Understanding Trauma and Chronic Stress

Renowned trauma experts including Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine know that “our issues are in our tissues.” Accessing the felt sense of the body through Somatic Experiencing®, mindfulness, trauma sensitive yoga, or other body centered modalities is an important piece of healing the aftereffects of physical and emotional trauma, post traumatic stress, overwhelming feelings, and other stress related conditions. These therapies can locate and release the energy “stuck” in our system. 

"And for my patients, I always recommend that they see somebody who helps them to really feel their body, experience their body, open up to their bodies."Bessel van der Kolk, On Being Interview with Kristin Tippet, 3/9/17.

What is Trauma? Trauma is anything that overwhelms the nervous system – a perceived or actual threat to life or wellbeing, or chronic stress.  Any incident that causes significant physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm can be considered traumatic, even witnessing such an incident. But not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

What are some examples of a traumatic event?
  • Car accident (even if “minor”)
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Domestic abuse
  • Serious injury, dog attack
  • Serious illness
  • Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
  • War or community violence
  • Invasive medical or dental procedures or hospitalizations (especially for children)
  • Divorce (whether your own, or your parents [or another loved one])
  • Natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, fires, etc.)
  • Childhood emotional, physical, sexual abuse
  • Abandonment or neglect, especially for babies and young children
  • Emotional abuse
What are some symptoms of trauma?
  • Anxiety, panic attacks
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Hyper-vigilance: always being on guard for danger
  • Hyper-activity and restlessness
  • Hyper-arousal: increased heart rate, difficulty breathing (rapid, shallow, panting), racing thoughts, bodily tension, worry, cold sweats
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
  • Self-destructive behaviors, (g.,drinking too much, using dangerous drugs, driving too fast, cutting)
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Intrusive imagery, flashbacks or dreams/nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, depression
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships; feeling detached from family and friends
  • Memory problems, including not remembering noteworthy aspects of the traumatic event
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Chronic health conditions including but not limited to asthma, pain, sleep issues, fibromyalgia, diabetes, thyroid disorders, and irritable bowel and chronic fatigue syndromes.
The past is contained in the present Some of us may not realize that we've endured a traumatic experience.  The incident or our chaotic, unsafe home life may seem like just another part of our history – not particularly disturbing. Still, adverse experiences can disrupt the nervous system, encode in the brain and get stored in the tissues.  Symptoms may take years to appear. When they do, the connection between the symptom and the traumatic event may not be obvious.  Life Event, Stress and Illness Chronic Illness Trauma Studies

“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” Peter A. Levine

Fight, flight and freeze When humans feel threatened, the primitive part of the brain takes charge, causing us to react automatically and instinctively. Our bodies release chemicals like adrenaline, Norepinephrine and cortisol to deliver the burst of energy needed to fight, flee or freeze. (The freeze state is like having the accelerator and brake on at the same time. It is a high-energy state.) Like other mammals, we’re prepared to escape from an attack by a hungry tiger. The biological system that aided in our survival long ago remains in place.  Why do traumatic events cause symptoms? These days, however, it wasn't a tiger chasing us that caused our stress and traumas … rather, situations like an abusive parent, a car accident, a medical diagnosis, a demanding job, etc.  We probably couldn't complete the natural protective actions we'd engage in on the savannah (like running away or fighting back).  If the innate defensive response to a threat is aborted, the energy that would have been used to address the threat can remain lodged in the body.  What is Somatic Experiencing® (SE)? Decades of study and clinical work has led trauma expert Peter Levine, PhD to believe that trauma related symptoms are caused not by the traumatic event itself, but by residual energy not fully discharged after the event ended. Levine brought his study, observations and experiences together to develop Somatic Experiencing®.  This gentle, effective therapy is being used worldwide to help those suffering the ill effects of trauma or stress. Treatment is based on the premise that since trauma leaves its imprint in the body, it's essential to include the body into the healing process. A 2017 randomized study of Somatic Experiencing in individuals with PTSD trauma found significant reductions across multiple domains (Brom et al., 2017). Peter Levine on Somatic Experiencing What to expect in an SE session Initially, sessions will be similar to traditional talk therapy as we get to know each other, discuss your goals and establish a sense of comfort and rapport.  You’ll be

‣  educated about the nervous system ‣  offered tools to help you feel more balanced ‣  given suggestions for at-home practices 

Sessions will differ from traditional talk therapy in that, as we proceed, we’ll collaborate to track

‣  bodily sensations ‣  breath ‣  emotions ‣  images and thoughts ‣  movement impulses

Images and thoughts that arise from turning inward will further facilitate the healing process by adding meaning to what we notice. Also, since the lower brain doesn’t distinguish between what's real and what's perceived, we might use guided visualizations and the imagination to help renegotiate past experience. Accessing the autonomic nervous system We'll delve below the thinking part of the brain and into the felt sense of the body.  (If the thinking brain alone could address symptoms, we could talk ourselves out of anxiety or a panic attack!)  Gaining access to the lower brain permits instinctual movement survival responses (impulses stemming from the autonomic nervous system) to occur spontaneously or, with gentle guidance, intentionally. Using care to avoid overwhelming the system Together we’ll monitor activation (anxiety) or dissociation (spacing out/numbness), taking steps to settle the nervous system when appropriate.  Directing attention back and forth between what is comfortable and uncomfortable is another means by which blocked survival energy can be released in a slow, safe and manageable manner. Mindfulness, movement, attunement with a compassionate person, and resources that provide a sense of safety and wellbeing the nervous system can gradually enable the nervous system to settle.  Once the system recognizes that danger has passed, it can return to a more balanced state.  Working with me Somatic Experiencing®, is a powerful tool to address nervous system dysregulation, and this is what I rely on most in my work with clients. I enhance the process by drawing on the learning and experience that I’ve gained from mindfulness practice, yoga, coaching, self-compassion techniques and various other trauma trainings, each with research backing its efficacy.  Fully aware of the suffering that results from our embodied reactions to stress and trauma, I am wholly committed to being a companion on your path towards wellbeing. The services offered are not medical treatment or psychological therapy, and are not performed by a medical professional. Please consult with your doctor or therapist to determine if mindfulness, Somatic Experiencing®, or yoga is right for you.