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.