“Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself. They arise when residual energy from the experience is not discharged from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.” – Peter Levine
Life unfolds in its many textures with mystery, unpredictability, and at times shocking and disorienting jolts. We have been given a design that allows for the negotiation of the unexpected. Our hard-wiring provides a simple and elegant instinct to navigate the journey as it unfolds. Yet sometimes the unexpected is accompanied by factors that impede our nature’s blueprint for processing and completing the vast spectrum of events that cross our path.
It has become more common for people to understand and accept that their childhood experiences can have an impact on their ability to navigate life. The struggles we find ourselves having in our relationships, places of work, social environments, can indeed reflect the limitations of our parents and caretakers. We have all had imperfect parents and we become imperfect parents. Some of us have more severe and traumatizing experiences. Some of us are more sensitive by nature and more easily impacted by our environment than others. This perspective on nature and nurture has become more accepted and psychotherapy has lost much of the stigma once attached to it. But the story is broader than this. When we include the role that the nervous system plays in storing overwhelm and trauma another picture can emerge of other potential origins in our struggles and stuck places.
We are hard-wired to respond instinctively to anything that is perceived as threat. Perceived is an important word here. The higher brain’s perception of an experience can be dramatically different from the lower brain’s call to register all things as safe or not safe. While the lower brain is processing information on the basis of life or death the higher brain is gathering the data and analyzing our experiences with its more sophisticated level of cognitive function. This is where the benefits of having a more evolved brain can also become our challenge. We can override our hard-wired instincts with over-thinking. The physiological response generated in the Autonomic Nervous System can then become stored rather than released.
Certain circumstances can produce inability to follow our lower brain’s imperative to fight or flee (e.g. a surgical procedure requiring stillness, or an assault where we are overpowered). The higher brain’s tendency is to think rationally, or follow what is deemed right or wrong for a situation, rather than react. This, too, can lead to the storing of excess energy (e.g. jumping up after falling in public to show others that we are fine, or staying in place to wait for the arrival of the police rather than bolting in a terrifying situation like a car accident). It is this particularly human condition that led to the development of Somatic Experiencing. Animals in the wild operate according to instinct. Humans think and develop social mores and operate within complex situations that require counter-instinctual behavior.
We are a species that has a high propensity for storing trauma because of the many circumstances that generate immobility on our more primitive instinct to fight or flee. Our physiology can become overwhelmed and disorganized within the very system that enables our managing and surviving stressful and threat producing events or experiences. Our hard-wiring in combination with our social and environmental circumstances, our stage of development, the critical incidents we encounter, and the sometimes seemingly innocuous events that occur, all shape our degree of resilience and ability to navigate the course of our life. This may seem an obvious statement. What is not as obvious are those unresolved pieces of our history that our higher brain could not yet record because of its lack of development or did not note as having significant impact. For example, the cord wrapped around one’s neck at birth, or the car accident written off as “nothing”, or the “routine” tonsillectomy that involved ether, and the list goes on.
History questions that include pre and peri-natal experience, critical incidents, injuries, surgeries, dental procedures, and more have the potential to facilitate the course of treatment and healing. These circumstances can actually be the underpinnings of the challenges and obstacles that often seem to recycle throughout ones life–circumstances not always appreciated or understood fully for the part they can play in the storing of overwhelm and trauma.
Sometimes our interpretations on our actions, feelings, and patterns of thought prove to be accurate and helpful in making the changes we desire. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes we need to be able to let go of over-thinking and expand our awareness to what the body is giving voice to below the stories and interpretations of the higher brain. What has not been considered or was lost in dismissed significance may provide some valuable pieces to the unraveling of the body’s hold on its unfinished business.
I offer this invitation to slow down… and notice… the subtle places that may be driving behavior, feelings, patterned thought that may not be at all what we think.
Peter Levine, PhD; Raja Selvam, PhD, SEP; Diane Poole Heller, PhD, SEP; Nancy Napier, MA, SEP; Yiri Dollekamp, CMA, SEP
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