oppressive and I experienced a LOT of feelings of anger, repression, and impatience, and so I am now going to pass on one of the most valuable tips I’ve ever received, that was given to me during this time by my dear mentor and colleague, Ian MacNaughton.

There is a way to shift our perspective in a bigger sense that can be very helpful, and that is by viewing our workplace, or the world at large as a purely kinetic space. It is simply a space that different energies are moving through – bumping into each other, weaving around, and creating little flashes of light and color here and there. 

Your workplace, like everything, is fundamentally an energetic plane that you are moving through. It was helpful for me to see my restaurant job like this, and that all the interactions, triggers, and pressures, were actually opportunities to simply move with the energy that was presented, grow capacity, and be creative in how I could take care of myself while I was moving into the next phase of my work and life.

This works with something like a busy city too. Try visualizing the city, the blocks and buildings and people and noise as a purely kinetic space. All these things are just different forms of energy moving through space. Think about how you could use your awareness and skill to dance with that kinetic experience. It IS intense for sure, but imagine that intensity as energy or color. Visualize yourself as your own color and and energy moving through that space in flow with others. 

The more we brace against intensity, the more we become afraid and tense so imagine, and practice, seeing, feeling, and moving in such a way that you are a drop of energy flowing with, and through, the surrounding energy, and you can likewise allow that surrounding energy to flow through you. When we practice sensing and moving in this way, almost any setting can transform into a landscape that pumps us up and feeds our aliveness.

If you are someone who is currently feeling stuck in a job or life that feels dull or draining, purposeless or pointless, or if the idea of moving through a crowded city fills you with terror or anxiety, and if you haven’t yet started the process of healing your unresolved trauma, consider that it might be time to start!

And how do you know if you have unresolved trauma?

If you are living a life or stuck in work or relationships that don’t feed you, that feel oppressive and boring, or toxic and dangerous, then I’m afraid it’s a guarantee. 

We all have something special to offer the world, we all have our own spark, and our own unique purpose for being here. We all have the ability to live a life that is rich and full and have relationships that are fulfilling and healthy. The only reason that we may not be living that life and that purpose is, at its root, because we were, at some point, made to smother our light and our authenticity. 

It’s never too late to find that spark again!

The Quiet Victories

When it comes to the world of somatic and nervous-system based trauma healing, some of the biggest changes can happen very quietly. 

This may seem strange because we definitely associate unresolved trauma with big experiences and symptoms – depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, behavioral problems, explosive rage, abusive relationships, etc. And while sometimes the process of resolution can be feel equally big, with big emotions moving, like rage, grief, disgust, terror, joy, and triumph, I have found for myself that as I get deeper and deeper into my practice and my system, the most profound changes often happen very quietly, almost invisibly.

I think this is because of the nature of what we are healing, is, at its core, very subtle. Though it plays out in big ways, at its core trauma lives in the pathways of the nervous system, in the very cells of our body, and even at the level of the DNA. And when things really shift and change at those levels it is simultaneously profound, and quiet.

Some examples…

* * *

Little Seth Comes Home

I used to have to regularly get away. 

I needed to escape from responsibility, relationship, work, the city, and essentially, myself. I needed to carve out time once in a while to be alone, so my poor damaged little self could run rampant for a while. So I could drink, smoke, and eat in excess, play video games, binge watch shows and generally totally escape into indulgence and comfort. Those escapes were part of how I managed the fact that essentially, I just didn’t feel safe in relationship to pretty much anyone or anything.

Over time that need got less and less, and I began to get less and less comfort from the experience. As that happened I began to feel the toxicity of those indulgences more, and realized that I actually felt more or less ok in the world, and that I didn’t really need to escape in the same way. One by one, those comforts actually became discomforts.

Then, one day, as I was on one of my retreats from the world something occurred that made me come back home two days sooner than planned. Rather than being outraged and feeling like I was being betrayed (which is what would have flooded me in the past), I actually felt like fate was rescuing me from my own outgrown habits. 

Or, to be more clear, I felt both things simultaneously – I felt the echo of that old outrage – like, I should be feeling this way and,  simultaneously, I felt relieved and genuinely happy to go home and back to my wife, Irene.

This was one of those profound, quiet shifts. I was simultaneously able to be in contact with my adult, regulated self, and that fragmented corner of my psyche and self that had, for so long felt that the world was a wolf at my door. 

That experience of differentiation meant that the very young piece of damaged self was ready to integrate, that I no longer needed to be in one state or the other, but that the formerly dissociated piece of self was really ready to just be me.

So I went home, hugged my wife, and got in the bath. And that’s when the really BIG quiet experience happened.

As I lay in the tub I felt something so profound, and yet so subtle, that at first I couldn’t identify what it was, just that it was strange, new, and good. Then it hit me – for the first time in my life I simply felt safe in my home. Not just mentally or emotionally safe, but cellulary safe. A part of my being that had been clenched like a fist through the fabric of my atoms, let go.

Once I realized what was happening it brought some more visible tears and some quiet sobs of relief, but that was my emotional response to the shift, not the shift itself. I also realized that this was a continuation of a process that had begun about 7 months prior, which I wrote about in this article.

* * *

Do Not Give In To Hate, That Leads To The Dark Side.

Two nights ago Irene got back from 6 weeks away, teaching workshops in Europe. 

During her time away I took 18 days off from work, and this was the first time in about 10 years that I had that kind of stretch of time alone, at home, with no responsibilities. And this was a real test, and a real opportunity to see if little Seth really felt safe enough to just be an adult, or if I would slide back into my old coping strategies.

It turned out that yes, that old piece of self did still feel safe enough to just be part of me, and there was no need for me to flip into being him and giving him what he thought he wanted – but there was still a bit of a divide. I really needed that length of time at home alone to enable him to grow up and become truly integrated, and that’s a process that I’m pleased to say happened successfully! 

Some highlights: 

Going for walks instead of just staying sedentary as ‘ol little Seth used to like to do. I was taking my ‘self’ for a walk and in that experience I had another one of those quiet evolutions inside. I was simply walking around the park close to our home and looking at the sky, which at that moment was a glorious muted shade of violet through the stark branches of the autumn trees, and it’s like a part of myself who had kept his eyes closed for about 40 years, opened them. And saw. Saw the Earth and it’s beauty and felt safe in that experience. It’s hard to convey the poignancy of that moment in words, but essentially it felt like being a young child again in the best possible sense.

Being in the flow of music production. I finished my first album of original songs during that time, which I will be releasing soon. I used to only be able to enjoy making music under  the influence of cannabis and alcohol, and now it is a sober, and much more enjoyable experience. I would wake up, have some breakfast, and work on music for 6-10 hours. Just lost in the flow of creation. Good stuff.

The biggest (quiet) experience though, came when Irene got home. My wife is a strong, independent person who needs some time and space when she gets back from being away and immersed in very different dynamics. She’s not the ‘hurl herself into my arms and kiss me passionately’ type. She’s more the, ‘give me lots of space and don’t touch me too much for a little while’ type. And that’s totally fine. I’m not entirely the same, but I definitely get it!

But little Seth, oh poor little Seth, who was feeling all safe and integrated, well… it turns out this was a final test of sorts to see if that integration really could stick. Because to that part of myself it felt like I was being betrayed, rejected, insulted, and that it would probably be a good idea to just get a divorce right away. 

I had felt this many times before. 

This was my ultimate trigger – feeling rejected by my primary attachment person and the behaviour that could ensue had wrecked previous relationships, and had greatly endangered my current one in the past. And I felt all that in its full intensity. Felt the incredible driving urge to retaliate, to marshall my arguments, to attack in defense of my wounded ego. If I did not, my survival would be at risk!

And yet I did not. 

The integration stuck, and for the first time in my life I was able to simply say a quiet goodnight, and retreat to my room with my guts churning and a sucking black hole in my chest. 

Even while I lay in bed it took about 30 minutes of staying extremely stern and focused with myself so that I did not go to her room and start verbally attacking. That little voice would scream to be let out and I would have to tell myself – ‘YOU WILL NOT! You will stay with the pain in your body and you will NOT make this worse by engaging from this place.’

Because that’s a big part of what all this trauma healing work is ultimately about, especially in the context of relationships and old attachment wounds – being able to stay present with terrible pain, on your own, and to not react the way our survival centers tell us we should. 

Yes, we can have good shifts and changes in our sessions with practitioners, and we can have all sorts of good increases in our regulation and healing through those shifts. And that is crucial! We have to increase our capacity, tools, and sense of internal safety, which is a process that is very well supported by a good somatic practitioner, so that ultimately we can develop the kind of self-knowledge and skills that will empower us to pass through this kind of terrible crucible, guided only by our own internal resources. 

So that when the time comes that your wounded soul is laid bare, and you are standing on the shores of desolation scraped out hollow by the winds of survival, and you know, you KNOW that the only way to survive this pain is to plunge yet again into that toxic sea, that you nevertheless stand firm on the shore and say NO. I. WILL. NOT. I will feel this pain in my body and I will use my tools and let my system feel what it needs to feel and then settle, for this is about me. It is not about anyone else. 

It’s about feeling all the pain that tells you that you must act, speak up, defend yourself, justify, get revenge, fight, or run away, and instead of doing any of those things you simply feel the pain and wait for it to change, and in that turning away from the habitual actions and behaviours you make it possible for all those old, well-worn nervous system ruts and brain pathways to disintegrate and find new options.

And that process, at least visibly, can be a very quiet experience. 

From anyone else’s perspective I was just lying there peacefully in bed, while an invisible, tremendous battle was taking place in my mind, my body, and my very cells.

And so my victory, which rang through the halls of my DNA like a church bell, was a very quiet one. There was no big emotions on display, no movements of the body, and there was no one there to witness or validate my experience. It was a private, cellular triumph; a quiet somatic victory that established once and for all that yes, I am whole now, and I cannot be defeated.

* * *

So why do I tell you this? 

For one, it’s because I feel it is important to understand how incredibly deep and slow this work is. And people generally don’t want to hear that. They want the next hack, the next ice bath, or detox regimen. And those things simply do not work when were are talking about this level of change. 

It takes in-depth education so you can understand your physiology and how it plays out through your body and mind, and it takes having access to the right tools, in the right sequence, and it takes years of dedicated application of that knowledge and those tools, to shift things at the very deep levels.

That doesn’t mean it takes years to feel better! I’ve been doing this work as a client for about 7 years now, and as a practitioner for about 5, and I got a lot of healing and benefit even during the first few months, and there has been tremendous growth all along the way; but when we are talking about early/developmental trauma, which is the kind of trauma that almost all of us in the industrialized world have experienced to some degree, it takes a long time to heal those wounds – which affect us down to the sub-atomic level.

I also tell you this because I feel it’s important to know that this work is ultimately about what we are able to face and process on our own. The best practitioner in the world is still only with us for a limited time – often for one hour a week at most. And it is their job to help us get to the point where we don’t need them! 

As Peter Levine once said, ‘nobody can do it for you, and nobody can do it alone.’ We need our good practitioners and we need to remember that the work does not stop when we leave their office.

I also share these stories because I think it’s quite remarkable, inspiring, and wondrous how refined and almost mystical the process of trauma healing can become once it reaches the quantum levels. Early on, a big part of the process may involve us learning how to allow ourselves to unravel and be a big, snotty, teary, rageful mess – there’s great beauty in that too, especially when emotions have been long repressed, and I think a lot of people understand that those kinds of big emotions are often a part of healing trauma. 

But what is not really talked about is how miraculous and magical these deep processes of transformation can be, and when those deep, deep internal changes come, they are very often quiet.

* * *

PS If you don’t know where to start, start here. Irene and I both know that it can be tricky to find a good somatic practitioner and that’s why she just made this video on how to find one.

We also know that there are not nearly enough quality somatic practitioners out there to meet the demand, and that is why Irene has dedicated herself to creating online resources that can help a person get started with the right education and tools no matter where they are. So, if you want to get started and can’t find a good practitioner be sure to check out everything she offers on her website.

Turn on the news from channel Earth

When I was a kid we were constantly bombarded with fear of nuclear war. We would likely all die.

Then it was the hole in the ozone latter and acid rain that was going to kill us.

Meteors and comets made a brief appearance for a couple years as the monsters that would end the world.

Then it was pandemics.

Then it was terrorists. Terrorists were going to kill us all. I’m sure you all remember that one.

Now it’s the climate. The Earth and everything on it will be destroyed unless we act now!

Wait… update…  NOW it’s a Pandemic AGAIN!! AGGGGHHHH!!

The news is always feeding us something to be terrified of and there are always plenty of experts and scientists to legitimize the terror.

Don’t get me wrong, certainly creating sustainability and doing our best to reign in pollution is a good idea no matter what, that’s been true for a while now. It’s also a great idea to heal the toxic effects of unresolved trauma and live a lifestyle that supports a robust immune system.

It’s also a good idea to understand that the people who own the mainstream news also own:

  • The companies that make the the products advertised to you
  • The banks that lend you money to buy them
  • The oil you fill your car with as well as emerging ‘green’ technologies
  • Most of the politicians who are supposed to represent you
  • The pharmaceutical companies that can medicate your anxiety or depression.

So maybe it would be a good idea to turn off the news and tune into yourself and your immediate environment.

What does the ground under your feet tell you?

Do you know how to hear the actual Earth speaking?

Can you hear the messages in the wind and water?

Her voice is a lot softer than the TV, and it may require some work to quiet the worries poured into you. Usually we need to heal our own trauma before we can really hear her.

And just like it’s a good idea to try and heal the effects of stupid greed and thoughtlessness inflicted on the world at large, so it is also a good idea to heal the effects of the violence, neglect, stress, and societal programming that almost all of us have received in one way or another.

In fact, that might be the most important place to start.

So please, consider turning off the news and tuning in to the trees and the dirt.

The message from the Earth herself may be very different from what ‘the world’ is telling you.

What she tells me is this…

 

I will not be destroyed by you, 

For you cannot destroy me.

I have been much hotter than this,

And much colder too!

I have been sterilized of almost all life,

And yet life has returned.

The changes now occurring are part 

Of a cycle that is much bigger than you.

.

This civilization you have built will change

As all civilizations eventually do.

It may crumble and serve as soil for the next to grow from

Or it may gently evolve as more and more of you awaken.

One thing is certain and that it this – 

There is a great potential for all of you to flourish 

And step into your greatness at this time,

And doing so will mean first facing your own darkness.

.

So much depends on what you make space for

and choose to cultivate within yourself.

If you sow panic, fear, and despair then that is what you will harvest.

If you sow love, equanimity, and joy then that is what you will harvest.

So learn to listen to yourself and to my voice around and within you.

Heal your wounds and be of service to others as you can.

Throughout it all I will remain

Your Mother.

 

Free Will and Consciousness. An Open Letter To Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky is a professor of Biology at Stanford University and a neuroendocrinologist who has dived deep into the origins of human behaviour and has had tremendous influence on how we now think about stress and the brain.

Most recently he has come to the conclusion that based on all the biological and psychological evidence he has gathered, we as humans do not actually have free will; that our choices and actions are simply the result of a chain of neurochemical processes that do not at any point actually involve choice.

It’s my personal opinion, based on my own 20+ years of research and exploration of the science of consciousness, and my many years of training in nervous system physiology and how it reacts to trauma, as well as years of working with clients to heal trauma at the nervous system level, that this is mostly true, but not always.

I do believe it is true that our “choices” spring forth from a cascade of neurochemical activity that is happening inside us without apparent choice and that this implies that we have no free will.

And I believe there is a way in which we do have choice, but that agency rests in the acceptance of another premise, which certainly others besides me have said to be true, and that is that the Universe itself is conscious. That it is, in fact, consciousness itself given form and so we are that consciousness as well.

I realize that this idea comes much more from the Eastern sciences, which are sciences of the exploration of consciousness, but it does seem that some areas of western science, particularly in the area of the quantum fields, are starting to talk about this possibility as well.

Many scientists may say that since consciousness is not measurable then the idea is not worth considering, but just because we don’t yet have the tools to measure something doesn’t mean that thing doesn’t exist – it’s not too long ago that we didn’t know how to measure atoms, or galaxies.

Recent experiments in the quantum fields have demonstrated that a photon can be either a wave or a particle and that it is our attempts to measure it that actually determine which form it will take – that essentially reality exists as a probability, until our perception makes it take form. In my mind this lends a lot of weight to the idea that there is something going on besides what happens in the meat of our brains – that there is a fabric of Universal mind that connects us all at the quantum level such that our perception can affect protons, even over vast distances.

If we can accept the possibility that we, as part of the Universe, have access to that Universal consciousness then a choice point emerges.

To explain this I think it’s important to first say that I believe the mind is not just the brain. The brain is a very important part of the function of the mind, and so is all the rest of the physiology.

For example, the sheer amount of neurons in the gut, plus the fact that 80% of the nerve signals between the gut and brain are afferent – travelling from the gut to the brain – definitely suggests that the gut is also a kind of brain that interfaces with the world and sends a lot of information to the brain in our head, and this is demonstrated by human experience as well.

When we get a feeling in our gut of something being “off”, that is the first brain, the gut, giving us information directly. But most people haven’t had the support to learn how to tune into those signals directly and discover their sensational nuance, so it isn’t until those signals reach the brain and trip alarm bells in the areas associated with survival that people are aware of having a response – generally by feeling anxious, or nervous, which trips off a certain neurochemical cascade, which leads to certain thoughts and choices.

I would say that our mind is a bridge between Universal consciousness and the processing of all of our physiology, and that our experience of the mind is greatly influenced by the degree to which we are able to be conscious of that processing at the physiological level.

So there is a distinction, then, between mind and consciousness, and in the majority of the population on Earth right now, the mind is being driven by the physiology without much access to consciousness.

When we practice some sort of focused self-attention we can experience our mind having thoughts and we can observe all the sensations happening in the body. So what is doing the observing? I believe the answer is consciousness. That ability to observe happens when we are able to tap into our own personal zone of that Universal consciousness, that singular mind that our own personal mind can interface with through the neocortex.

So the way in which we have free will is that we get to choose how we respond with our consciousness to the mind/body experience.

At least that is ideally so, but it often is not in this world because of the realities of trauma and survival physiology, and because we are not generally supported in learning how to practice this kind of self-awareness.

I work with clients to help them come out of survival physiology, and I have seen over and over again that as they learn to engage with that trauma in a different way, which involves learning how to access the neocortex and healthy parasympathetic function in the midst of their survival responses, that their external choices, actions, and life, all change.

A little background on the science behind nervous system based trauma healing:

First, we view trauma as a physiological phenomenon; it’s in the biology, not the biography.

Specifically, trauma is an experience wherein our survival responses (fight/flight/freeze) are still “on” in the system, still reacting to overwhelming events from the past, because they were never able to complete due to some kind of interference – something overwhelming happened too fast and we were knocked out, maybe we were helpless to act, or societal conditions or the need to stay attached to our caregivers kept us from allowing our survival physiology to play out.

When this happens the parts of our autonomic nervous system associated with survival are getting a lot of energy (or “tone”) so, among other things, the sympathetic nervous system, limbic brain and brainstem are running the show most of the time, the adrenals are working overtime or they are shut down and exhausted, and if the trauma is from chronic stress, or if it is early/developmental trauma (these are the most common types of trauma in Industrialized society) then the Dorsal Vagal Complex also has a lot of tone and the person is living in what we call functional freeze – meaning that freeze response is humming away inside, keeping a lid on the unresolved Sympathetic energy.

This kind of dysregulated nervous system and physiology is very urgent and ‘loud’, and this is what is driving the neurochemical cascade that leads to “choice” in a lot of the population, and this means there is less access to that neocortex, which is the part of the brain that allows us to interface with that inner observer, which is consciousness.

So it is true, right now, that in our world there isn’t really much choosing happening, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be.

I believe agency and choice happen on the inside, and this ability to choose comes from developing our inner observer so that we can learn to really listen to our physiology directly, to become aware of those signals before they trip off neurochemical chains that are hardwired by evolution, and so to become much more conscious of the body/mind experience; to observe it, understand it, and allow it to move through us with curiosity and wonder, in this way we start to be able to have choice regarding our neurochemical experience.

This is the difference between:

Walking into a room and seeing someone who triggers a tightening in the gut, which we don’t consciously feel, or if we do feel it we don’t know how to work with it, and this translates into a feeling of nervousness or anxiety, which leads to thoughts of how that person seems dangerous, or an irrational fear that they don’t like you, or are staring at you, which leads to the “choice” to leave the room, which wasn’t a choice at all but the inevitable result of the neurochemical cascade that originated with the information coming from our gut.

Or,

Walking into the room, seeing the person, feeling our gut constrict and pausing for a moment to notice that physical experience with curiosity by using our consciousness. This lets us notice that the actual physical sensation is familiar – it’s a tightening sensation that starts around the right kidney and rises up and to the left towards the solar plexus; and as we notice that familiar response and orient again to the room and that person, we realize that they look like the third grade teacher that used to yell at us, and that the danger signal from the gut is a survival response triggered from a past experience that is no longer happening. So we are able to take a moment and find a different area of the room, maybe look out a window, give our nervous system a chance to orient to the safety actually present, and then our gut relaxes – different neurochemical cascades and different choices emerge from us being able to interface with our mind/body experience using consciousness.

For folks with trauma – meaning people who have unresolved survival physiology at play in their system to some degree, the possibility of choice begins with learning about survival physiology so they can understand what is happening in them and learn how to work with it. In doing so they develop that inner observer and are able to make choices about how they respond to their physiology and thoughts with their consciousness, which leads to different neurochemical cascades and different external choices.

If someone is fortunate enough to already be well regulated they can practice some kind of inner focus discipline, which will enable them to tune in more deeply to what is happening in their mind/body experience and change any sub or un-conscious reactions they may not have known were there, or refine their responses to a greater degree, which will lead to different neurochemical cascades, etc..

Choice begins when we are able to sense our physiology at this level, only then can we develop the agency to intervene such that we can consciously elicit different neurochemical cascades, which then will lead to different thoughts and actions.

 

Planes, Babes, & Incubators: Exploring Coupling Dynamics

I learned about Coupling Dynamics in my Somatic Experiencing training – the modality developed by Peter Levine – and I’m pretty sure he coined the term. It is one of the most elusive things to grasp in this world of nervous system-based trauma healing and it took awhile for me to really get it.

So to begin, let me explain the basics of what we mean by Coupling Dynamics.

There are two basic kinds of coupling – being undercoupled, or overcoupled – so, what do these mean? One great way to understand the basic premise is through analogy and I’ll use the one that my mentor, Kathy Kain, gave us in her Somatic Practice training.

Undercoupled – Nothing is related to anything and things are disorganized and scattered. The keys are in the fridge and the socks are hanging from the ceiling light. I’ve got a suitcase under the bed but it’s full of zucchini.

Overcoupled – Everything is tightly bound together. The keys, socks and zucchini are bound together by twine and locked in a case in the closet, which is also locked.

Kind of abstract I know, but do you get the gist?

An undercoupled system tends to present as floaty, dissociated and scattered. There is not much meaning to anything and a person may have difficulty making connections between things that are associated with each other. The belief system may be something like “nothing really matters“, which ironically can also show up as “it’s all One man.. like… wow“. In a somatic sense this often shows up as hypermobile joints, soft and doughy skin, and not much vigor or muscular strength.

An overcoupled system tends to present as hyper-focused, OCD, and rigidly fixated. Everything is tied to everything else and it can be difficult to have discernment and notice differences between things. The belief system tends to be one of, “everything is awful ALL the time. Everything sucks!“. The somatic presentation tends to be rigid joints, lack of flexibility, and tight or chronically tense muscles.

And to make matters more confusing – people can have both dynamics at play in different ways and they can compensate for each other.

Someone may be tense and tight and overcoupled in their body, but have a very disorganized, scattered, or floaty mental/emotional state.

Or they could be loose-limbed and clumsy, but anxious and rigidly fixated on their belief structure.

That’s the first way to look at these dynamics in a broad sense, but then these Coupling Dynamics can show up in how specific traumas and events are associated with each other, or not, and they can also show up in between different aspects of the human experience.

Peter Levine has a model he uses to explain these different aspects which he calls SIBAM, it goes like this:

S – Sensation

I – Image

B – Behaviour

A – Affect (emotion and it’s facial expressions)

M – Meaning

Someone could be working through a trauma and be stuck because the memory (image) is overcoupled with the affect; so they see the image and are flooded with the emotion, but stay stuck in that loop because those elements of SIBAM are overcoupled – this is essentially what a PTSD flashback is. By bringing in other elements of experience – the physical sensations, the behaviour that may want to emerge (like a movement that wants to happen, or a sound, or words), we can start to uncouple the overcoupled elements and arrive at meaning and a holistic, more present experience that allows the trauma to resolve.

To illustrate this I want to tell you a story of an experience I’ve been having around fear of plane travel. This is an example of how traumas can become coupled together, plus how an experience of feeling turbulence became overcoupled with affect, because I was lacking the image, meaning, behaviour, and sensations of the original trauma.

* * *

A while back I was returning to Vancouver with my son, wife, and her parents from a trip to the Philippines.

We were somewhere over the middle of the Pacific Ocean when we entered a storm and things got very scary. I’d experienced turbulence before of course, and I’d never had any issues at all. I was always able to stay relaxed and confident that everything would be fine, but I had never experienced turbulence like this!

This was the kind of turbulence where the entire plane was filled with screams and audible prayers to Jesus. The plane bucked and shuddered and dropped hundreds of feet at times such that if we did not have seat belts on we would have flown about the cabin.

I was absolutely terrified, which was a new experience for me during plane travel.

In addition to the extreme violence of the motion, I’m sure the fact that my son was with me made the experience more potent, and triggered a very deep, unresolved trauma in me that I didn’t connect to until yesterday – more than a year later.

This is because I was undercoupled with that pre-verbal trauma in terms of my consciousness – it was totally unknown to me that an association had been made between the plane turbulence and the early trauma, and that those things were now locked together.

As a result, every time I have flown since that trip I would be nervous going in (that old trauma already stirring), and at the slightest bit of bumpiness my palms would start to sweat and heart race and I would be filled with unreasoning terror.

Which sucked.

I know a lot about how to work with myself at this point, so I was always able to get through it without panic. I would notice how my pelvic floor, abdomen, and shoulders were bracing and could willingly soften them. I could talk to myself about how planes are made to withstand much worse than this and that all would be fine. And I had the support of my highly skilled wife and colleague, Irene, on these trips and she was able to help soothe me and calm me down.

But still – it always was an ordeal that I had to get through, and I was not able to resolve it because I was undercoupled from the original trauma – I had no meaning, image, or accurate sensations for what was actually stirring in my system. I just experienced the bumps and went straight to terror.

So, yesterday we were returning from a lovely vacation.

On the way there I did better than I had previously – only a little bit of palm sweat and terror :).

We arrived at our warm, sunny, tropical destination and got to rest and recharge in the sun and salt water for a few days; and my system took that as a cue that it was time to bring out that old trauma that had been so buried.

It started with strange, circular, rashes appearing on my arms. First one arm, then the next day the other.

Then I had an overall rash that spread over my chest and shoulders that felt like a reaction to the heat (S – sensation of the original trauma coming back into the picture), and I went into feeling this and spontaneously curled up and felt very helpless (B – Behaviour and A – Affect from the original trauma arising) and like I couldn’t cool down and that was when my body gave me the information – I was too hot in that incubator and I couldn’t cool down! (M – Meaning starting to emerge).

You see, I was born six weeks early and consequently spent a few weeks in an incubator after birth. This is highly traumatic for any baby.

I’m sure I had decent care, but I was cut off from my primary care giver. She would come and nurse me and spend time with me every day, but then she would leave and I would be alone and in some ways this was almost worse – because that safety and security would appear, and then it would be gone, and I would have had no way to know if it would ever come back again. I would be alone, trapped and unable to escape from a situation that felt inherently dangerous.

Hmmm. Trapped in a container that I cannot escape and which feels unsafe. Sounds kinda like being on a plane in extreme turbulence.

That’s why my fear around plane travel and reaction to turbulence had become so extreme – because it had become overcoupled with my pre-verbal incubator trauma!

Awesome.

Awesome because now that I KNOW that those things have become overcoupled I have the gift of meaning and understanding, and I have been able to move through different aspects of SIBAM associated with the original trauma, bringing the past consciously into the present and uncoupling it from the feelings of turbulence.

* * *

There is one more example that I want to talk about because it’s one that I see all the time with my clients and it’s one of the biggest things that stands in the way of healing at the nervous system level; in our western medical model, and in our society in general, a lot of importance gets placed on meaning, or more specifically, pathology.

Meaning is an important element of SIBAM to be sure, as illustrated by my experience above, and yet I would say that, as a whole, we have become overcoupled with meaning. Specifically, sensation and the hunt for a pathology or ’cause’ tend to be easily overcoupled.

We feel a tingling or a pulsing, we have an unfamiliar tightness or ache, or a rash pops up unexpectedly, and we tend to immediately try and ‘figure out’ what’s going on. We go to the doctor, naturopath, massage therapist, or acupuncturist and try to get meaning from them for our sensations, and that is totally understandable, but it often stops healing from happening, because the real meaning can often only be found within the temple of our own body.

This is because the sensations of survival energy trying to emerge are often strange, intense, and mysterious – pulsing, aching, itching, heat, tension, trembling, tingling, etc… – all these are common experiences of trauma arising in the system to be released. If we run from specialist to specialist, or even if we run around in our own mind, or hunt frantically for answers on the internet by googling symptoms, we will usually end running away from what is actually happening and end up getting stuck; because the only real meaning for these sensations is this: our past trauma is arising and it wants out!

It’s not black and white, because sometimes there are sensations and symptoms that actually do have some physical cause unrelated to past trauma – like when a bone is broken, or a tooth needs fixing, or if our appendix is about to burst – and if such sensations or symptoms are very acute or alarming then it can be a good idea to rule things out for sure; and yet, this can also lead one on a merry-go-round of appointments that goes nowhere (a very common experience for trauma survivors who often end up with a diagnosis of, ‘it’s all in your head’).

So it’s about balance to be sure.

In general, when you feel a sensation or symptom that is unfamiliar or strange, the first thing to do is not hunt for an explanation, but simply to observe and get curious about the experience, and see how it changes or dissipates under the influence of that compassionate, curious inquiry. Most of the time that alone will organically bring more information – memories or images may start to spontaneously arise, or the sensation may change to something totally different, or even pleasant, as we open to these unfamiliar experiences with curiosity, instead of bracing against them with fear (which tends to lock the sensations down or make them worse).

Then, if things don’t change – if the symptom or sensation gets more intense over the period of many hours or days – then it may be useful to visit your medical practitioner of choice so you can rule out any other possible causes.

* * *

Coupling Dynamics are so important and so complex and have such a big impact on how we hold and move through our trauma. I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t settle myself and heal the trauma from that one big turbulence experience, and that’s because it wasn’t fundamentally about the turbulence at all – it was about my very early experiences of terror and isolation.

A client of mine once came to me because they couldn’t sleep at night; their legs kept twitching and trembling and they had sensations of anxiety in their chest which sent them running to different specialists looking for answers – these sensations had become overcoupled with the search for meaning. Their blood work was fine and supplements and acupuncture weren’t helping and that’s because the only thing that needed to happen – the real meaning – is that their legs were still trying to help them escape and run from their childhood home.

When they were supported in just being with these sensations with curiosity (uncoupling the tight bond between sensation and meaning), and in exploring what behavior might want to happen (to run), and worked with that image of running, which allowed the image of their childhood home (the real meaning) and the affect of fear and grief, and ultimately, victory as they successfully fled, to emerge – all these uncomfortable sensations resolved.

This is the magic and medicine of Coupling Dynamics; as things that have been overcoupled get teased apart, or as elements that have been undercoupled join together and become organized, we are able to arrive at a more cohesive whole, which is a fundamental ingredient of healing trauma and restoring health and vitality.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes We Have To Break Up With Our Family

If you ask someone why family is important to them you will often get an answer that conveys no actual information.

“Because family comes first”

“Because you only have one family”

“Because blood is thicker than water”

It seems most answers to this question boil down to simply, “just because it is”.

To me, this kind of unquestioning acceptance points to the importance of our family of origin as something deeply coded in our genetic heritage and our collective consciousness. Like all such programming (like the need to look to an external authority figure for truth and guidance, the desire to fit in with the crowd and be accepted, even the unquestioning acceptance that death is inevitable) this belief is something that is worthy of deeper examination.

I believe the importance we place on our blood ties has grown out of millions of years of evolution, during which being part of a tribe was essential for survival. This tribalism came first, but the strong attachment to a nuclear family unit came later, when we started to exist less as hunter/gatherers and more as communities formed of families who tilled the land, raised animals, and depended on each other to accomplish all the domestic tasks necessary for survival. The tribe (now the village or town) was still important, but gradually the family of origin became more about informing our identity and sense of belonging, rather than something we needed to survive.

In addition to that, family actually IS vitally important in helping us form a healthy nervous system and all the mental, emotional, physical, and social skills that grow out of that.

But that only happens when things go well.

We are supposed to receive secure attachment and healthy modelling from our primary caregivers. We’re supposed to receive unconditional support, love and acceptance from them, from our siblings, and our extended family, all of which sets us up to thrive in the world. We are supposed to have our basic safety provided for and our authenticity celebrated such that we can discover our own unique place in the world and the gifts we have to offer.

But today, at least in most of the industrialized world, such healthy upbringing is the exception rather than the norm.

Today it is much more common for parents to be stressed out, overworked, exhausted, and traumatized. Industrialized society and the demands it places on us have set us up such that now there is generation after generation of unresolved trauma and suffering that gets passed down both through genetic tendencies and the dysfunctional behaviours and relational styles that reinforce and perpetuate said genetic tendencies.

This…has nothing to do with love. Love is not nearly enough to raise healthy humans.

A mother may love her child and yet be so filled with her own suffering that she is unable to attach to that child in a secure way. A father may love his child but be unable to master himself and keep from lashing out when his own unresolved trauma gets triggered.

Both parents may be relatively healthy, but simply uninformed about what’s necessary to cultivate a healthy human system, and unaware of how simple acceptance and the passing on of cultural norms are plenty to traumatize a child and set them up for a lifetime of problems. Such norms could include:

  • Children should be seen and not heard
  • Don’t express emotions that may be uncomfortable for others
  • Be polite by repressing your basic biological functions (crying, passing gas, sneezing, etc…)
  • Circumcision and other non-essential surgeries are good ideas
  • Spanking, time outs, yelling, and other forms of toxic shaming and controlling tactics are ok
  • It’s ok to be glued to your cell phone while spending time with your baby or young child (and really, it’s never great to be glued to the ‘ol screen during any time that is meant to be spent relating with others)

These are just a few of the ways a human can get messed up.

Then there are those that have been so harmed themselves they have become sadistic, psychopathic, sociopathic, and/or narcissistic and yet still end up having children; those who have no filter whatsoever and who will torture their own children or stepchildren without a second thought. Not to mention families bound up in oppressive religious systems or cults, where the entire community is toxic and abusive.

This entire range of dysfunction; from those who are simply ignorant and stressed, to those who have become an embodiment of evil and sadism, is much more the norm in industrialized society than a well-informed, securely-attached, healthy family system is; and yet that inherent belief that family comes first, that family is the most important thing and must be held on to at all costs, has not fundamentally changed; and in my mind this is a big problem for those who want to break the cycle of trauma and arrive at a place of true health and vitality.

* * *

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.  

– Albert Einstein

If we have been traumatized by our family system and are determined to heal we MUST start to consider the ways in which we think about the world, relationships, and how we have been formed by a need to adapt to and survive our family system, and that they are probably not very accurate.

We also must consider that if we want to address these problems then we are most likely an outlier – often we will be the only one in that family system who wants to change the dynamic – and the rest of our family will usually have a STRONG desire for us to NOT challenge that system.

If we are aware of the trauma and dysfunction it may seem crazy to us the rest of our family is not.

And it will almost certainly seem crazy to them that we want to go a different way! Those who are deeply attached to a dysfunctional family system will feel (usually unconsciously) their very survival is being threatened when one member tries to break the patterns and establish something new for themselves, and they will often employ every trick in the book: shaming, guilt-tripping, gaslighting, anger, threats, bribes, to try and keep that outlier hooked in.

If this is the case for you, if you are ready to change and heal and you find these dynamics of control rising up in your family system in an attempt to keep you hooked in, then you have a choice to make.

What is most important to you? Your health and sanity? Or attachment to the very system that caused the problems in the first place?

I am going to very blunt here – if you are not willing to renegotiate your attachment to the toxic system that harmed you, and/or to adult relationships that have been formed from the same cloth, then you will not be able to heal.

This doesn’t mean you have to sever all ties forever and never look back, there are a variety of ways for you to approach creating a safe container for yourself which I will get into below, but you will have to risk the possibility of permanent estrangement when you set a boundary, because the response you get may necessitate stronger action.

There needs to be a willingness to take the chance your relationship with your family system, or other toxic relationships, will not be able to survive your efforts to heal and care for yourself, because sometimes that is what happens.

Hopefully your family system will be able to support your boundaries even if they don’t understand them, or perhaps you will have to cut ties completely for a time but later on you may be able to establish some good repair if it seems warranted.

* * *

When a mammal in the wild has mounted a survival response in their system, for example – the flight/flight response has kicked in to escape a predator, they will stay in that survival response until they reach a safe haven.

Only once their system is able to sense, at a biological level that they are safe, will it allow that survival energy to be released.

The same is true for us. Only for us it is usually not one event that needs to be released from our system, it is often decades of recurring traumas and chronic stress. Nevertheless, the same paradigm is true for us; it takes much longer and is much more complex a process than simply shaking out a fight/flight response, but still, in order for healing at the nervous system level to happen effectively and be integrated, it MUST be supported by a safe environment and safe relationships.

That environment needs to be safe at a biological level; this means it must actually be safe! This means we cannot stay in an abusive living situation and simply tell ourselves we are safe. Instead we must create a safe haven for ourselves that our physiology is able to sense as real.

This creates a really complex situation for many people and I want to address this first because it is so tricky: there are many cases where a person’s system has become so damaged by unresolved trauma that they end up financially dependent on the very people who caused the problems, and in many cases they are still living with their abusers. I wish I had an easy fix for  this kind of situation but there simply isn’t one that I know of, although there are things that a person in such a situation can do to start moving towards health and healing.

  • First, if possible, find a different living situation. Living with a different relative who you have a better relationship with, or a friend, or even government-subsidized housing, may all be better options. I understand though, that sometimes none of these are possible.
  • If you must live with your abusers then start working on your boundaries, both energetic and practical. Energetic boundary building can mean a couple things. One way is to start tapping into what is referred to as Healthy Aggression, which you can read about here. Another way is to practice visualizing a sphere around you that is filled with your own energy (this is supported well by Healthy Aggression work) and that no one else’s energy is allowed in that sphere unless you decide.
  • These energetic practices are well supported by practical boundaries – having a lock on the door of your room so that no one can enter your sphere without your permission, and limiting time and conversations with any dysfunctional family members you are living with. If you are able to practice and implement this boundary work it may be that you can create a small safe haven in your room and your physiology and psyche will start to recognize it as such.
  • Spend time outside of the house with friends and have regular appointments with a good therapist. If you can find a good Somatic Experiencing Practitioner in your area then that is wonderful, but many SE Practitioners provide sessions online. Even a good counselor, or well-attuned somatic psychologist, or free crisis line worker may be more helpful than having no support.

If you are able to live on your own, or with good people whom you resonate with and feel genuinely safe around, then that’s great and the process is simpler. The first thing is to simply set some boundaries with people you need space from and see if they are respected.

For example, if your mom calls you every week, tell her to stop calling and that you will call her when it feels good to you. With caller ID standard on pretty much all devices these days it’s easy enough to not pick up the phone even if she does still call, though if she persists this shows she is not respecting your boundaries and at that point it would be fair to inform her that if she does not stop calling you, then you will block her from your phone entirely.

If some member of your toxic family system has a tendency to just show up unannounced tell them that’s not ok and to stop it, that they must ask to come first. See what happens. If they respect your boundary, then great! If they don’t, then tell them again that they MUST stop or you will cut off your relationship with them entirely.

If they still don’t stop then tell them that you will file a restraining order and that they will be prosecuted if they don’t respect your boundary. This may seem extreme, but often just the threat of some kind of actual consequence will be enough to stop this behaviour and you may not have to actually carry it out, though you should be prepared to.

That’s the general gist. Start by employing boundaries that are clear and kind and see what response you get.

Tell them that you are doing this for your own healing, that it’s not meant to be hurtful towards them, but that it’s simply what you need to do in order to heal and that you would like to have their support. Often times this will do it.

I didn’t see or talk to my own parents much for about five years. They didn’t like it, but they respected it and now, after many years of good somatic, nervous system based healing work, I am able to have functional relationships with both of them. I still need to limit the amount of time I actually spend with them as their lifestyles and energies are still quite toxic to me, but I’m not triggered by them any more and I am able to maintain a connection.

In most cases where the abuse has been because of ignorance, unquestioning acceptance of societal norms, a chronically stressful lifestyle, or because of the parents’ own unresolved trauma, I think that maintaining some kind of connection, if possible, is the best choice, simply because of the archetypal power our parents have in our psyche and because without them we would not exist at all and we should honour that if we can. This can be super powerful!

It may be entirely necessary to cut communication for a time while we do our work. Repair is usually possible with people who have passed on this kind of abuse (the kind that is not outright sadistic), and they will generally be able to accept these kind of boundaries, even if they don’t like it.

However, in cases where the parents or other family members were unquestionably sadistic; when there were outright beatings, torture, molestation, rape, ritualistic abuse, etc…, all of which happens a lot more than one might think, there is probably no value at all in keeping any connection whatsoever.

Likewise, if our family members are more in the first camp and yet are unable or unwilling to respect our boundaries once we have set them, then I think it is appropriate to cut off all contact and sever our energetic ties. We may decide at some point to try and re-establish contact, or we may not, but it will be our choice.

Cutting off contact is relatively easy. Delete them from your contacts and block them from your devices. If they are in the area and insist on showing up physically then file a restraining order as I mentioned, or it may be better to simply move to a different area of the country or world entirely.

Severing the energetic ties though is not so easy, especially with parents.

Ritual can be very helpful in this regard. There is one member of my family who I had to sever my energetic ties with because even though they agreed to no contact, they were still attacking me psychically and energetically, which I am quite sure they were entirely unaware of, and therefore would probably never be able to change. I did a ritual of ceremonially burning all photographs of them with a strong intention of severing all ties at all levels. And yet that on it’s own was still not quite enough to fully free my psyche. For that I needed to do what is called Annihilation work.

This is a very powerful form of somatic/energetic work and it is, I believe, crucial in freeing ourselves from the imprints of our abusers.

You see when we grow up in an environment of abuse and we are unable to defend ourselves, we end up internalizing the energy of our abusers. These are the self-hating critical thoughts and voices in our psyche that can continue to abuse us long after we have no contact with the actual person.

That’s because these introjections, though they may have the face and voice of our family members or other abusers, are actually fabrications of our own psyche and energy. They must be destroyed such that the energy they are holding can be freed up and be used for for our own healing and creativity. I’ve written an entire article on Annihilation Work, and you can read it here.

* * *

My wife, Irene, recently wrote a great article on why everyone can heal, but not everyone will.

The main thing that keeps people from healing is a belief they do not deserve to, and this is only reinforced by staying hooked into a toxic family system, romantic relationship or friendship. That dysfunctional system is dependant on you NOT healing, because if you do heal, that will fundamentally change the system.

If you don’t already truly know this, that yes, YOU DO DESERVE TO HEAL, it is very important for you to give your psyche and physiology that message, and part of doing that should be setting boundaries or severing ties with existing toxic relationships.

The great thing is that when we do this and start to heal, then a whole different kind of relationship opens up to us; with others and, even more importantly, with ourselves.

Here’s to your freedom, and to your bright future; it starts by making the best choices for yourself now.

 

 

 

 

Can Plant Medicines and Psychedelics Heal Trauma?

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics and plant medicines have been very helpful for some people as part of their healing process, AND – they are not going to heal anything on their own and there are some dangers to look out for.

Firstly, one needs to have at least some degree of baseline regulation before engaging with these kinds of medicines – one should be able to get triggered into a survival response and be able to bring themselves down without needing external resources. Meaning one knows how to work with their physiology through breath, sounds, self-touch, etc.. they need to have enough capacity to be able to experience pretty intense discomfort and still be able to stay present.
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This is because Ayahuasca almost universally shows people their shadow self – all the toxic junk that is within them that needs to heal in order to be whole, and Magic Mushrooms and LSD can have a similar effect (though not as pointed as Ayahuasca). That’s intense. And also potentially useful, granted one has the capacity to experience it. Also, such an experiences should be followed up with good, sober, somatic work in order to process, integrate, and explore the pieces that were revealed during the psychedelic journey.

When people who are mentally and physiologically unstable go into a psychedelic experience like that, the result is generally a further fracturing of the psyche and self that can have long term negative effects. So that’s the first important piece – baseline regulation, capacity, and mental stability need to be on board already.

The other very important element is the setting and the guide. There are quite a few charlatans out there leading these experiences and ceremonies who are well aware of the growing desire in westerners to try this stuff out and yet do not have the training necessary to provide a safe container which is also crucial. The guide must be experienced, well trained, and attuned to each individual in order to provide a safe and effective experience.

So one should make sure that the guide is well established and experienced and has a good reputation. They need to be the real deal. This is especially true for Ayahuasca, which really should be done in a ceremonial group setting.

LSD, Mushrooms, and other psychedelics are more often used by people solo or with a friend or two, and these medicines often are used simply to “trip out” and party and hey, whatever, I’ve done my share of that. But if one really wants to get the most out of such experiences they should try being intentional and aware of the setting – meaning make sure that you will be in a nurturing, safe place, and try going into the experience holding the intention that you may experience what is needed in order to further your healing process and evolve your consciousness.

One plant medicine that doesn’t get nearly enough use in this way is cannabis. Cannabis is getting widely recognized and marketed these days as medicine, but it is rarely used to its full potential. It is generally used to numb out and/or to manage pain (emotional, mental, or physical) which is a kind of medicine to be sure, but it can also be very useful as part of a deep, somatic healing process because of a couple factors.

One – it is mildly psychoactive, meaning it enables an altered state of consciousness that can be used (if the correct intention is in place) to journey through the sub and unconscious mind (as they are stored and expressed in the body), but it is not as dissociative as LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelics. A inner journey with cannabis still needs to be supplemented by good, sober, somatic trauma work, but the “gap” is not as wide between consensual reality and the cannabis high as it is with other, more psychoactive medicines.

Two – it temporarily dampens our short term memory and our body memory, or body image. This is why events while high can seem so novel or packed with new meaning, because we are experiencing them from a different place within ourselves that is less associated with our habituated self image. This is very useful indeed if one has the ability to track their inner experience through the language of sensations because this distance from ones normal sense of self can enable the discovery of sub, or unconscious material that would normally be managed and covered up by the normal, habitual self image. This material can often be painful, so the cannabis plant’s ability to help one be more objective about pain and discomfort can also come in handy here.

I believe that this is the way that cannabis can actually be used as medicine, but it means a very different setting and intention than what is more normal in the pot-smoking community – meaning it’s not about bong hits at the beach or sucking down a joint before a movie or meal. It means that one is alone, or journeying with others who have the same intention. It means that one only needs a very small toke and that one then simply lays down or sits comfortably and tracks their inner experience. This skill of learning to track and experience one’s inner sensations also needs to be learned while sober, and possibly with the assistance of a good somatic practitioner, before it can effectively be applied in an altered state of consciousness.

As to whether people should recommend Ayahuasca, mushrooms, cannabis and the like to their friends or casual acquaintances, the answer is generally no – even if you had an amazing, positive experience, that doesn’t mean that another person will. As you can see there are a lot of elements that need to be in place for one to have a safe, positive experience, and so no one should recommend such powerful tools willy-nilly without fully knowing someone’s trauma history and current physiological/mental state.

What’s really important to understand is that while there are all sorts of tools, medicines, and techniques out there for healing trauma, and many of them can be very useful as part of a bigger process, none of them are going to be enough on their own. What’s really key is a safe, well-contained, attuned therapeutic relationship with a professional who understands how to work at the level of the nervous system. For more info on this check out this past article.

There Is No “Exercise” That Heals Trauma

“Without changing the somatic system – the underlying neurochemical platform – any change in behaviour is simply overriding through force of will.” – Kathy Kain, creator of Somatic Practice

This article started out as an answer to someone’s question in the Facebook group my wife, Irene Lyon, started, Healthy Nervous System Revolution. They wanted to know if we recommended TRE (Tremor Release Exercises) as a way to heal trauma.

I realized though, that my answer was about much more than why we do not recommend TRE – it’s about the nature of the most common kind of trauma we see in the industrialized world, and why treating it is not a simple matter of “releasing stress.” This answer focuses on TRE – what it might be good for, everything it is NOT good for, and why other approaches are generally far better for the kind of trauma most of us in the industrialized world have, but the same shortcomings can, I feel, be applied to anything at all that is considered a “technique” or “exercise.”

Techniques and exercises do not heal trauma. Relationship heals trauma. That relationship may well be therapeutic, and the practitioner may have all sorts of various techniques, exercises, and interventions at their disposal which will be useful when applied judiciously and in harmony with what is unfolding in the client, but it is not the techniques, or exercises themselves that heal anything – it is the safe container of the relationship which allows for the organic unfolding of the client’s unique system that is healing. That being said, some exercises are better than others.

Here is my answer to the question, “is TRE good for healing trauma”….

* * *
The answer to this question depends entirely on the nature of your trauma and the state of your nervous system. I think the best place to start is with words from the creator of TRE, David Berceli, on how he developed this approach…
“I was living in several countries in Africa & Mid East that were experiencing war and political violence. I noticed a pattern among all of us, that when we became anxious, frightened or traumatized, our bodies would begin to shake from fear. This shaking had a predictable pattern. It had a beginning, at the onset of violence; middle during the violence; and an end, the shaking would stop when the violence ceased and safety was restored. I recognized that the shaking was not a pathology of the fear response, as traditional medicine suggests, but rather it was a healthy mechanism of the nervous system trying to help the body reduce its fear, tension and anxiety. I developed a method to artificially evoke this shaking response in a safe and controlled environment. This allows the individual to complete the shaking response long after the stressor is over and reduce the still-existing excited charge of the nervous system.”

On the surface this seems totally valid and fine, and it is. IF we are simply talking about allowing a held Sympathetic (Fight/Flight) NS charge to dissipate.

What he is talking about is simple shock trauma – there is gunfire and explosions, a car crash, an assault on the senses of some kind that is sudden and big and overwhelming and there isn’t enough time or support or safety to allow our Fight/Flight survival responses to complete. TRE might very well be helpful at releasing that Sympathetic charge.

The thing is, simply discharging a held Sympathetic response does not even come close to addressing what is needed for the kind of trauma that is much more common in industrialized countries. In the “first world” a simple case of shock trauma is the least common type of trauma. I’ve had hundreds of clients through my door at this point and I’ve had exactly ONE case of simple shock trauma.

As hard as it may be to believe, in the “second” and “third” world countries it is much more common to have good, solid early wiring and attachment, to have baseline regulation, but to then be exposed to shock trauma. Of course there are many kinds of adversity all over the world, including abusive and mis-attuned parents wherever you go, but speaking in terms of broad social trends and cultural fields of consciousness, we generally see in the more “primitive” cultures that the attunement and care between parents and children early on is much more refined and robust than in industrialized countries. There isn’t the same kind of crazy hectic schedules and need to constantly work, caregivers are with their kids more because daycare is much less common, and family connection and harmony is, in general, more valued than making money and acquiring things.

*Note – I’m using quotes around “first”, “second”, “third”, and “primitive” because frankly, I despise using those terms at all. The so called “third” world is a hell of a lot more advanced than the “first” in many of the ways that actually make a being human. I’d rather spend a week with the Aboriginals in Australia or a South American tribe than with most Americans, and I consider those “primitive” people much more advanced than the consumer culture of western society in terms of consciousness. But I have to use those words so people know what I am talking about, just know it is with reluctance.

Unfortunately though there is more war and violence in the less industrialized countries – more things likely to produce simple shock trauma. This is the kind of environment that TRE was developed in – where it’s more likely that the individual’s systems were dealing with simple shock trauma on top of solid early wiring.

What is much more common in industrialized countries and cultures is complex trauma that has its roots in early/developmental trauma and chronic stress as well as surgical trauma, that then may or may not have various shock traumas on top of all that. And with this type of complex multi-layered trauma, which results in depression, anxiety, poor boundaries, lack of agency, phobias, autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, skin conditions, cancers, or ALL of the above – discharging a held Sympathetic response is literally the LAST thing we want to have happen.

What needs to happen first is relationship. The very foundation of all good trauma work (especially when it comes to early/developmental trauma) is building a solid relationship over time where the client can feel an actual felt sense of safety, usually for the first time ever. This is what Somatic Experiencing (SE) does at it’s best, and it’s what Kathy Kain’s work, Somatic Practice, excels at. These modalities, especially Somatic Practice, support everything that needs to happen as a foundation, before ANY sort of big activation/deactivation work (the kind of Sympathetic discharge TRE supports).

*Note – to be completely fair – many SE practitioners misunderstand SE. They think it is also a technique meant to do this “activation/deactivation” thing. Somatic Experiencing, when correctly understood and practiced is NOT a technique at all, it is a way of being; a way of living, attuning, and being in relationship with the client that supports their physiology, psyche and soul organically unfolding in the way that best fits their unique system, which may include all kinds of nuance and experiences.

Things that need to happen before we start getting the energy moving in any kind of activation/deactivation way: we need to first directly support the physiology to achieve some baseline regulation – the kidney/adrenal system needs to feel what it’s like to soften and come out of arousal (or if it’s flatlined we need to build up it’s sense of support and safety to the point that it feels able to come online again). The brainstem needs to learn what it feels like to come out of hypervigilance. The viscera needs to feel what it’s like to have it’s gut-feelings heard and honoured and validated. The fascia needs to experience the possibility that it can come out of rigidity and bracing. The neurochemistry must start to experience what it’s like to NOT be so ruled by stress chemistry.

Above all, the whole person must experience – mentally, emotionally, bodily – what it is like to be held in a safe space, listened to, attuned with, and supported appropriately.

With complex trauma like we have in industrialized society all of this needs to happen first, usually for many months if not years, before the system is authentically ready to mount an activation/deactivation response (no matter how titrated).

If a person with this kind of complex trauma goes into a TRE session, especially the group sessions or self-directed at-home exercises that have become quite popular, what will happen is generally one of three things:

  • Nothing. They will go through the motions but they won’t really sense anything and nothing much happens.
  • They will have to override their fear and terror in order to participate and will go through the motions and may even get a tremor response, but nothing will be achieved because the underlying sub- and unconscious somatic/emotional/mental management strategies have been actually reinforced by the experience. Someone who has been living in what we call “functional freeze” – meaning all this coping and management is going on in their system but they are unaware of it and it’s not yet physically presenting (like a duck – who appears to be gliding smoothly along the surface of the water, while actually its little legs are kicking furiously under the surface) may actually experience a feeling of stress relief, totally unaware that they have actually reinforced their coping strategies. *This brings up a very important distinction – there is a vast difference between stress relief/feeling better, and actual trauma healing and nervous system regulation.
  • Or two, they will not be able to override and their system will “blow up” in extreme emotional/physical/mental distress. They will “freak out” in some way, which unfortunately may even be viewed by some practitioners as some kind of beneficial catharsis.

In either case the most likely end result is reinforcement of existing trauma patterns and/or coping strategies, with no actual healing or regulation taking place, even though it may seem so in some cases.

One more point – I said that with the kind of trauma that is most common in the first world, complex early/developmental/surgical/shock trauma, a big Sympathetic discharge is the last thing we want to happen and I meant that literally. Meaning, we DO want it to happen eventually, after all the foundations have been built so that the person can have the energy and safety in their system to genuinely do that kind of work without overriding.

And here’s the thing – when the system is genuinely ready to do that activation/deactivation and the appropriate support is there, it just happens all on it’s own. There is absolutely no need to push on the system with poses to evoke a response. It just happens naturally and organically driven by the body’s instinctive wisdom. This is a tough sell for most Westerners though who have become SO conditioned to think that everything must have some kind of “quick fix” –  there must be a “tool for the job”, there must be a way to “hack the system” or “take a shortcut”. Sorry, no. When it comes to truly healing trauma and restoring regulation to the autonomic nervous system there is no shortcut, tool, technique, or exercise that will work.

Many of you may know that Irene has created online courses that apply the principles and modalities of Somatic Experiencing, Somatic Practice, and Feldenkrais. These online courses use many exercises and contain tools and techniques, and yet they have been very effective at helping people from over 40 different countries heal trauma and restore regulation and I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Why? Firstly, because though she calls them “neurosensory exercises” they are not exercises in the traditional sense, but rather unique lessons that apply the lens Moshe Feldenkrais developed in his Awareness Through Movement lessons, which was not about “fixing” but rather were about learning what we are doing already so that we can change it mindfully and biologically.

This lens is then focused in on crucial somatic systems in a kind of gentle inquiry that support a gradual awakening of self knowledge and increased capacity. The effect of all those neurosensory exercises and the way that they are layered and structured, combined with the education on nervous system physiology, group support from peers, and expert advice from Irene, myself, and our team, enable the participant to establish and strengthen that therapeutic relationship with themselves. Plus we still wholeheartedly encourage participants to seek out one-on-one support with a good practitioner if needed.

So to sum up. TRE is very useful for evoking a held sympathetic response. If the only traumatic thing you have ever experienced is a simple shock trauma (there was a car accident, or you were in a war zone, etc..) and your early wiring was good and solid because your parents were not stressed in some way but were actually able to meet you with good attunement and attention, then TRE might be good for you to release a simple shock trauma. Also, in some cases of complex trauma it could be used as a helpful intervention as part of a larger process IF the practitioner is well-attuned, and also firmly rooted in the nuanced understandings of trauma physiology that one learns in Somatic Practice and the post-advanced levels of Somatic Experiencing. I have also heard that there is more and more focus on building regulation and capacity in the TRE trainings, and increased awareness around being careful to steer clients away from big catharsis which is great to hear, though I still question the efficacy of working through the muscular system, rather than directly with the nervous system because again, when the correct support is there and the conditions are right, the tremor response will emerge all on it’s own organically.

If you are like the vast majority of the industrialized world’s population and your early wiring was NOT solid; if your trauma was relational, early/developmental, surgical, etc… plus shock trauma on top of all that – and this paints an accurate picture of 99% of my clients – then TRE is, in general, not recommended by us, especially if it is not in the context of an attuned, well-established therapeutic relationship, or if it is in a group class setting, or if it is done by yourself as an at-home exercise. When done in these ways it may support a temporary feeling of stress reduction or empowerment, which may be ok for some as part of a larger process, but it’s also possible that it will reinforce sub- or unconscious coping strategies which ultimately get in the way of true trauma healing and regulation, and if your system is severely compromised it could result in a big blow up with long-term deleterious effects.

* * *

So there you have it.

I consider nervous system education first, Somatic Practice second, Somatic Experiencing third, Feldenkrais fourth to be the golden quadrangle when it comes to healing trauma and restoring regulation, and that’s the way that Irene’s online courses (the 21-Day Nervous System Tuneup and SmartBody SmartMind) are structured so be sure to check those out.

*Note – The 21-Day Nervous System Tuneup is mostly self-study, with group and faculty support available in a private Facebook group, and is available all the time – it’s the starter course. SmartBody SmartMind is a much more in-depth 12-week group program that also has the online group and faculty support, in addition to live training calls with Irene and live Q&A calls with Irene and myself. This program currently runs once a year with limited enrolment.

I have also heard very good things about NARM, the work of Dr. Laurence Heller, from people that I trust and I would like to take that training myself. So if you want to find a person to work with one-on-one I would recommend someone trained in either Somatic Practice, Somatic Experiencing, NARM, Feldenkrais, or a combination of any of these.

Above all though – it has to be someone you trust and feel safe with. Your gut will usually know within the first few seconds, and definitely within the first session, if the practitioner is a good fit. Just ask yourself –

Do feel safe (enough) with this person? (It’s very common when starting trauma treatment to never have felt entirely safe, ever. So sometimes we need to start with safe enough).

Have they shown that they are competent? Meaning – have they outlined some kind of treatment plan, explained it’s purpose, and helped you understand yourself better?)

If so, then great.

If, on the other hand, they tell you that you will be “all better” in any set amount of time, or if they hit you right of the bat with exercises or techniques without explaining what they are doing, if they try to “make” you do” anything at all, or if they feel clinical, cold or impersonal say goodbye, and keep on looking.

I hope this article has been helpful for you in making an informed choice when it comes to treatment options, and maybe even offered some insight into understanding yourself and why some things may or may not have worked for you in the past. Here’s to your health!

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