I have had an interest in working with people who have experienced trauma and abuse since I started my undergraduate psychology degree, and once I started my clinical psychology graduate training I attended as many specialist trauma trainings as I could manage. Most of the early trainings I did focused on how trauma impacts the mind, and how to heal from the psychological impact. However, as I continued to learn more about trauma, I began to understand that it is the impact of trauma on the body that generally results in the long-term devastating impact that we think of as posttraumatic stress. My approach to working with trauma is directly informed by my training in Hakomi Mindful Somatic Psychology, in particular, studying and working with Manuela Mischke-Reeds, a Hakomi Trainer and trauma specialist, who also studied directly with Peter Levine, Creator of Somatic Experiencing. I have also studied with many of the world’s trauma experts, including John Briere, Bessel van der Kolk, Pat Ogden, Janina Fisher, Babette Rothschild and Bethany Brand. I have completed Level 1 of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy training, and am currently undertaking the Somatic Experiencing training.
Here’s how I understand the impact of trauma on body and mind. We have evolved to have a very sophisticated and intelligent way of coping with threat and danger, however sometimes this goes wrong and gets stuck. When faced with danger, our primitive brain registers this and initiates a fight-flight response, designed to help us fight the threat or get away from the danger, and hence ensure our survival. So when an animal in the wild faces a predator, the animal will fight back if it is big and strong enough, or run away if it can escape. This works well when the danger is short-lived – then very quickly our biological system can return to calm and safety. However, in many cases, the danger becomes prolonged or extensive, such as in cases of child abuse or ongoing trauma, or it is not possible to fight or flee, if the person is injured or trapped. In this case the system goes into a state of freeze or even collapse, in order to survive. This is what happens when a rabbit freezes in the face of the headlights of an oncoming car or a mouse plays dead when caught by a cat. The normal and natural fight and flight responses get “trapped” in the body.
So when I see a person who has experienced trauma that is still impacting them, often they present with depression, anxiety, low motivation, anger, difficult relationships or interpersonal situations, or a feeling that life is lacking joy or not worth living. It is my belief and experience that in many of these cases, it is underlying and unresolved trauma that is at the root of these issues.
Trauma and posttraumatic stress is a psychophysiological event in the body, resulting from the body’s biological and hardwired response to threat. Your body is meant to fight or flee from danger. However if the situation prevented that from being possible, these natural responses get stuck in your body. Using mindfulness and body-oriented techniques, we can access these ‘truncated defensive responses’ in your body – that is, the natural fight and flight responses that never got to happen, and enable your body to be freed up from the stuckness. And when we do this, it helps to shift the psychological issues that are often associated with the stuckness. Before doing this, I will support you to feel safe and more resourced, both with me and in your daily life, so that your internal system is ready and equipped to do this kind of somatic work. In my experience, real healing is possible after trauma, and this is why it is so rewarding to work with people who have experienced trauma, with mindfulness and body-oriented approaches.
8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery: Take-Charge Strategies to Empower Your Healing by Babette Rothschild
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter Levine
Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy by Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton and Clare Pain
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment by Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment by Babette Rothschild
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman