Working safely with trauma
In recent years new ways of working effectively with trauma have emerged with therapists such as Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Gabor Mate and Babette Rothschild leading the field.
I particularly follow the ground-breaking model of Somatic Trauma Therapy presented by Peter Levine in his books and teaching (read more here). This approach emphasises the importance of being able to stay connected to a sense of security and wellbeing in the present, while at the same time opening up to the disturbing and difficult feelings experienced at the time of the trauma that have hitherto been unconscious.
For the ‘frozen’ trauma feelings to be safely released without the risk of causing re-traumatisation, a gradual, little-by-little and self-empowered pace is central to working effeictively with trauma and heavy emotions. This means being able to pause the process at any time if overwhelm threatens to set in and to be able to re-connect with an embodied sense of safety and wellbeing in the present. The natural flow of life energy can gradually become re-vitalised as unconscious blocks come into awareness and are released and broken connections are mended.
How Trauma Happens
When there is actual or perceived danger the ‘fight or flight’ response of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). A cascade of physical changes are instantly triggered, such as an adrenalin surge, increased heart rate and faster, shallower breathing. This gives the system the extra energy and resources it needs to deal with and hopefully survive the danger.
If the danger is then overcome, either by confronting the threat or running away successfully, the system can return to balance.
However, if it seems impossible to avoid the danger, the person’s coping resources will be overwhelmed, there will be a sense of disempowerment and imminent disaster and the ANS response is then ‘frozen’. It is as if time stands still and there is immobilisation, collapse and numbing of feeling.
If the danger is actually survived there are then two possible outcomes:
If sufficient time is allowed after the incident for the shock affect in the system to be discharged via emotional and physical expression, such as shaking and crying, then the system can return to balance. The individual feels re-empowered and can again utilise their resources.
If the need to discharge the shock affect of the trauma is not recognised and supported, this becomes held in the system and leaves the individual vulnerable to feelings of overwhelm being triggered whenever there are reminders of the traumatic event in future.
Recovery from Trauma
A mindfulness approach can help with trauma resolution. By developing the ability to bring oneself into the present and grounding and centring here, a bodily sense of being safe and resourced can be experienced. This is necessary to support the effective processing of trauma shock affects.
It is especially important to be able to access this sense of here-and-now safety if overwhelming feelings start to arise in working with past trauma. Being able to use mindfulness of the breath or connect with OK body sensations can act as an anchor to stabilise the mind and allow physiological 'fight or flight' reactions to dissipate.
Experiential mindfulness practices and guided meditation can be used as resources for working with past trauma in sessions. This can facilitate a direct present-moment experience of wellbeing, of feeling relaxed and aware. This sense of oneself can be recognised and remembered and accessed again at any time that stress is taking over.
A way of working with trauma which encourages a holistic perspective, giving equal value and attention to body and mind experiences, is very valuable. As a client you will be encouraged to remain aware of your own body sense and to notice as quickly as possible.if you are starting to feel unsafe. If this happens you can then feel empowered to pause the process and come back to a sense of being safe and resourced. Trauma can only be healed and nervous system balance restored when clear awareness in the present is maintained. To become overwhelmed and stuck in the 'trauma vortex', re-experiencing remembered feelings of threat, risks becoming re-traumatised. It is also important not to get stuck in a 'healing vortex' by trying to exclude difficult feelings from consciousness altogether. We need to be in touch with the residual trauma feelings in order to be able to work with them. We can even learn to welcome difficult emotions when these are triggered by current situations as valuable opportunities to process trauma and help its suppressive effects to be recognised and released. By touching into the difficult feelings with awareness and maintaining a sense of safety in the present, little by little the past trauma loses its power to intrude into the present.
Somatic Trauma Therapy Training and background
I have studied and trained with different teachers in Somatic Trauma Therapy work, including with Franklyn Sills as part of my Craniosacral Therapy training, and with Mike Boxhall, Babette Rothschild and Angwyn St Just.