Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality. ~Bessel A. van der Kolk, Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society
One of the things we’ve been talking about lately in a few of the groups I facilitate, is learning to differentiate between emotional safeness and physical safety.
In other words, the difference between the potential for our feelings to be hurt in some way and our bodies to be harmed, tortured or murdered.
Reading those words, I’m guessing some of you may be wondering why we would need to differentiate these things. In so many ways we are all logically aware of the difference between these two very different types of situations. Most of us can look at different events in our own lives and be able to determine in which ones we were in actual physical danger and in which ones the risk was more about being told no, or being wrong, or not feeling heard or understood.
In our logic brain, we can completely understand the difference.
Our primal brain, or reptilian brain as some call it, doesn’t know the difference.
So, when our frontal lobe (where logic and empathy live) isn’t able to communicate with our limbic brain and brain stem, our systems see any type of “threat” as life threatening. When we are in a trauma state, when we are in that elevated state where we are almost always in fight, flight, or freeze, our logic brain can’t communicate with our primal brain, because our logic brain has pretty much gone “off line” so our primal brain can try to keep us alive.
Because that is the role of our primal brain: to literally keep us alive. To make sure we physically survive a situation.
Our primal brain isn’t actually concerned with our “feelings” such as shame, emotional hurt, embarrassment, etc. It only cares that our hearts keep beating, our lungs keep working, and we are physically functioning enough to potentially procreate (regardless of whether we are within the years that procreation is actually possible.)
When the trauma that lives within us has not been processed, our nervous systems stay in a state of hyper alert. This shows up in various ways, most commonly as anxiety, and can show up as irritability, moodiness, being “overly” emotional, etc. When our sympathetic nervous system is in a heightened and activated state, when it doesn’t have the opportunity to calm down and allow our parasympathetic system to come online, and a traumatic event occurs, it affects our systems exponentially.
When we consider that we have not only the trauma of our own lived experience within us, but also that of our ancestors and we are constantly being re-traumatized to varying degrees by our culture, it is no wonder that our systems are on over-drive.
When our systems are in this constant state of over-load, we begin to be unable to differentiate between an actual physical threat and a perceived emotional threat.
This is why we get nervous speaking up to that racist uncle or aunt at the holiday dinner table. It is why we don’t speak up. It is why we don’t share our intimate details or inner most thoughts with those who can hold them.
It’s why we isolate.
Perceiving emotional risk – from speaking up at the holiday table, to sharing our deepest self with a lover and all things in-between – as life threatening is what perpetuates our isolation.
Our nervous systems and fight/flight/freeze responses are so over stimulated and over activated that any situation that is remotely uncomfortable emotionally, yet completely physically safe, is perceived as a threat to our lives.
To say this is problematic is an understatement.
This is why it is so important for the first step of processing our trauma to be integrating tools, techniques, and practices to soothe and calm our nervous systems (i.e. self regulate) and bring our “baseline” back down to a non-activated state.
It is why I share nervous system soothing (self-regulation) exercises on social media and in my weekly newsletter. Because truly, this is where we need to start.
We literally are incapable of doing any deeper trauma work until we are able to soothe our sympathetic nervous system. Without that first step we only re-traumatize ourselves and keep ourselves on a very painful and frustrating treadmill.
The good news is, there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to begin the work of calming our systems. When we look at our Self from a holistic lens, we can then find the different combination of ways that work for us. For many people taking supplements, vitamins and or herbs, is incredibly helpful. For others, pharmaceuticals are necessary. For all of us having a somatic approach of some kind, anything from a somatic trauma therapy like my TIE™ approach to massage, acupuncture or chiropractic work, is incredibly beneficial.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which approaches you use, it only matters that they work for you, are nourishing, and allow for the space in time for you continue on to the deeper work of processing the trauma that lives within you.
I don’t believe in a “one size fits all” approach to trauma processing and healing. We are each unique, and therefore the ways our systems respond to different exercises, practices, approaches, and modalities is unique to each of us.
I also believe that the very first step we all need to take is in calming our elevated and activated systems into a more stable and steady state. So we can then dive into the deeper work. So we can truly connect with our body and the present moment. So we can internally and systemically understand the difference between an actual physical threat and a perceived emotional one.
I believe this work is not only part of the ways we find healing for our individual selves, but is also part of the way we find healing, growth, and change in the greater collective and in our society.
The individual is part of the collective and the collective is part of the individual. We need each other for greater internal and external change to happen. And our ability to connect and be in right and meaningful relationship is dependent on bringing our nervous systems down from an elevated and threatened state and being more in our frontal lobes so we can respond to situations mindfully and intentionally instead of reacting to them from a state of fear, anxiety, and stress overwhelm.
Originally published on January 28, 2018 as a weekly newsletter and revised for publication here. Did you enjoy reading this? If so, I invite you to sign up to receive my weekly love letters right here.