Our autonomic nervous system gives us the the ability to navigate life as it comes. It is elegantly designed to negotiate our encounters with the unexpected, shocking, threatening, frustrating, painful, dangerous, or enraging things that life throws our way. At times, however, our complicated social relationships and structures, medical interventions, and technology can effectively block our hard-wired ability to make our way through these events completely.
The nature of life as evolved beings pretty much ensures that no one entirely escapes stress, emotional overwhelm, and some degree of trauma. The dynamics that produce stress, emotional overwhelm, and trauma can (and will) be present in parent/child relationships. Stress, shock, and overwhelm can occur during the process of birth. Trauma-producing experiences can arise from driving in a car.
When these events do come, our physiology follows the pattern of responsiveness that is a hard-wired blueprint. Our adrenaline starts pumping. Our digestion slows. Our respiration quickens. Our blood is shunted to our extremities. Everything is orchestrated to address the circumstances with as much energy and mobility as possible. With our advanced and more sophisticated higher brain, we will attempt to talk our way out of certain situations. When this fails or isn’t relevant to the circumstance, we will necessarily resort to our lower brain’s instinct to flee, fight, or freeze. It is an automatic, instinctive response, an intrinsic physiological directive that operates beyond our control.
In these modern, civilized times, this instinct can have a life-saving benefit or it can produce trauma. We do need the ability to act swiftly on impulse if a heavy object is about to fall on our head: thinking it through is clearly not the most functional approach. The reality of our lives as a species far removed from primitive times produces the phenomenon of trauma that doesn’t exist in the wild, like car accidents.
Car accidents are common, ranging from those that are minor to those that are major and life-altering. When I ask if someone has experienced a car accident, the response I most often hear is “Yes, but it was no big deal.” I understand that this means that no one was seriously injured, the car was minimally damaged, and the accident was not identified as a traumatic event. Our cognitive ability to compare this accident to those that are more severe or tragic lends itself to being dismissive about its impact—no pun intended. The higher brain categorizes the event as not serious, but the lower brain might not agree.
The reptilian brain, the part of our brain that is just like those of reptiles and animals in the wild, is all about survival. “Is this safe or dangerous?” is the singular big question for this part of the brain. If something is perceived as threatening, the imperative is to flee, fight, or freeze. A gazelle will run for its life if a cheetah is on its tail. If the cheetah gains on it and running is unsuccessful, the gazelle will freeze into immobility. This is not an intellectual process.
The same is true for humans. Our instinct for survival compels aspects of our behavior and is intimately tied to our biology. The same physiological response that compels a gazelle to run for its life is initiated in car accidents that sometimes involve only moments of shock and fear. In the wild, this physiological build-up is discharged as the prey runs from its predator or fights for its life and successfully escapes: this is what enables a return to a normal, regulated state in the nervous system. Car accidents can be another matter, and can stay with us in potentially unrecognized ways.
Things move very quickly after a car accident. When the accident is minor, with no apparent or disabling injuries, drivers jump out of their cars to assess the damage. The cars might need to be moved to the side of the road so that the drivers can exchange information safely out of the way of traffic. Attention is given immediately to the external circumstances. What might be most beneficial for the autonomic nervous system is not typically included in the decisions being made.
In an ideal world, everything would halt following an accident. The individuals involved, possibly even those who witnessed the event, would stay put, making time for their shock to resolve naturally. As shock starts resolving, the body may begin shaking, one of the ways the nervous system dissipates the energy that it gathered to enable running or fighting. If time is made for it to move through the body, this physiological sequence can unfold naturally and come to completion. This is unrealistic, if not impossible, in our real world, highly-trafficked, fast-paced settings.
A basic tenet in Somatic Experiencing is to give the physiology the time it needed—but couldn’t have—to process its hard-wired threat response. It is not necessary to literally flee or fight to accomplish this. The nervous system will instinctively do what it “knows” how to do with appropriate support and guidance. Understanding what invites this return to our nervous system’s inherent intelligence directs the work in Somatic Experiencing.
Peter Levine, PhD, Raja Selvam, PhD, SEP, Diane Poole Heller, PhD, SEP, Nancy Napier, MA, SEP, Yiri Dollekamp, CMA, SEP
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