Something that I have found fascinating in working from a Somatic Experiencing framework is the way in which a charge that has been held by the physiology from an unresolved critical incident can impact behavior and thought in unexpected ways. I have mentioned this in my previous entries. It is something that I have experienced personally as well as witnessed in my practice. Seemingly unrelated aspects of one’s life can shift as the physiology is able to dissipate the held, or remembered, charge from previous critical incidents.
A perfect example is a statement made to me by someone who came to work on residual symptoms from a terrible car accident. The sessions had all been focused on processing the many different pieces that can make up the “singular” event of a car accident. At one point during a session, several months into the work, this individual said “as we have been working on my car accident the rest of my life is changing, too”. The reference was to family relationships shifting in a positive way along with a greater ability to handle life in general.
This example speaks to the concept of resilience. We are resilient by nature; hard- wired for developing the capacity to negotiate intensity of experience. We each have an inborn blueprint for building our ability to experience intense joy and pleasure as well as intense pain, distress, fear and rage. There can be variations in ability depending on our genetics or differently-abled brains but generally speaking we have the same autonomic nervous system and the same basic wiring for managing life as it comes. If all goes well during our developmental years, beginning with our in utero experience, birth, and the many years following, we develop and strengthen a natural state of resilience.
When things come along that our lower brain perceives as threat and our instinctive ability to negotiate this is blocked we can become less resilient. If too many things come along, or one really big thing occurs, and the nervous system is inhibited from releasing as it needs to, our degree of resilience can become narrowed. When this happens we might exhibit less ability, or less “room” for tolerating the inevitable frustrations, emotional and physical hurts, powerless moments, noise and high energy of others around us (e.g. children), stimulation in malls and with crowds, or emotionally charged circumstances, etc., that life brings. There is no scientific equation that can predict precisely how overwhelm and trauma will manifest. The patterns might be as similar or they might be as different as the variations that exist across people in general. What is likely to be consistent is that the storing of overwhelm and trauma will show up in behavior, thought, and the total picture of an individual’s degree of resilience.
We learn, often without recognizing all that is being learned, from these experiences that narrow our resilience. For example, we can develop an instinctively driven pattern of hypervigilance and tightening on our left side that originated with a vehicle having run into our car on the left side. The pattern can exist and influence us below our consciousness. As mentioned in previous entries, ideally we would have the opportunity to sit…..register our state of shock……allow it to resolve naturally into the fear and/or rage that might open………have the time and space to shake and twitch and cry……and in so doing complete rather than store the fight or flight response triggered by this incident. The tightening that occurred on the left side of the body can relax with the release of the shock and the sympathetic nervous system firings and adrenal-cortical hormones. This promotes resilience, both physiologically and psychologically.
I just described what rarely if ever occurs. More typically one might have escaped without injury but perhaps not without more subtle kinds of impact. This subtle impact might show up as a tendency to graze door frames on the left side when walking through them. It could also show up as feeling less secure or grounded when engaging in a serious conversation with someone who is sitting to one’s left side. There are enumerable kinds of indications that reflect the state of unresolved overwhelm or trauma. The fascinating part is how our behaviors, attitudes, thought patterns, relationships, sense of self, lack of clear boundaries, fears, or limitations can trail back to a beginning that is operating below our conscious radar…. and one that we may never have guessed.
There is a wonderful mystery to the human experience. We think we know…… and sometimes what we do in fact know follows the path of the expected. And then there are those other times….. when the journey unfolds like a well-crafted novel and the mystery and surprise enriches us in ways we had not known to imagine.
Peter Levine, PhD, Raja Selvam, PhD, SEP, Diane Poole Heller, PhD, SEP, Nancy Napier, MA, SEP, Yiri Dollekamp, CMA, SEP
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