In Part 1 of “Deep Bodywork in the treatment of trauma related disorders and post-traumatic stress”, we discussed the importance of assessing our client’s state before we use touch as a part of dealing with the symptoms of trauma. We also discussed an honest assessment of our own capacities to deal with the manifestations of mobilized trauma energy, and the strength of the therapeutic alliance we share with a given client. After deciding that an individual is suited to receiving bodywork as a part of their healing process, there are a few basic things important to understand about the nature of trauma and how living organisms self-organize and heal.
1) Because traumatic situations either literally threaten our survival, or create the perception that our survival is threatened, an instinctual mechanism designed for self preservation is triggered. This is often referred to as the “fight/flight response”. It should actually be called the “fight/flight/freeze response”, and it is crucial to understanding what lies at the core of the traumatized person. ( For a deeper description of this phenomenon please see Peter Levine’s, Waking The Tiger.) It is this process of freezing which can create the seemingly intractable nature of trauma related symptoms and post-traumatic stress. Because both fighting and fleeing allow for a mobilization of vital energy during the potentially traumatic situation, the conditions for healing trauma are simplified if either strategy proves successful. If we find we can neither fight nor flee, a dissociative mechanism that “is like freezing” innately manifests, as a way of easing us into what could be a very painful, or lethal experience. Nature has actually acted compassionately in building this strategy into our instinctual makeup. Unwinding its effects can be very difficult.
2) Because the fight/flight/freeze response is mediated by the limbic system, brain stem, and spinal chord (all sub-cortical levels of the central nervous system which express themselves through feeling, sensing, and movement), verbally oriented therapies tend to miss the arenas where trauma, and post traumatic stress are to be found. Deep Bodywork and other somatic approaches are methods ideally suited to dealing with the core of trauma related symptoms, because they access our experience at a sensing and feeling level first, and verbally only as an important secondary process.
3) One way of thinking of trauma patients is that they are literally “frozen in space and time”, constellating around the traumatic event in an often unconsciously obsessive manner. This situation can be deeply anxiety producing, which requires any use of touch to be done extremely slowly. One of the hallmarks of Deep Bodywork is its slow, sensitive application. This allows the trauma patient to engage his or her felt-sense, our greatest tool in unwinding trauma.
Putting the above three elements together, we can understand that the use of Deep Bodywork in trauma related cases must be slow and sensitive in order to engage the felt-sense in a useful manner. The felt-sense, which is the aggregate of all of our information processing capacities melded into a felt impression of any given situation, has the power to thaw the stuck energy of trauma. As this energy begins to thaw, typical manifestations in our clients’ bodies can be trembling and shaking. I always assure my clients that “shaking is good. Let yourself shake.” Often the phase of shaking is followed by emotion, as the actual traumatic event gains access to memory. If we work slowly, engaging the felt-sense as we work, our client’s capacity to re-member, with our support, increases. Anchoring this positive change through connecting it to something positive in our clients experience is crucial at this point. This positive element can be a person, place, pet, or even a prize possession. The important thing is that it have the quality of being something like a “secure base” (Bowlby). Secure bases, according to Bowlby, are unique elements in the life of each person to which we attach, and around which we can create a stabile sense of self-hood. I once had a trauma client report to me during this process that maybe she would “trust herself to wear her red-dress again”, a prized possession that represented a certain celebration of her life energy and desire to have fun. As we imagined her putting it on after years of having left it in the closet, she was able to laugh and feel her longing for that long abandoned aspect of her experience.
Remember always to slow your work down when you observe the symptoms of trauma arising in a client. In part III, I will share some final considerations and a few case histories out of my clinical experience.