This month I attended a training called Transforming the Experiential Brain taught by a man named Stephen Terrell. It was a great experience. The principles behind transforming the brain have to deal with determining basic survival patterns from childhood, especially if your particular experience is rooted in developmental trauma. This kind of trauma arises out of the earliest period of our life, before language comes online. It is a preverbal time starting in utero until about the age of 2. These trauma patterns include many from the prenatal and perinatal period, like stress during pregnancy, chemicals or toxins in utero, loss during pregnancy or during the year of life, disrupted attachment and bonding, difficult births, separations, and more. All this language was familiar to me because of the nearly 2 decades I have studied prenatal and perinatal somatic psychology but his approach was different. He works with people as they lie therapeutic tables (like massage tables) with distinct still holds on the body with his hands. The holds support the stress response, especially the kidney/adrenals and their role managing cortisol and fear. It was very comforting to have knowledgeable people in the training complete these holds on the body. After each exchange, I felt great, more whole, with greater coherence and connection.
I first learned about somatic trauma healing when I began studying prenatal and perinatal patterns 20 years ago. There were no books about trauma back then that were easily accessible to the lay person like there are now. Bessel Van Der Kolk has put trauma on the map with his book, The Body Keeps the Score. Before him, there was The Body Bears the Burden by Robert Scaer. There were inklings of somatic implicit (or bodily-felt) memory in the body psychotherapy realm. These practices were based on the early pioneers like Wilhelm Reich and practitioners like Alexander Lowen or Moshe Feldenkrais. My first exposure was in 1996 the work of Candance Pert at the National Institutes of Health and her book, Molecules of Emotion. We knew that the body carried emotional experiences. These practices were considered alternative health practices, and understanding memories and patterns of feelings that come from how we learned as babies in utero, during birth and afterwards were definitely far out for many people. Since then, we know that attachment and bonding are bio-psycho-social-spiritual experiences that lay the groundwork for human health. We understand that experience lays down neural networks in the brain and body, and these are coupled with emotions, thoughts, feelings, and perception. We began to more fully understand the brain and the nervous system. Trauma healing practitioners like Stephen Terrell and myself explore the realms of safety and survival. The polyvagal theory was discovered, revealing how we develop through layers of nervous system function and responses to threat. Our human face, voice, and heart and how we use them to connect with others is vital to our health.
Learning Somatic Trauma Healing has been such a journey. A memory of birth trauma from a client in 1999 propelled me down the path of understanding the baby's experience. Since then, I have spent many years studying prenatal and perinatal trauma and somatic healing. Learning Somatic Experiencing® was a pure delight. It gave me verbal skills so my clients could further integrate their experiences. The practitioner skills of John and Anna Chitty, plus a deep understanding of relationship or self and co-regulation are the ground for my work in Somatic Trauma healing. The skills of touch, presence, awareness and relationship are also in the work by Stephen Terrell and Kathy Kain. (See this interview with Kathy about the new book she has written on resilience with Stephen Terrell.) The awareness of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma Informed Care are helping support somatic healing. Films such as Resilience say, the body remembers.
The bodywork at Belvedere Integrated Healing Arts encompasses the somatic trauma healing approach. I wish I had access to these kinds of healing when I started out on my healing path when, at the age of 25, I was debilitated by illness and panic attacks. We have so much more knowledge now about how to help people. Sessions explore early patterns and the sense of safety and survival, and how to find more resilience and peace in the present time.
If you feel that you have patterns of experience, behavior and adaptive responses to early trauma, book a session. Engage in your awareness, because healing wants to happen, and your body will lead you.
Recently, a client who came in for her appointment and said, my heart is broken. She was under tremendous strain, bearing witness to painful present and historical trauma patterns in her family history. Her back, chest and neck hurt; she wasn't sleeping well. She has been thoroughly checked out at the hospital for what she thought might be a heart attack. So our work together commenced.
My approach is regulating the nervous system with people using touch, presence, and verbal skills, then addressing the more difficult parts, touching into the pain briefly, then coming back to a place of resource. This person needed tissue mobilization. Her muscles where hypertonic, or really tight. I oriented her toward positive states as I worked on her hurting body using massage. I asked, "How do you most like to feel? Tell me about a time when you felt that way." I usually apply what I call the Principle of Three, that is, asking her for three specific experiences where she felt most like how she wants to feel. She told me stories of hiking in the natural world, of being surrounded by field of flowers, and about other things that happened on some of her travels. As she talked, I slowed her down and asked her to notice her body. Gradually, a pleasant state of warmth and flow arrived in her back, arms and legs.
When we got to her chest there was a distinct difference between the left and right sides. The left side, the side of her heart, felt frozen. The tissue was cool to the touch and very hard; it hurt to have it worked on. The right side was normal, warm and yielded to my touch. As I worked on her tissue, I had the left and right sides of her body talk to each other. The left spoke about the pain of the heart break, the right side spoke about self care and compassion. I had the client feel her body after each pass of the conversation. It was beautiful, intimate and authentic.
I recently read a presentation about holding space by therapist Jodi Hall. All that was truly needed was presence and the capacity to help someone feel safe in their body. This is Jodi's list regarding holding space:
1. Holding space is not prescriptive
2. Sit in uncertainty
3. There are no spaces that can be absolutely safe, but they can be safer
4. Shine the light
5. Become curious
6. Practice unknowing
8. Nurture self-compassion
8. Show up
9. Maintain Boundaries
10. Decompress, de-brief, empty the container
I felt my client gently decompress her hurt as I helped her feel better with my hands, attention, tempo and the many years of training helping people recover their lives from stress and trauma. Please come and get relief from what ails you.