By Anna Mason, Writer at All Points North Lodge
What does the body have to do with negative feelings, danger, and dysregulation? Ryan Soave, a Certified Trauma Therapist and Director of Program Development at All Points North Lodge, argues pretty much everything. The link, he says, is trauma.
So first, let's define trauma. Though trauma comes in the forms of both big "T" and little "t" events, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lays out some qualifiers for universally recognized traumatic experiences. Soave says, "In the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder in the DSM-4, it says that trauma occurs when an individual experiences real or perceived threat of death or annihilation. In the DSM-5, it rephrases to say actual or threatened death or serious injury."
But are our bodies really responding to trauma first? Or is it our emotions which come to trigger a bodily response. Soave insists it's the former. To illustrate, he utilizes a "real trauma" scenario, rather than perceived. "If we're standing in the road, and a car is coming at us, we need to experience fear in a way that gets us out of the road." What we identify as the fear emotion, Soave explains, is actually a collection of sensations in the body.
"Fear, sadness, guilt, shame," he says. "Those are ways that we define a set of symptoms that we're experiencing in our body. You know, they're called feelings, and they are called feelings because we feel them. We don't think them. We may be thinking, 'This is the feeling I'm having,' but there are no nerve endings in the brain. The brain doesn't tangibly feel anxiety or fear. Thoughts may drive those. Thoughts may provoke them. But we don't feel them there. We call these emotions 'feelings' because we experience them in our bodies in the form of sensation."
According to Soave, trauma responses are the instinctual feelings and bodily sensations that are, at times, necessary for survival. If we are about to be hit by a car, we need our nervous system to go into fight-or-flight mode. We need our heart rate to quicken, adrenaline to pump, and our instincts to propel our legs fast enough to get us out of the way. The issue, Soave says (and where emotional dysregulation and even PTSD can come into play), is when those sensations occur in the absence of real threat.
"Lots of times, we've kind of got things collapsed or mixed up in that if I'm having this set of sensations I had as a kid, I go, 'Well I'm in threat' or 'I'm in danger. In reality, that may not be true." says Soave. He offers this example, "Say a child was neglected to near-abandonment at two-years-old. That's life-threatening. For survival, his body reacts by crying and yelling and screaming. That's what he needed to do to get his needs met. His childhood environment taught him to respond to abandonment by acting out to survive."
Soave continues, "Fast forward to adulthood. As an adult, this man cannot be abandoned in the same way. People can leave him, but it's not necessarily life-threatening if they do. He's able to take care of himself. But because of how he learned to react to abandonment as a child, he may feel and act as though he is going to die when people around him leave. He was shaped that way. It's his trauma response. When abandonment threatens, his trauma response in the body and the brain goes back to when he was a child. As a kid, when he was neglected, his body tensed, his heart rate quickened, and he panicked so that he could survive. Now his body is stuck there."
Childhood trauma or even generational trauma can cause a lot of carried pain and emotions in adulthood. Soave explains, "If we navigated threats as children, we learned to live in this unregulated state. Then we enter adulthood and want to be regulated, but we don't necessarily know how. We've been wired to be a certain way. That doesn't mean that we can't rewire it, but it's going to take a lot of effort and work."
The start to that work, says Soave, is education and awareness. "We're not often taught about emotions until we have a problem. We're not learning about it in school," he explains. "If I can learn to listen to my body, I can get accurate information about what I'm experiencing and decide if I'm actually in danger or if it's just a danger that I'm perceiving. It is important for me to recognize those symptoms that I'm experiencing in my body and realize I am having these real sensations and real experience, but there is no actual threat." Soave suggests that we feel the bodily symptoms of trauma responses start to arise, we can ask, "Am I or someone around me in immediate physical danger?" He argues, "If the answer is no, then there is no negative emotion that I can't handle."
Beyond education and awareness, Soave advocates for whole-person therapy. A variety of holistic therapy modalities that address both the body and brain can be helpful. It may take some trial and error to figure out which works best for you. "Doing some work can reduce symptoms occurring at inappropriate times. But also, we're going to experience those symptoms in life. Life is a series of joys and pains. If 80% of the time, you can acknowledge yourself going into a trauma response and choose to make a decision consistent with where you want to go in life rather than how you feel in that moment," encourages Soave, "You can consider that a success."
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iCAAD Online 2020