“I don’t know why, but every time I start dating someone new, I lose interest after three or four dates—even if they are really cool.”
“This time of year just makes me miserable. I don’t know what it is, but it makes me drink more just to be able to stand it.”
“I’m so discouraged by these panic attacks. I never know when they’re going to hit. They’re ruining my life.”
“I’m 30 years old, and I haven’t ever seriously dated anyone because of my social anxiety. It just gets in the way, all the time.”
These are a few of the typical complaints I hear when I meet with someone for the first time. These problems all sound pretty different, don’t they? Chances are, however, that they share an underlying process. We can credit Dr. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, for clarifying this process for us. His life’s work synthesizes vast amounts of research, therapy practices, and worldwide cultural traditions with his own original contributions.
Dr. Levine calls this underlying process “over-coupling.” Over-coupling takes place when trauma energy sticks two things together that shouldn’t be. Our brain perceives some stimulus, one that could be innocuous to others, and then has this lightning quick reaction based on its learned history: “If there’s this, there’s also going to be that—and that is really bad, so let’s rev up the fight or flight energy!”
How Over-Coupling Works
Over-coupling involves the parts of the brain known as the limbic system, or our emotional/threat response, and the reptilian brain, which is in charge of body regulation. When these systems perceive a potential threat, they go into a stress response. Trauma can occur when that threat feels overwhelming or bigger than our ability to effectively cope with it, and the energy from that stress response gets stuck in our systems, under the surface. The unconscious layers of the brain and body want to avoid any situation like that ever happening again. So when something feels similar to the big, bad thing that happened in the past, our reptile brains lock into the same threat response as the previous time. This happens whether or not the logical mind is aware of any similarity between the previous and current situations.
That is over-coupling. Like a creaky old suit of armor, it’s meant to protect us, but what it really does is get in our way, preventing us from freely living our lives.
When our limbic, or emotional/threat response, and reptile, or body regulation brains perceive a potential threat, they go into a stress response … The unconscious layers of the brain and body want to avoid any situation like that ever happening again.
Let’s explore the above examples with this new awareness of over-coupling.
- In the first example, a new love interest equals a threat. This could be rooted in the emotional damage caused by an old love interest or parent, both of which might cause the body and attachment system to shut down. This dynamic is usually at the core of avoidant attachment.
- Different seasons of the year come with certain environmental cues that remind us of an original difficult period or event in our lives. The angle of the sunlight, the feeling in the air, the temperature, and the way the plants look and smell might all act as subconscious cues. These cues may or may not stir up anxiety or panic; many people simply feel malaise and dread around over-coupled times of the year. Grief anniversaries are one example. Alcohol is one strategy frequently used to turn off these feelings, even if it only works for a brief time. However, as a central nervous system depressant, it can often worsen problems with mood.
- Panic attacks become less of a mystery once these subconscious coupling dynamics are understood. Panic attacks are essentially the body’s emergency alarms going off at the wrong time: “This is not a drill! We’re going to die, right now!” They consist of a lot of flight, or sympathetic nervous system, energy coursing through the system all at once. The body is mobilizing to get out immediately because it thinks it’s going to die. Many people try to repress panic attacks, but this can be like holding a lid on a pot insistent on boiling over. Somatic therapy has developed many alternate ways to work with panic that essentially turn off the figurative stove, allowing the water to cool and settle.
- Social anxiety occurs when the threat response system is convinced, from previous felt experience, that a social environment is going to cause emotional or social harm. This can happen whether or not the current social environment is similar to the one that caused damage. Social anxiety comes with varying levels of conscious acceptance of the message the limbic and reptile brains are sending. When there’s more conscious acceptance of the belief, “I’m no good/not desirable,” it often carries a developmental aspect. Here, the person’s compromised self-esteem may reinforce the over-coupling message. Regardless, the subconscious mind is convinced the social environment is not safe, and it often refuses to deactivate until the person gets away to be alone or with a few trusted others.
Since these conditions usually involve the body’s unconscious trauma energies, which can be tricky and powerful, treatment is best left to someone with specific training in this area. Personally, I will always be grateful for my own continued training in somatic psychotherapy and for Peter’s contributions in the area of coupling dynamics.
In a future article, we will examine under-coupling, which occurs when something feels so overwhelming that the body numbs it out. Under-coupling is even more tricky, as it usually takes place beneath the level of the person’s conscious awareness and shares a special relationship with over-coupling. In the meantime, I invite you to start having compassion for any over-coupling you might notice going on in your own system. As frustrating as it might be, it is trying to protect you!
- Levine, P. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Practitioner training manual. (2007). Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute/Foundation for Human Enrichment: Boulder, CO: Foundation for Human Enrichment.
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