Traumatic events happen in a variety of circumstances. Incidents that happen to us which suddenly shocks us, leaving us overwhelmed, and sometimes frozen, can lead us to experiencing life-long psychological and physiological effects of trauma.
Exposure to traumatic experiences affect us in very individual ways. The consequence of being traumatized, concisely explained, is the effect of our nervous system sensing the danger of the past traumatic experience as if the danger is happening in the present. Harmless situations can trigger feelings of anxiety as a result of trauma.
“The great thing then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally as opposed to our enemy.”William James (1914, Habit)
Since danger and anxiety are buzzwords in trauma, healing trauma in psychotherapy requires big doses of trust. Trust that the suffering from traumatic experiences can be healed. Trust that the psychotherapeutic alliance is a working, trusting one. Trust that, whatever the outcome may be, that the work is worth doing.
This article features part of the very inspirational work of Peter Levine (1997), whose work is a guide for my professional attitude towards trauma.
Importance of Slowing Down during Trauma Work
When working with trauma, it is necessary slow down. Traumatic events and subsequent trigger reactions happen at split second duration, often out of awareness. In the treatment of trauma, the sensory events, feelings and thoughts that arise need to be witnessed with the time slowed down with guidance of the therapist.
Many trauma patients, frustrated at their symptoms, want speedy resolution. Therapists are best advised to reassure their patients, that slowing down is the safer, more effective road to healing.
Traumatic triggers happen out of awareness. The act of slowing down during therapy brings the sensations and thoughts into awareness. It is through awareness that the client gains sovereignty of his/her experiences — and ultimately nervous system.
12 Basic Concepts of Trauma Work
Levine’s work stipulates 12 basic points of trauma work and experiencing. Some clients benefit when theses points are shared with them. I use this as a map in my work, for effective tracking of the patient’s process and progress.
- The phenomenon of being riveted. During an overwhelming traumatic event, the shock causes the body to stiffen up. The muscles tense up. The body can get frozen and stuck in this state. The energy is locked up in the body. The state of being riveted is experienced in each patient uniquely. In the therapeutic session, each patient displays his/her own unique symptoms of this phenomenon.
- Feelings of defeat and helplessness. During a traumatic event, the sense of being overwhelmed and trapped, leads to the profound feeling that one would never escape. There is overwhelming helplessness. After the traumatic event, this feeling of defeat resides in the body of the traumatized person. People may become unable to work, play or do daily tasks as a consequence of this body memory of the traumatic experience of helplessness. It may be helpful for patients to know that this is happening to them, to allay fears or self judgment for not being able to function as society would like them to.
- Tracking with Awareness. in-tunement of inner landscape. feelings, sensations, thoughts. We are not lost in the experience, or disassociated, but looking and tracking it from a close distance. Pendulate between comfortable and uncomfortable situation.
- Pendulation between Polarities. To be able to move between expansion and contraction; to having feelings of past memories at one instance and then coming back to the present reality. To feel anxious at one moment, allowing the feelings to pass, taking a break from what one is doing, and slowly breathing towards calm. Pendulation is an exercise of acceptance, and allowing of oneself to move between emotional states, without hinderance.
- Resourcing. The process of resourcing is to deliberately take stock of anything of value in one’s life. Resources can come in the form of relationships, material wealth, work, interests, hobbies, vocation and religion. Resources, no matter how little, add foundation to ones sense of stability.
- Uncoupling feelings of excitement with experience of fear and trauma. Take time to check in with oneself, and learn to mindfully differentiate between feeling of excitement (pleasant surprise, nervousness about a job interview or performance in public, excitement over positive events, butterfly in the stomach feelings) and fear. Take time also to differentiate between fear of actual fearful stimuli of the moment, and fear that arises out of traumatic memory.
- Grounding & centering. Grounding and centering involves mindfully feeling the weight of one’s body pulling itself to the ground. .Gravity is the helper that helps the body rest and center itself. Grounding exercise is usually done by sitting comfortably on a chair and putting two feet flat on the ground. One can also lie flat on the floor and feel one’s weight on the floor. In fear and panic we loose our ground. The earth seems to disintegrate from under our feet. When we are aware of our ground, we can feel more secure.
- Strength & resiliency. Building emotional, intellectual, physical strength in whatever form adds to one’s agency. Going for psychotherapy to build emotional strength, learning or studying anything to build intellectual strength, and doing muscle building exercises to gain physical strength adds to the alleviation of the dominance of the trauma symptoms.
- Restoration of natural aggression. Get support from a competent therapist or an understanding friend, who is able to listen to the feelings of anger and hate that are related to the traumatic experiences. Traumatic events render the victims helpless, trapped and immobile. Coming to terms with the natural aggression that is locked up in this immobility resets the nervous system. Expressing the anger releases the aggressive energy and restores vagal tone. The body as a result feels the relief.
- Running. Similar in the reasoning to restoring of aggression, running is what the body needs to do to escape from the condition of being trapped. One can experience running in the therapy session. One can also simulate running through mindfulness activity, like imagining sprinting to a safe place (even by moving arms and legs quickly while seated) every time one feels trapped. Important is for us to have a mindset that running away from the traumatic situation is actually a positive action.
- Orienting. Taking the time to orientate oneself while in different situations is good practice. This sharpens one’s skills in being present in the moment. Orienting, grounding and centering enhance physical stability.
- Completion of self regulation. With the support of a psychotherapist who works with emotions, one learns to experience a full repertoire of emotions, energies and perceptions. Traumatic experiences cause our senses to shut down, leaving us incapable to completing our natural self-regulatory cycles. Completing these cycles of self-regulation releases energy and brings calmness to the body.
Psychotherapists who work with trauma know that trauma is locked in the body. Being aware of, and checking into the somatic experience of the client is essential to the work. This is possible when a trusting, therapeutic alliance is already established.
Do seek professional advise if you or someone you know suffer symptoms related to trauma. It is a safer approach to healing than ignoring the symptoms or trying to treat the symptoms unprofessionally.
Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma: The innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.