Healing the Nervous System From Trauma: Somatic Experiencing

Hi everyone Emma McAdam here, I’m a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I just read the book Moving Beyond Trauma by Ilene Smith and it’s left me thinking quite a bit about one really massive aspect of mental health. That most people don’t even know about. Which is how your nervous system and whether you can regulate it has a huge impact on mental health. And this is an emerging approach it’s called somatic experiencing, it targets treatment for trauma but it also does a great job with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues.

And the way it does this is through the body and nervous system regulation. So in this video I’m going to share some of what the author Ilene Smith talks about, which is why traditional Western psychology has failed many people and how healing is possible when we get out of our head and into our body. Real quick I want to remind you I’ve got a bunch of courses up online, I’m moving from Udemy to teachable, the links are down in the description below I’ve got a change of brain course on mental health and neuroplasticity I’ve got a coping skills and self care course and how to help course.

Which is how to help family members and friends who aren’t experiencing mental illness. So check those out if you want to learn more.

Ok back to the video. So the main idea of this book it’s by Ilene Smith and the main idea of somatic experiencing in general, is that you can train yourself to move through pain and anxiety or emotional suffering with grace and compassion and not get deregulated. So the author shares an example of this. When her husband died suddenly she was able to move through a massively painful death because she had the ability to experience and move through pain without locking up, and she was even able to experience joy the week after his death. And the reason she was able to do this was because she was letting her body guide her through this process of grief, and because she had learned how to regulate her body and her nervous system through this practice of somatic experiencing.

And the main idea is that talk therapy fails many people because basically by talking about your old injuries it retriggers them or it keeps them in these patterns of avoidance without addressing the deep wisdom of their body and their emotions. She says, “Your nervous system does not function through thoughts, it functions through feelings.” And when I say feelings I don’t mean just emotions I mean sensations physical reactions.

So for example anger comes with heat and red-faced and muscle tension, and depression comes with physical pain and exhaustion and sensitivity. So if you take a look at the three main parts of the brain the cortex is the thinking part of the brain, but emotions happen in the limbic part of our brain and our fight flight freeze response occurs really in that deep part of our brain.

The survival response is deeper and more anciently evolved and it moved much faster than our thoughts can keep up with, and that’s where our motions really get stuck. So when we look at somatic experiencing what this does is it describes how the trauma response is trapped in our nervous system.

So when someone experiences trauma their nervous system kicks into high gear and this is really an adaptive response to perceived danger, but when it gets stuck in that danger response it makes us sick, both physically and emotionally. So we might see threats everywhere or get overwhelmed, we take offense and then we fight avoid or freeze up in life, and when we’re constantly on this high alert. then our body doesn’t have time to heal and turn on the immune system and people develop all sorts of physical or mental illnesses.

Now another reason to talk therapy fails people, is because you are more than your brain.

So your nervous system has both your brain and your peripheral nervous system goes throughout your whole body, and it has this really powerful response this natural response to threats and this is called the fight flight freeze response. It’s very adaptive in the short term but we often interfere with our body’s ability to move through the complete cycle and return to a sense of safety. So the fight flight freeze response is that activating alerting reaction that, “oh my gosh there’s something the matter there’s danger we need to take action.” And then there’s the natural resolution of that problem using the parasympathetic nervous system that helps us feel a sense of calm.

But we often interfere with our body’s ability to move through the complete cycle and return to a sense of safety, and that’s because we’re so good at emotional suppression and avoidance.

We may have been trained by our parents or society or even modern psychology to avoid our emotions through overthinking, through suppression, and straight-up telling people like don’t feel that way. So somatic experiencing presents the alternative which you know Ilene talks about in this book so, by listening to our body we create space for our emotions and for our sensations, and we allow our natural ability to heal and return to safety to take place. We go through that whole process where a body turns on that healing system, our nervous system self-regulates and then we can respond to life and threats with greater flexibility and joy and calm, and we can often heal trauma depression or anxiety. And my number one takeaway from this book is that when we don’t take the time to acknowledge and listen to our body and our nervous systems cues, when we suppress or avoid or rush through those emotions that can make us sick both physically and emotionally.

Healing the Nervous System From Trauma: Somatic Experiencing

So when we respond to worry by running about and trying to do everything all the time, then occasionally our body’s going to collapse with exhaustion, and this is going to look like an anxiety or a depressive disorder. And the treatment for it is really to learn to regulate your nervous system. To return your nervous system to a sense of calm, and that’s what most psychologists and most mental health information out there is not talking about.

So in the book the author tells the story of a lady who had experienced abuse as a child and then as an adult she entered into an abusive relationship. So now after years of this and after her divorce she was chronically stressed, and she lived in survival mode she saw danger everywhere and she couldn’t even think of any safe place that existed in her life.

She only saw what was wrong instead of what was right, and this is what stress physiology does and it’s a common result of constantly living in survival mode. When we’re living with a stressed-out brain we’re only attuned to see threats to see the negative, to hyper focus on what might go wrong.

So going back to the woman who had been abused the author says, “Over time Kathy developed depression as a cumulative response to exhaustion from constantly living life on high alert.” So the author who’s a somatic experiencing practitioner and a certified coach, was able to help Kathy find safe places in her life, and then they did some cognitive work around the abuse helping Kathy see that it wasn’t her fault, but the main work was teaching Kathy to calm down her stress physiology.

So that she could accurately tell the difference between safety danger, and then they also worked to build joy.

So like I talked about in my video about emotional compression, Kathy had experienced this emotional shutdown from stress. She wasn’t able to feel very much joy so they made space for that in her sessions as she worked with the author and in her life and then they took the time to highlight those moments of joy and to sit with them. And that’s one way to expand your capacity to feel joy. The other type of work that they did and and this is an important practice for people who want to work on anxiety and depression and trauma, is they worked with the bodily sensations that Kathy was having, and they found that when they did that that painful memories would come up. So Kathy had this urge to rock herself and if you think about a crying baby, rocking them is one way to help them regulate to calm down.

So rocking together as they worked was a way for Kathy to move through those old sensations and memories of abuse or neglect and to come to that completion or to that resolution.

And they did other bodywork as well and this is something that you know modern psychology really hasn’t focused on, but the movement is really shifting toward a better understanding of this bodywork that’s essential to regulate emotions. So they did breathing exercises, they strengthened her relationship with her kids, which was an area she could feel a lot of emotions and Kathy got a puppy. Which would be my favorite part of all of this, and as Kathy’s nervous system began to heal her depression started to lift. Because she wasn’t constantly stressed out all the time, her nervous system wasn’t exhausted and she was able to enter into a new relationship get a new boyfriend that was healthy.

The other thing that happened is before this she’d been having all sorts of stomach problems and after they did the bodywork and they turned off that fight flight freeze response that had become chronic, her did her digestive issues resolved themselves. So these are all results that can come from working with the nervous system.

But honestly not many therapists or mental health sites are teaching about all this, I think most people don’t even know what the fight flight freeze response is much less how it impacts their stress levels or how to turn it off. And the type of exercises that treat anxiety and stress from the body first they’re called a bottom-up approach. Meaning that you start with addressing and calming the body before focusing on the mind, and in this book the author gives some exercises on how to practice that.

On my channel a lot of my older videos address these techniques, so you can check out my grounding skills playlist or my anxiety playlist both of those have a lot of these exercises.

But I do want to share one of these exercises with you right now. So take a moment right here to notice that you are watching this video. Can you see the outline of the screen that you’re watching it on? Just notice that you’re watching it on a phone or a computer TV and then just expand your awareness to the room that you’re in.

Notice the room around you, pay attention to what you can see. Now just take in your surroundings for a moment while you listen to my voice. Now notice your body, if you’re sitting place your feet on the floor. Notice what’s holding you up, a chair or a couch or whatever and notice how it’s pressing into your body. Pay attention to the feeling of your your body pressing down and it pressing up.

Now notice what’s inside of your body what physical sensations can you feel? Do you feel muscle tension anywhere? Can you feel yourself to breathe? Close your eyes for a second, and pay attention to how your face feels. Do your face muscles feel relaxed or tight?

The goal is not to change these sensations but to sit with them for a moment to notice them and to see what they have to say to you. Our bodies have a deep wisdom telling us what we need and how to heal, and by tapping into your body’s wisdom and training yourself to regulate your nervous system you can learn to overcome depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Or at least one really big aspect of them. I hope this video was helpful thanks for watching take care..

Read More: 5 Signs You Have Emotional Trauma (And How To Heal)

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