One of the most significant consequences of relational and shock trauma is a sense of disconnection from ourselves and others that comes from an impaired capacity for emotional and physiological self-regulation. Our ability to be present to strong emotions without feeling overwhelmed is directly linked to how we were met in early life by our primary carers. Equally, our capacity for regulation of such physiological functions as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sleep etc. can be compromised when we have been subjected to difficult life circumstances from an early age. Such dysregulation is what makes us perceive the world as unsafe, both inside and outside ourselves.
The need to feel regulated, at ease in our body and our life, is so important that when we are overwhelmed by emotions or out of control physical sensations (think high levels of anxiety or panic) we seek the regulation that we need, often at any cost. Adaptive, yet in the long run self-destructive behaviours such as addiction to substances and behaviours, are all attempts at eliciting the inner regulation that is lacking. As a consequence we can feel alienated from our own bodies and from the people around us; we feel alone and dead inside, even when we go through life as if all was well.
It is through supporting healthy ways of regulating the nervous system using somatic awareness that we can increase our resilience, therefore bringing back a sense of belonging. I cannot stress enough how important it is to focus our attention onto what Peter Levine calls the felt sense because it allows us to bypass what is the naturally hard wired "negative bias" of our brain and the fixated narratives we know so well. You have probably noticed that in our sessions together I often invite you back to feeling into your bodies even when, to begin with, we have to spend some time recognising that there are indeed sensations inside of us and that we can begin to feel safe experiencing them.
In this TedX talk by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, he explains very clearly how powerful this way of working is. When we are somatically present to a positive experience, we can bring it to life turning it into a trait of our personality, hardwired in our brain. Please, have a look at the video, several times if necessary, and begin paying attention to those experiences that give you a sense of being loved, cared for, joyful, worthy of attention and more. Do let me know what you think of it.
One last thought. Our sense of reality is not constructed in a vacuum. It is a conversation between our lived experience and the signals we get from others. This is the process through which, as babies and then children, we all begin to make sense of both the inner and outer worlds by comparing our felt senses with the reactions of those around us. This way we also learn what’s safe and not safe. It is when we feel received, held, seen and heard by an attuned other that we can begin to feel dafe with what we hold inside. It is in a safe connection with a regulated other that we can access our self-regulating mechanisms...when we feel connected, we feel alive.
'Humans carry with them an intrinsic and inalienable place of inner knowing that some call the “true self." A place that, no matter how deeply buried, can always be returned to' (Anna Holtzman)
We are at the cusp of Winter, when the longest night meets the shortest day. It may feel very dark indeed, but this moment also marks the precise moment when light finally begins to creep back in. This awareness has brought me to consider how the darkness outside does find a companion in the darkest parts of our Soul, those places that we shy away from because they feel dangerous and scary.
A big part of the way I work with people these days feels like bringing light to those dark places by moving into one’s body and feel what arises from within, not in terms of naming that which comes up, but rather witnessing and becoming aware of the physical sensations. This is not something we are familiar with, especially if and when the sensations are unpleasant. To describe what we feel (and at times even to be aware that we feel something), requires a language that is at best unfamiliar.
On paper it may seem self explanatory to just notice the sensations, but when an unpleasant feeling arises, usually the mind launches into whatever inner story/narrative accompanies this feeling (a few examples would be: "I am not good enough", "I am a looser", "I am unlovable"; all self-representations that have become associated with certain unpleasant feelings as a way to 'explain' or justify them). When this happens you are NOT feeling the sensations, you are thinking them based on old thought patterns. At this point redirect your mind away from the thoughts and back into the body sensations, naming and describing them (it will sound something like: my chest feels tight, there is a knot in my stomach, my left shoulder is tense, I feel breathless and sweaty ...). It will be helpful to breathe into the sensation to allow it to exist. You may even feel the need to cry, shake, panic...just allow that and keep breathing.
The mind will likely seek refuge in the old stories again (after all they came about to avoid feeling the feelings); when this happens just redirect your awareness and breathing to the sensation, trusting that it will leave and observe as it does that, without actively trying to change anything (we cannot will sensations away, we can only witness them as they slowly go). It is important to notice in the end that you have survived the experience and were able to stay with that which was unpleasant and difficult.
Do not get me wrong, this is not easy and, like anything new, it requires practice and patience. Be kind to yourself if at first you seem to be unable to feel anything, or if you go straight back into 'thinking' mode; just allow that to happen. The next time it may be slightly easier. Just know that getting familiar with your inner states is time well spent which will repay you with more presence, self regulation and a sense of belonging into your body.
After a very wet start of the season, as soon as the sun comes out, all life in the fields and the woods becomes frenetic with the lust of high summer. Buzzing insects, blooming flowers, hopping hares, maddening magpies to name but a few of the daily inhabitants of my small corner of Wiltshire, all welcoming the high energies of this time of the year. Paradoxically, all this activity is inspiring me to slow down, right down, to the point where I begin to feel that I can see what lies in between two moments merged into one.
Since coming back from Italy in May, I have become more aware of how strongly each and every one of us follows automatic and repetitive behavioural and thinking patterns which are written in our autonomic nervous system, outside of our conscious awareness. These fixated mechanisms bring us from A to B without any knowledge of any intermediate steps which have been called upon to produce such an effect. For instance, think of the last time you were surprised at flying into a rage because someone had done something, or of when you became aware of a pang of anxiety suddenly catching your breath for no apparent reason. How did you get to the final state of rage or anxiety? What caused the auto-pilot response? The examples are endless, possibly as many as our experiences.
Most of the time these automatisms do not bother us and we simply choose to ignore them. Other times though, we may get the feeling that we are not really in control of our reactions and that we are being taken for a ride by someone else. When this happens it can be a painful and isolating experience, especially if we begin to think that there are multiple parts inside us that are not in communication. We find that we are one short step away from not recognising ourselves anymore, that we have lost connection.
In Italy I have learned that by slowing down and tracking what happens inside our body we can trace the origin of pretty much every over-coupled sensation, behaviour, thought, emotion or image that compound an experience and, by bringing our focused attention to the body's inner language, we can expand our awareness of that experience, thus making sense of it. From the very first moment we came into this world, as babies, we have been responding to the signals and messages from our body, even before being able to understand their meaning, but along the way we have forgotten how to listen and how to observe the cues. This leaves us lost searching for firm ground. "The ego can only be strong enough if it is supported by the wisdom of the body whose messages are directly in touch with the instincts." (M. Woodman)
By creating a new/old dialogue with our body we can begin to build trust and in the messages the body gives us. Tracing the origin of a thought or an emotion via our body sensations, following the subtle movements of energy by tracking images, thoughts and behaviours, we can often reach an understanding, find a new meaning which allows self-regulation and integration of the experience. Integration is always felt as an expansion or a release of energy, at times subtle, other times quite dramatic. With new understanding comes freedom: that which was a fixated pattern becomes now a choice, made knowing what triggers us. It can truly be life changing.