RESOLVING TRAUMA FROM THE BODY UP VS COGNITIVE DOWN Along with my graduate school focus in Somatic Psychotherapy and continuing education, I have received advanced training in Somatic Touch Skills for Trauma Therapists and Somatic Resilience and Regulation with Kathy Kain and Stephen J. Terrell. This work, based on Somatic Experiencing, is suited to explore layered complex trauma that often occurs in early development.
"Before there are words, there is the wordless communication of the body.” — Michael Changaris, Psy.D.
Early trauma means in utero, birth and zero to three or five years and sometimes beyond. The earlier the trauma, the more likely it is to spread to a variety of systems (muscular, digestive, nervous, endocrine, immune), causing debilitating symptoms. There is a strong correlation between early child abuse and the development of autoimmune disorders thirty years later. See the "Kaiser Ace study." Often, there is no language to address this type of trauma since it belongs to the pre-verbal realm. Also, trauma doesn't have to include physical or sexual abuse, and is often emotional, mental and sometimes includes neglect. When early trauma is not addressed in therapy and remains untreated, it becomes deeply held at the body level. This foundational dysregulation can cause severe somatic/medical symptoms for the young child and later for the adult. Not only physical symptoms appear but also difficulties with addictions, anxiety, intimacy, relationships, sleep and productivity.
The missing piece that traditional and to some extent some somatic psychologies seem to miss lies in the regulation of the physiology. This is a necessary prerequisite to successfully renegotiate past and recent traumatic experiences. Table work derived from Somatic Experiencing can redefine how to support clients with tools that involve building resiliency and self-regulation as a reliable foundation to come back to when disturbance occurs. Without this baseline, early trauma’s powerful dysregulated physiology has a tendency to overpower some of the best tools and techniques we have to down regulate the fragile nervous system, making them useless.
Touch used in session: Depending on your needs and therapeutic goals, our sessions might use touch and table work to address pre-verbal states and disrupted physiology. These methods allow the client to stay somatically present, regulate physiological responses, and minimize the potential for being overwhelmed by strong physiological sensations (Kathy Kain). These table techniques are used as a resource for the client to learn to self regulate and return to a place of homeostasis. This modality makes space to unload the traumatic stress physiology slowly. It accesses states of calm (the low tone state) that other modalities can’t. It is a gateway to re-establish regulation as a base to come back to when the early physiology has been disrupted. Table and touch work slowly get the client back within a healthy physiology without stripping them of their natural healthy self-protective mechanisms. Through intentional co-regulation with the therapist, new neuro-pathways are established and survivor behaviors can abate. The client gets to re-sort the world with a different lens: the lens of safety through co-regulation. Table work and touch therapy help establish a new foundation.
Touch and table work is always done with clothing on and it is understood from the beginning that it is meant to be non intrusive and respectful. Lying down on your back on the table or sitting up, I typically start with holding your kidneys/adrenal region with the palm of my hand. When the kidneys are held safely, the body starts to relax, stopping the flow of Cortisol (stress hormone), telling the brain that it is possible to rest. We are imprinting new pathways and telling your system that you are safe, not alone and support is readily available. There is no need to cling to your survival strategies. This needs to be repeated many times, and slowly, regulation comes in.
Later, I might hold the brainstem if I see that it is telling your body that the environment is not safe. Your brainstem is your “control tower” scanning for dangers: the dangers from the past, not present in the therapy room. The result could be a felt sense of relaxation, some body sensations or some movements starting to form: each person has a different history and goes through her own process at a different pace. This is not a “relaxation” technique, this is repairing a bond, learning to co-regulate safely, learning to trust and establishing a solid base for more therapeutic work.
The gut and heart region are other important pieces to hold in this protocol. Approaching these areas typically come later when enough regulation has come on board. There are many areas of your body that hold trauma and many others that we use as resources to re-establish healthy physiology. Gradually, as we work through the protocol, stress responses will bubble up and they will be attended to as we progress.
Kathy Kain adds: “These techniques seem to target the most common patterns of hypervigilance and bracing in preparation for threat. By using direct contact with specific physical structures and regions of the body that play a large role in physiological resilience and self-regulation, the practitioner can invite their clients to alter long-standing habits in their stress responses. As clients are supported in letting go of these habitual patterns, they become more adept at allowing the full range of physiological responses to flow without the urge to stop or suppress them; they stay more somatically present, even in the face of strong somatic experiences”.