Trauma is a neuro-biological issue, mind-body therapy is a neuro-affective solution
Traumatic events leave behind a host of mental, emotional and physical residue that can linger for weeks, months or even years to come. When trauma happens, we react without having to think about it. Our nervous system kicks into high gear through a process known as neuroception, where it assesses risks and reacts via our survival instincts. Our rational brain is literally hijacked by our primitive brain that takes charge to survive the situation.
Stuck in Implicit Memory
Once here, experiences are stored in implicit memory through our sensory and emotional systems not in explicit memory through our logical thought processes. Healing as a result requires accessing the implicit memories that exist outside of our ability to verbalize and rationally process our thoughts about what happened. According to an interview with Robert Scaer trauma expert and neuroscientist, ‘trauma is any life stress that occurs in a state of helplessness. The absence of control in the face of a threat. If we experience something, anything that feels threatening and we feel powerless or helpless to protect ourselves this constitutes as trauma. This could be bullying, discrimination, gender, sexual or racial discrimination, physical force and you are unable to respond in a way that protects you, this constitutes as trauma.’
Neuroception can vary quite a bit from person to person and at times be unpredictable. Not everyone perceives the same event in the same way. Essentially, it is not the event that is traumatic, it is the response. People including therapists often get hyper-focused on the details of the trauma. This creates a real challenge for those suffering with PTSD and trauma symptoms. Given the experience of trauma is stored in the deep inner brain at a sensory level and not at the cognitive level, words, memories and details are often few and far between. What is remembered, is the intense emotional trauma and somatic body experiences. Essentially, trauma lives in the body. This can be highly uncomfortable and devastating given trauma symptoms such as hypervigilance, panic, edginess, feeling unsafe, nightmares, numbing and shame are common experiences. Healing therefore involves dealing with the somatic emotional experience more than the cognitive rational experience. Healing also involves relationships given all trauma happens inside of a relationship and thus causes a break in our trusting attachment to others. People, life and even our relationship with ourselves can become untrustworthy and unsafe. Repairing this break in our trust requires reviving the attachment pathway and includes the safe, supportive connection to another person. This is one of the primary roles of a compassionate counselor.
Hardwired Stress Reactions to PTSD Trauma
- Social Engagement is the most recent in our evolutionary development of the three defensive strategies to deal with threat. It is our initial ‘go to’ response whenever possible. We will attempt to deal with the perceived risk by using vocalization and facial expression. There is minimal residue acquired with this response. Appease: Appeasing or submitting to the threat may come into play in an attempt to go along with or agree with an adversary to avoid the threat of danger. If it is not feasible or effective to engage or appease, we retract our social engagement and prepare to mobilize our sympathetic nervous systems ability to fight or flee the situation.
- Fight or Flight: This is typically what people think of when we talk about the stress response. It is the second hardwired strategy for dealing with threats dating back 300 million years ago. The lingering residue is more pronounced if we resort to fighting or fleeing than if we are able to engage socially.
- Freeze: If we are unable to escape or fight back (which is most often the case) then continued sympathetic arousal is not adaptive and thus we revert to freezing, collapsing or shutting down as a protective mechanism. This reaction comes from the very primitive 500 million-year-old brainstem and generally has the most repercussions in terms of unconscious residue. This residue is often repeatedly re-activated by the sights, sounds, smells, experiences and relationships in our lives.
When Freezing Becomes Frozen
Depending on whether we are able to take action during a traumatic event we can tend to get stuck in the trauma. It is common to think of the stress response as just the fight or flight but in actuality fighting back or running away are not always viable options without the likelihood of further trauma. Freezing and collapsing are the more common and most primitive responses during traumatic events. They are also the most exhausting and interruptive to moving forward in our lives. Healing involves activating these reflexive responses in the deep centers of the brain to move this stuck energy and move forward in our lives. Traditional talk therapy alone does not give you access to these deep brain centers. You cannot logically override or convince your reptilian brain that the trauma is over and it can stop its hijacking.
Beyond Talk Therapy: The Paralysis of Analysis
Freezing and collapsing disconnect us from our body as a form of protection and defense against painful experiences. An essential part of healing involves coming out of this immobility response. Feeling safe, secure and supported are prerequisites to becoming unfrozen. By talking about events without first establishing mind-body safety, individuals run the risk of retraumatizing the events. This can be seen in situations where people talk and express emotion repeatedly about the trauma without first establishing a present, grounded and safe state in their mind and body.
As part of the nervous systems’ protective response, overwhelming feelings, sensations and memories are hidden from our conscious awareness and stored in implicit memory. This can be likened to putting them aside in a holding area waiting for a time when we are not so overwhelmed and we can deal with them. Unfortunately keeping them in their implicit holding area, puts a lot of stress on the mind and body. This stress can show up as anxiety, insomnia, irritability, phobias, depression and a host of other trauma symptoms. The brain continues to go through life with the trauma ever-present in the body. It’s like the brain gets stuck in first gear and no matter how much you try to move forward you are stuck idling, spinning your energy round and round. It is exhausting to say the least.
Once we are in a grounded and safe place we can more readily address these memories and help move them into explicit memory where eventually we can move on. Mind-body therapies are key to moving memories from implicit to explicit. Fortunately, science continues to improve and we are learning more all of the time about the mind-body connection and how to best heal from trauma and other mental health issues.
Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach
Many traditional therapies work from a top-down model where thoughts are used to change feelings, behaviors and experiences. This model relies on the upper part of the brain (neocortex, which is also the newest part in our evolution), to manage and alter the inner and more primitive parts of the brain. As a result, the success of a top-down approach is contingent upon a client’s ability to analyze, narrate and verbally process their thoughts and feelings. This type of analysis and verbalized awareness is not often possible with trauma. Mind-body therapies such as brainspotting, somatic therapy, bilateral stimulation, hypnosis and EMDR follow the bottom-up model where the inner brain sends information and experiences up through the limbic system for release and into the neocortex for processing. Given that stressful and traumatic experiences are stored through our sensory, nonverbal experience a bottom up model is essential in the healing process. Mind-body approaches engage our innate drive to release sensory, residue or unresolved experiences and open us up to new insights, equilibrium, regulation and improved overall health. As more information comes up and out, more room is created for new insights and expansion. Reconnecting the mind with the body is a neurobiological process of activating the introceptive pathways in the brain. Brain-informed treatments are the most effective way to engage the introceptive pathways.
Homeostasis 2: Your Personal Power
Brain-informed treatments operate under the instinctual directive that you are driven to heal and experience homeostasis. A prime directive of the subconscious mind is to bring up unresolved issues for healing so that you can reclaim your personal power. The wisdom and intelligence of your body and mind are aware when something creates imbalance, and they will continue to bring it to the surface for healing and happiness. This is why you repeat patterns until you resolve them. This is why you gravitate toward the same type of unhealthy relationships or situations that require you to take better care of yourself. You constantly have opportunities to learn the lessons that are unlearned. Reclaiming your power leads to greater internal homeostasis as you release the stress response. This is great news from a health and happiness standpoint.
The drive to reclaim your power is especially true for patterns related to self-worth and self-love. At your core, or deepest level, you know you’re good, loving, and worthy. Consequently, your life path will guide you toward discovering, uncovering, and creating more worthiness, love, and goodness. It’s one reason why you don’t just give up when things get really tough. From this place, it’s more important to look at what you do with what happens in your life than what actually happened in your life. We don’t have to look far to get inspired by the transformational life examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Victor Frankl. As we raise our conscious awareness of our patterns and reclaim our personal power, we move in the direction of solidifying happiness pathways.
Driven to Move E-Motion
The drive to move your emotional energy is present every moment because your nervous system is in constant pursuit of homeostasis. It’s on a mission 24/7 regulating the balance of your bodymind connection. This often includes your instinctual drive to be happy by releasing any pent-up stress. You have an opportunity to move your emotional energy each time you experience contraction, tension, or any other body sensations. They are the internal messages of your bodymind wisdom that draw you toward balance and happiness.
The brain-body based instinctive stress responses to fight, flee, freeze, collapse or appease are constantly seeking to be resolved and brought back into balance. They will remain suspended in time and often in implicit memory related to a stressful or traumatic event until we consciously bring them into explicit awareness and heal them. This is at the essence of trauma based theories and therapies and why trauma can linger for many years despite cognitive attempts to think or act to let them go.
With everything we know about trauma, brain-informed treatments are an essential part of the healing journey. They are deep, efficient, gentle, engaging, connecting and lasting. Here are a few reasons why we love them:
- They work on the neurobiological level
- They can address years of therapy in a series of months
- You do not have to repeatedly tell your story or try to remember finite details of events
Click here to learn more how Mind Body Therapy can help you heal.
Unblock the Subconscious Perils of Emotional & Psychological Trauma & Reclaiming Your Life-Force
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Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness.