Most people think that a trauma is an event. You get abused as a kid, or violated as an adult. Someone is in a violent car accident. A soldier sees his buddy blown up in front of him, or loses a limb himself. These kinds of things are what we commonly think of as trauma.
Trauma, however is not an event, but rather the result of what happens inside a person as a reaction to an event.
Specifically, trauma can occur when someone experiences an event that is overwhelming, an event which that person does not have the ability to stay present with.
Trauma is something that occurs, ultimately, within our nervous system and brain.
You see, we all have this thing inside us called an autonomic nervous system, a wonderfully complex apparatus that governs how our body reacts to stimuli, both internal and external. One branch of our nervous system will respond to a potentially threatening event by kicking in and activating our fight, flight or freeze mechanisms; then when the event is over, another branch will kick in and bring us back down out of that arousal into a place of base-line regulation, at which point we can go about our day.
This is what happens in a healthy, well-regulated nervous system. Unfortunately, there are very, very few people on this planet who actually have a healthy, well-regulated nervous system! What actually happens to most of us, and this is due in a large part to the cultural norms and expectations we are brought up with, is something like this…
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Jump Ramp Catastrophe! (A short story)
When I was thirteen, even though I was somewhat pudgy and not tremendously coordinated, I was really into skateboarding. I liked to think of myself as a badass.
One day, I was hanging out with the group of cool kids who really were badass skaters, and one of them unveiled his brand new jump ramp.
In a idiotic attempt to prove myself, I decided it would be a good idea to be the first one to try it out. I ignored the intuition of my wildly protesting nervous system, my gut feeling that I was headed directly towards injury and embarrassment. I didn’t listen.
I rocketed down the street, hit the jump, and flew high into the air. At this point, my feet lost contact with the board, I lost my vertical orientation, and I fell smack onto my tailbone from about five feet in the air amid howls of laughter from the cool kids.
I stifled all reaction to the crash.
With the exception of the involuntary yelp! which I let out upon impact, I was silent. I clamped down hard on all bodily reactions. I immediately got up and pretended to be fine. I stiffly walked into the house and played “Top Gun” on my friend’s Nintendo.
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Let us pretend for a moment that I wasn’t brought up in a culture that says it’s not ok to show your pain, especially if you’re male, especially if you’re surrounded by peers, especially if those peers are the cool kids. Let’s pretend that those cool kids were actually people with an understanding of how to respond to a stressful event.
In this wonderful imaginary scenario, had I allowed myself to have a natural reaction to this event, a reaction that my nervous system knew how to have and wanted to have, it probably would have been something like this:
I might have allowed myself permission to scream and howl, whimper or cry. I might have curled into a ball and rolled around. There is no one script that will always happen in a certain order, but the body will always have an instinctual knowledge of what it needs to do.
My peers would have surrounded me and held a loving intention that my body knew how to heal.
Eventually, my body have might have begun to tremble for a while, which would signify the de-activation of the stress response, until gradually that would have subsided and my entire being would have spontaneously drawn in some very deep breaths, which would have signaled to me and my wise, imaginary peers that my system was returning to homeostasis.
I would have gotten up very, very slowly and taken the time to see the ramp and my skateboard. I would have been supported in slowly taking in all my surroundings, as I re-oriented to both the present moment and my physical body.
I probably would still have been very sore and would have needed some type of physical assistance to help my body recover, but I would not have been traumatized because my nervous system had been allowed to do what it needed to do.
Instead, unable to go through the natural reactions it needed which would have a enabled a deactivation of the stress response, my system went into a state of freeze (which I was already predisposed towards due to early/developmental trauma — more on that in a bit). All those instructions that my brain and nerve endings were sending out got stored and locked into my body – resulting in a chronically tucked tailbone, a locked down hip, unhealthy curvature in my mid spine, and frozen emotions of grief, shock, and shame – there to wait 35 years until I was able to reach all that dissociated energy and emotion through the wonderful work of a nervous-system-based form of trauma therapy called Somatic Experiencing (SE).
I was able to renegotiate that experience and reclaim the energy from that frozen wound, and many others. I was able to restore regulation to my poor nervous system after a childhood and young adult life full of chronic stress and trauma, which is why I am now a SE practitioner myself.
You see, it’s never too late to resolve past hurts and harms. Our system is waiting for a chance to rediscover its capacity to self-regulate and to let go of held energy that has been cycling ‘round and ‘round, looking for an exit. We can give it this opportunity by having a firm resolve and willingness to heal, and by providing ourselves with the necessary kind of support.
Now I want to go a bit more into how exactly trauma gets stored in the system, and this is a bit technical but it’s very important information so please read carefully.
When faced with a threat, injury, or some other kind of stressful event, there is a set of procedural instructions that gets written automatically and unconsciously by our autonomic nervous system.
What this means is our system says, “Release these chemicals! Activate these muscles! Run! Fight!” And if we can’t run or fight, we have another, older part of our reptilian brain that takes over and says, “Freeze!” and then, hopefully, “Come out of Freeze!”. If none of these instructions can complete their cycle they remain in the system — like having the gas and brake both on at the same time, all the time, underneath the surface.
If those instructions are not allowed to complete, if we override them due to social conditioning or fear, or if the circumstances of the situation do not allow us to complete them (i.e. — we get hit by the bicyclist before being able to jump out of the way, or the trauma happened when we were a baby and we literally couldn’t defend ourselves or even move much at all), that energy can stay locked in a loop within our system and cause all sorts of problems. That’s what trauma is.
To avoid nervous system dysregulation (trauma, PTSD) and the accompanying physical effects (tics, frozen joints, chronic pain, IBS, autoimmune disorders, cancer, etc.), emotional disorders (chronic fear, numbness, explosive rage, etc.) and mental problems (anxiety, depression, addiction, ADD, schizophrenia, borderline, bipolar, etc.) the body will need to complete these instructions by letting them, and the accompanying emotions express through the system. This has to happen slowly over time (because of the complexity of the nervous system and all it’s connected to) and this process needs to be supported by a knowledgeable witness (which can be oneself to an extent, granted one has the right education and skills).
We have come to understand that all the various issues I mentioned above, in fact almost all physical, mental, and emotional health problems, can be traced back to unresolved trauma.
This is because the system that gets dysregulated by not being able to complete its survival responses, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), is the same system that governs ALL automatic functions of the body; immune function, hormonal secretion, digestion, barrier keeping in the gut, enzyme secretion, cell repair, breath, heart rate, circulation, etc.
The ANS also profoundly affects our brain. When we are sympathetically dominated (fight/flight) we are ruled by our limbic and reptilian brain, when we are parasympathetically dominated at the extreme end, which is the high- energy response of the Dorsal Vagus Nerve (the freeze response), we are trapped in our brainstem with little access even to the limbic brain. When both these survival responses are stuck in the ANS on loop mode we have much less access to our neocortex, the part of our brain responsible for higher cognitive function, memory, communication, creativity, spiritual abilities, concentration and empathy.
The world lives in survival mode and this is what that means at the physiological level – being ruled by our reptilian and limbic brains and by the survival responses stuck in our autonomic nervous system that make the world and other people feel dangerous, or absent.
It doesn’t need to be some big, single event that overwhelms us either. It can just as easily be the prolonged experience of verbal abuse, or neglect, or chronically stressed or addicted parents when we are young.
It can be as simple as never expressing yourself when you are hurt, or angry, or never having boundaries and always putting others’ needs first.
Granted, there are truly horrifying events that no one could escape being traumatized from, but a lot of the time our trauma comes from experiences that we could successfully process and integrate, if only we had the proper support and education and were able to allow ourselves to be the animals that we are.
For example, a robin is having a merry time chirping and fluttering about one morning. Then he senses a shadow above him. Yikes! There’s a falcon up there about to dive! The robin’s autonomic nervous system kicks in and sends out a set of procedural instructions to fly, dammit, fly!! Unfortunately, our robin flies right into your plate glass window and falls to your deck, stunned. The more primitive part of his brain then takes over and puts him into a freeze state.
If he didn’t damage anything too seriously, and if you just let him be, he will eventually stagger back to his feet and then start to shake and tremble and flutter his wings. His body is coming out of the freeze state by completing the procedural instructions (fly, dammit, fly!) that were rocketing through his system when he slammed into the window.
He flies off to continue enjoying his morning. No trauma.
It’s not the experience that traumatizes us per se, it is the degree to which we are able to complete the automatic and unconscious instructions that were sent out as a response to the experience that will determine whether or not we become traumatized.
If we have forgotten how to access the natural resources inside of us that can process the experience, or if we never learned to access these in the first place, or if we are not allowed to by circumstance, or if we clamp down on ourselves to stop the experience because of social norms and conditioning, the result is the inevitable fragmentation of our system and psyche. Our nervous system becomes dysregulated and we will have a harder time dealing with future stressful events, leading to more dysregulation and further fragmentation.
If we do not have all of our sensory equipment online to be engaged with the present moment, if our system is busy all the time managing unresolved survival energy, we are less likely to see that oncoming car, or to notice that threatening person or situation, or we may constantly feel under threat when we are actually safe. A part of our body may be frozen from a past injury, so then we might not be able to get out of the way of that bicyclist, or negotiate that slippery patch of ice.
Trauma that is unresolved will eventually lead to more trauma. A nervous system that is dysregulated is predisposed towards future dysregulation.
Common Practices & The Ramifications of Early/Developmental Trauma
One of the practices most often espoused as being effective for achieving inner peace and healing is the practice of meditation. As someone who has been a die-hard practitioner of meditation I can testify that meditation can be very useful but, in our present situation, it often is not.
Same goes for yoga, breathwork, and many of techniques out there that claim to help heal trauma and regulate the nervous system, such as the Wim Hof method, EFT, TRE, EMDR, etc. I’m not saying that some of these things may not be helpful in other ways, but that when it comes to resolving trauma at the root level they usually aren’t going to get the job done all on there own. I’m going to focus on meditation here but all these techniques and methods generally aren’t very effective (and are sometimes outright harmful) for the same root reason: the physiological reality of early/developmental trauma.
*note – there are a few rare souls out there who actually had a good childhood without chronic stress and with healthy, secure attachment with their caregivers, and for them some of these techniques, like EMDR, might be enough to resolve a trauma that happens later in life, especially if done with an attuned practitioner in the context of a safe, therapeutic relationship.
There are many forms of meditation, but they boil down to two basic kinds.
In one kind of meditation you are meditating on a specific thing, be it a mantra, visualization, breathing method, or something else.
The other kind of meditation is the kind taught by our friend, the Buddha, where the only thing you focus on is your body and felt experience, as it is, without any sort of mantra or visualization, this is also called mindfulness.
The first kind, where you are focusing on some sort of thing, can be helpful to focus one’s attention and “quiet” one’s mind, but it is a temporary and illusory experience. Say someone has persistent negative thoughts. When they find their negative thoughts arising, they begin to focus on their mantra, until the mantra becomes more powerful than the negative thoughts… ahhhhh, peace. But not really.
That person is momentarily changing the nature of their repetitive thought loop, they are not dealing with the loop itself. It’s like taking a cassette tape of music that you don’t like and then recording music that you do like over it, then saying to yourself, “hey, I made that tape I don’t like disappear!” Sure, it may bring a temporary sense of increased peace and well being, which is great, but it’s ultimately not accomplishing much in the way of actually resolving the source material.
What’s generating the thought loop in the first place? The answer is: a dysregulated nervous system, and sorry, but you cannot fix that with a mantra or visualization.
The other kind of meditation, where one simply notices themselves as they are without trying to change anything, is the kind that I practiced intensively for years and years. Specifically, I practiced Vipassana as taught by S.N. Goenka. This form of meditation, which the Buddha brought to us, can indeed be a very helpful and useful tool, but only if the practitioner is well-regulated enough to experience their body as it is.
Anyone who has a moderate to high level of dysregulation in their nervous system, which is most of us, will have a great deal of difficulty practicing this without dissociating, because their body, as it is, is a chaotic and painful place to be.
What happens for these folks is one of two things.
One, they become overwhelmed, panic and leave the practice, which is the best possible outcome for them, because at least they allowed themselves to flee from an experience that was overwhelming them.
Or two, and my gut feeling and personal experience tells me that this is what happens most of the time, the person dissociates and goes more into the freeze state which is already occurring within them. This second option is truly the most insidious, because the freeze state can feel a lot like “peace.”
In order to understand this, we have to understand what happens in the human system as a result of early/developmental trauma.
The bulk of our 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.
In order to develop properly an infant needs present, attuned, well-regulated caregivers who are not 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 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 freeze, or shut-down. This is the emergency brake of the Parasympathetic branch which the system employs if fight/flight (crying, ‘fussiness’, rashes, colic, etc.) have been unsuccessful and the system senses that it is under mortal threat.
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 will often lead to early/developmental trauma.
Here is a long interview between my wife, Irene Lyon, and our mentor Kathy Kain who specializes in working with the ramifications of early/developmental trauma. It’s an hour and 40 minutes, but do yourself a favor and watch it all. This is absolutely crucial information for us to understand if we want to move forward into a positive future.
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”.
In the freeze state, your breathing, pulse and entire metabolism all slow down, and at worst, shut off almost entirely. Because the freeze state is body’s protective response to being gnawed on by a predator, you literally feel less sensation.
When the freeze response has become an embedded, go-to option, its manifestation during meditation can easily masquerade as a feeling of zen-like calm, particularly if that person has strong spiritual abilities, when in reality what is happening is that the person’s dysregulation and fragmentation are being reinforced. To make matters worse, there will be a tendency to return to that state again and again, because it can feel so peaceful.
If a meditator is living with an embedded functional freeze response they can become like the captain of a ship who, when confronted with a terrible and raging storm, retreats to a sensory deprivation tank in his cabin. There is a video screen inside his tank that lets him “witness” the storm happening outside, but all is peaceful in the tank. There, floating in quiet, suspended in water, he is barely able to feel the violent rocking, or hear the main mast snapping. The captain rests, as his ship is drawn down and crushed beneath the waves. And so it goes with many who feel they are successful at meditation; they may feel calmer but actually they are simply dissociated.
I was one such person and I have no doubt that I would have meditated myself into an early grave had I not discovered the reality and complexity of trauma and its effects. Underneath that freeze response, there was waiting all that big Sympathetic activation – those unresolved fight/flight responses that never got to complete. That’s why the freeze response became an embedded survival strategy in the first place; I couldn’t run or fight back as an infant or child and so those charges remained unresolved and managed by that big heavy lid of the freeze response.
This is why many techniques and methods out there that have become popularized, like Ayahuasca ceremonies, Holotropic Breathwork, Core Energetics, TRE, EMDR, EFT, etc… don’t work well for the majority of people in our society who are traumatized; most of these methods are only approaching trauma as if it is a big “shock” that needs to be “discharged” – they are only thinking about the fight/flight, the stuck sympathetic activation, when in reality the majority of people in western industrialized society are walking around in functional freeze with all that activation deeply buried underneath.
If a person with early/developmental trauma uses one of these techniques 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 unconsciously override their fear and terror (which is very easy to do when the freeze response has become established as a go-to option) in order to participate, and will go through the motions but nothing will be achieved because the underlying sub- and unconscious somatic/emotional/mental management strategies have been reinforced by the experience. Someone who has been living in functional freeze, where all the coping and management is going on in their system but they are unaware of it and it’s not yet physically presenting may actually experience a feeling of stress relief from some of these approaches, 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.
So How Do We Heal This Stuff?
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 we work to discharge those big fight/flight energies. We need to first directly support the physiology to achieve some baseline regulation. For example, the kidney/adrenal system needs to feel what it’s like to soften and come out of arousal (or if it’s reached the point of adrenal fatigue 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.
All of the above physiological phenomenon are not generally going to be detected by mainstream medicine unless one is specifically looking for them, and often no one is because living in survival mode has become the norm. 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 in the context of a therapeutic, trauma-informed alliance. As I mentioned before, with the right education and tools one can become their own witness and form this alliance with themselves, but an external, knowledgeable witness, like a good Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (preferably with Kathy Kain’s training also under their belt) will usually be needed at some point in the healing process.
So, how to get the education and tools?
If you’ve made it through this article and if you watch all the included videos, you will have a decent chunk of learning already, and yet there is so much more to learn.
If you can afford to work with a good practitioner that’s one way, though please note – many Somatic Experiencing Practitioners (SEPs) misunderstand the work. Some think it is a technique meant to do this “Sympathetic Nervous System deactivation thing”, but Somatic Experiencing (SE) 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 to organically unfold in the way that best fits their unique system, which may include all kinds of nuance and experiences.
There is an online directory for people trained in Kathy’s work, and you can also search in the SEP directory. If a person has completed one of Kathy’s trainings – Touch Skills Training (TST), or Somatic Resilience and Regulation (SRR) – it will say so at the bottom of the practitioners description. The links for those databases are in the list of resources below.
SEPs who also have studied with Kathy Kain, or another method such as NARM that understands the realities of early/developmental trauma, will generally be better at living the SE approach, and will also have more tools in their belt to support your process. The thing is, there are not many of us.
It is for this reason that my lovely wife and colleague, Irene Lyon, has created online courses that apply the principles and modalities of Somatic Experiencing and Somatic Practice, as well as an advanced from of neuroplastic healing called Feldenkrais. These online courses give the in-depth education and tools one needs to become their own trauma-informed ally, and they have been very effective at helping people from over 50 different countries heal trauma and restore regulation.
The tools are what Irene calls “neurosensory exercises”, but they are not exercises in the traditional sense. They are unique lessons that are not about “fixing”; instead, they help you discover what’s going on in your system so that you can change it, mindfully and biologically.
These lessons guide one on a progressive, gentle inquiry that supports a gradual awakening of self-knowledge and increased capacity. These neurosensory exercises and the way that they are layered and structured, combined with the in-depth educational videos 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.
If you don’t have an SEP in your area who understands early/developmental trauma and how to work with it, I definitely recommend checking out Irene’s online work. Not only will it get you started down the road to being your own medicine, it will make you SO much more informed when it comes to picking a practitioner to work with. I will link those programs below.
I also highly recommend reading more on my blog, checking out my wife’s YouTube channel, or reading the works of Dr. Peter Levine, the inventor of the Somatic Experiencing method, as well as Kathy Kain’s new book.
Also, for a detailed understanding of the function, evolution and design of our autonomic nervous system, check out Stephen W. Porges, and his work on The Polyvagal Theory, although one note — his book is almost impossibly dense and difficult to read but there are interviews with him on YouTube that are great – I’ll link a couple below.
Thanks for spending this time with me and learning about trauma and what needs to happen to heal it! Here are some resources for further exploration.
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My Blog — lots of articles about the nervous system and healing trauma. sethlyon.com/blog/
Irene Lyon’s YouTube channel — tons of free videos that break down many many aspect of trauma and its healing into easy-to-consume chunks: www.youtube.com/c/IreneLyon
Irene Lyon’s Online Programs – The starter course is The 21 Day Nervous System Tune Up. It is a self-study program, with group and faculty support available in a private Facebook group, and it is available all the time.
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 enrollment, the next round will start in Spring, 2020.