Have you noticed that no matter how much time you spend in talk therapy, you still feel anxious and triggered? That is because talk therapy can keep you stuck in a pattern of reliving your stories, rather than moving beyond them. But, most of all, it’s because trauma doesn’t just reside inside your mind–much more importantly, it locks itself in other parts of your body. When left unresolved, that trauma continues to live there, impacting your life, your relationships, your sense of safety, and your ability to experience joy in very real ways.
In Moving Beyond Trauma, Ilene Smith will introduce you to Somatic Experiencing, a body-based therapy capable of healing the damage done to your nervous system by trauma. She breaks down the ways in which trauma impacts your nervous system and walks you through a program designed to process trauma in a non-threatening way. You will discover a healing lifestyle marked by a deeper connection with yourself, those around you, and with everything you do.
INTERVIEW WITH ILENE SMITH
What is somatic experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body therapy modality used to heal trauma. When an event happens too fast and we do not have the time or ability for self-protection or defense, this survival energy gets stuck in our body as an incomplete biological reaction. This stuck energy is what causes trauma symptoms and the nervous system loses its ability to maintain a state of balance. The trapped energy from the traumatic experience causes the nervous system to rush to a state of fight, flight, or freeze. SE works to help bring the nervous system back on-line by helping the individual restore their sense of safety. This can only happen when the body has a “biological completion” and the trauma energy has the opportunity to reintegrate back into the body.
While SE uses talking in the process, the talking is used to track body sensation and meaning attached to experiences, rather than bring the individual back into the event of the trauma. When we bring the body into the therapy process and facilitate a way for the individual to physically move through the experience with a sense of safety, the relationship to the experience changes and the stuck energy will discharge.
Why did you want to become a somatic experiencing practitioner?
When I went back to school in my early 40’s for a degree in mental health counseling, I knew I wanted to work with trauma. I was introduced to SE during my internship at an eating disorder clinic and felt as though SE was complimentary to talk therapy. I also felt as though it was the missing link for trauma healing. I became a student of the work as well as a patient because I believe you can only take a client as far as you are willing to go yourself. I was experiencing great results personally and began applying the principles of SE with my clients. The results were phenomenal. Clients with eating disorders and addiction were moving away from their maladaptive behaviors and finding deeper and more meaningful connections with themselves and others. I feel strongly and passionately that the body and the nervous system need to be part of the healing process for real and everlasting change.
What type of rewards do you get by helping others heal?
There is nothing more rewarding than watching a person go from surviving to thriving in their life. I have and continue to walk people through incredible healing journeys. I love being part of transformation and nothing feels better than being able to add value to other’s lives.
What is the focus on the nervous system related to this type of therapy?
While the nervous system is designed to be self-regulating, it has its limitations around trauma. Unresolved trauma, especially when trauma is chronic and accumulated, can lead to more extensive mental and physical health symptoms. The long-term effect of SE treatment is a restored sense of healthy nervous system functioning, which includes reduction in maladaptive coping skills, resolved sleep issues, and mood stabilization — to name a few. When the body gains the capacity to self-regulate, it restores its sense of safety and balance. In turn, stress hormones are lower and the body can produce more “feel good” hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin.
Unlike most therapy modalities which are considered “top down,” meaning they use our highest form of cognition, SE begins with a “bottom up” approach of sensorimotor processing aimed at guiding the client through the most primitive to the most complex brain systems. The therapist begins by guiding the client to track sensation and movements, helping a patient develop a felt sense of his internal states of tension, relaxation and respiration cycles. This is a powerful mechanism to regulate the autonomic nervous system.
What does unresolved trauma mean and how does it affect our bodies?
When trauma is unresolved our survival mechanisms of fight flight and freeze get stuck in the on position and our autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks into high gear. These states are only meant for acute situations for defense and protection. Our ANS contributes to how we regulate every state in our body including heart rate, breath, digestion and bladder. When our bodies are in stress physiology, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol start pumping through the body causing all sorts of imbalances both emotionally and physically. There have been many studies showing the impact of trauma and stress on the emotional and physical body. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study showed that the more emotional and physical abuse a person had during childhood the more likely they are to experience mental and physical health issues as adults. This body and mind are intrinsically connected and this is why bringing the body into the healing process is so important.
What happens in the brain when trauma is processed, or resolved?
When trauma is resolved a person will begin to see and move through the world with more vitality and ease. They will begin to have a more accurate ability to sense safety and danger and experience a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them. When trauma is resolved a person will feel more present, helping them better express themselves and understand their needs and desires. These changes in the nervous system and brain, reduce anxiety, depression and maladaptive behaviors used to cope with pain and discomfort. Ultimately the individual will feel more curious and resilient to face the ups and down of life.
How does this type of therapy build resilience?
SE works with the bodies most primitive instincts to help integrate trauma memories into the body. When this occurs, a person will experience a greater sense of safety within themselves. In other words, a person gains a sense of mastery over themselves and their feelings. It is a knowing that you can handle and tolerate what you are experiencing. Resilience is a byproduct of knowing you have the internal resources to survive and this is what we teach the body through the process of SE.
I love the title of your book, Moving Beyond Trauma. What can a life beyond trauma look like, and what kind of hope does it bring?
Thank you! When trauma is resolved we gain capacity to live our lives with more presence and intention. We can connect to ourselves and others and feel more curious to explore the things that we like. Ultimately moving beyond trauma allows the space to find passion and vibrance. I like to think of life after trauma as a healing lifestyle. A healing lifestyle is different for each person, but it is a life of self-care with body/mind alignment. It is a life beyond survival where an individual can and has the desire to grow and thrive.
Where can people learn more about somatic experiencing?
My book Moving Beyond Trauma is available on Amazon.
*Any donations are greatly appreciated via the Paypal link: The Writing Train.
*Thank you for supporting bloggers!
A world-recognized authority and acclaimed mind-body medicine pioneer presents the first evidence-based program to reverse the psychological and biological damage caused by trauma.
In his role as the founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), the worlds largest and most effective program for healing population-wide trauma, Harvard-trained psychiatrist James Gordon has taught a curriculum that has alleviated trauma to populations as diverse as refugees and survivors of war in Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, and Syria, as well as Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, New York city firefighters and their families, and members of the U. S. military. Dr. Gordon and his team have also used their work to help middle class professionals, stay-at-home mothers, inner city children of color, White House officials, medical students, and people struggling with severe emotional and physical illnesses.
The Transformation represents the culmination of Dr. Gordon’s fifty years as a mind-body medicine pioneer and an advocate of integrative approaches to overcoming psychological trauma and stress. Offering inspirational stories, eye-opening research, and innovative prescriptive support, The Transformation makes accessible for the first time the methods that Dr. Gordon—with the help of his faculty of 160, and 6,000 trained clinicians, educators, and community leaders—has developed and used to relieve the suffering of hundreds of thousands of adults and children around the world.
Laughter Breaks Trauma’s Grim Spell
James S. Gordon, MD
Excerpted from THE TRANSFORMATION by James S. Gordon, MD. Reprinted with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2019
Reader’s Digest used to tell us each month that “laughter is the best medicine.” Drawing on folk wisdom, the Digest was reminding us that laughter could help us through the ordinary, daily unhappiness that might come into our lives.
In 1976, Norman Cousins, the revered editor of the Saturday Review, wrote a piece that signaled the arrival of laughter in the precincts of science. It was called “Anatomy of an Illness (as Perceived by the Patient)” and appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the United States’ most prestigious medical publication.
When the best conventional care failed to improve his ankylosing spondylitis—a crippling autoimmune spinal arthritis—Cousins took matters into his own hands. He checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel, took megadoses of anti-inflammatory vitamin C, and watched long hours of Marx Brothers movies and TV sitcoms. He laughed and kept on laughing. He noticed that as he did, his pain diminished. He felt stronger and better. As good an observer as any of his first-rate doctors, he developed his own dose-response curve: ten minutes of belly laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. Soon enough, he became more mobile.
Once the healing power of laughter was on the medical map, researchers began to systematically explore its stress-reducing, health-promoting, pain-relieving potential. Laughter has now been shown to decrease stress levels and improve mood in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, to decrease hostility in patients in mental hospitals, and to lower heart rate and blood pressure and enhance mood and performance in generally healthy IT professionals. In numerous experiments, people with every imaginable diagnosis have reduced their pain by laughing.
Laughter stimulates the dome-shaped diaphragmatic muscle that separates our chest from our abdomen, as well as our abdominal, back, leg, and facial muscles. After we laugh for a few minutes, these muscles relax. Then our blood pressure and stress hormone levels decrease; pain-relieving and mood-elevating endorphins increase, as do levels of calming serotonin and energizing dopamine. Our immune functioning—probably a factor in Cousins’s eventual recovery—improves. If we are diabetic, our blood sugar goes down. Laughter is good exercise. It’s definitely healthy. And it’s first-rate for relieving stress.
Laughter also has a transforming power that transcends physiological enhancement and stress reduction. Laughter can break the spell of the fixed, counterproductive, self-condemning thinking that is so pervasive and so devastating to us after we’ve been traumatized. It can free us from the feelings of victimization that may shadow our lives and blind us to each moment’s pleasures and the future’s possibilities.
The wisdom traditions of the East extend laughter’s lessons. Zen Buddhism surprises us with thunderclaps of laughter to wake us from mental habits that have brought unnecessary, self-inflicted suffering. Sufi stories do the same job but more slyly. Over the years, I watched as my acupuncture and meditation teacher Shyam, himself a consummate joker, punctured the self-protectiveness, pomposities, and posturing that kept his patients and students—including, of course, me—from being at ease and natural, joyous in each moment of our lives. The stories he told from India, China, and the Middle East brought the point home: seriousness is a disease. Sorrow is real and to be honored, but obsessively dwelling on losses and pain only adds to our sickness. Laughter at ourselves and all our circumstances is our healing birthright.
A story I first heard from Shyam about the Three Laughing Monks is apropos. It is said that long ago, there were three monks who walked the length and breadth of China, laughing great, belly-shaking laughs as they went. They brought joy to each village they visited, laughing as they entered, laughing for the hours or days they stayed, and laughing as they left. No words. And it’s said that after a while everyone in the villages—the poorest and most put-upon and also the most privileged and pompous—got the message. They, too, lost their pained seriousness, laughed with the monks, and found relief and joy.
One day, after many years, one of the monks died. The two remaining monks continued to laugh. This time when villagers asked why, they responded, “We are laughing because we have always wondered who would die first, and he did and therefore he won. We’re laughing at his victory and our defeat, and with memories of all the good times we have had together.” Still, the villagers were sad for their loss.
Then came the funeral. The dead monk had asked that he not be bathed, as was customary, or have his clothes changed. He had told his brother monks that he was never unclean, because laughter had kept all impurities from him. They respected his wishes, put his still-clothed, unwashed body on a pile of wood, and lit it.
As the flames rose, there were sudden loud, banging noises. The living monks realized that their brother, knowing he was going to die, had hidden fireworks in his clothes. They laughed and laughed and laughed. “You have defeated us a second time and made a joke even of death.” Now they laughed even louder. And it is said that the whole village began to laugh with them.
This is the laughter that shakes off all concerns, all worries, all holding on to anything that troubles our mind or heart, anything that keeps us from fully living in the present moment.
Researchers and clinicians may lack the total commitment to laughter of the three monks, but they are beginning to explore and make use of its power. Working together in various institutions, they’ve developed a variety of therapeutic protocols that may include interactions with clowns and instruction in performing stand-up comedy.
“Laughter yoga,” which has most often been studied, combines inspirational talks, hand clapping, arm swinging, chanting “ho, ho” and “ha, ha,” deep breathing, and brief periods of intentional laughter; it often concludes with positive statements about happiness.
I agree that funny movies and jokes and games of all kinds can be useful tools to pry us loose from crippling seriousness. Still, I prefer to begin with a simple, direct approach: three to five minutes of straight-out,straight-ahead, intentional belly laughter. It’s very easy to learn and easy to practice. I’ll teach it to you.
I do it with patients individually or in groups, when the atmosphere is thick with smothering self-importance or self-defeating, progress-impeding self-pity. It’s not a panacea, a cure-all. But, again and again, I’ve seen it get energetic juices flowing, rebalance agitation-driven minds, melt trauma-frozen bodies, dispel clouds of doubt and doom, and let in the light of Hope. This laughter needs to begin with effort. It must force its way through forests of self-consciousness and self-pity, crack physical and emotional walls erected by remembered hurt and present pain.
Once you decide to do it, the process is simple. You stand with your knees slightly bent, arms loose, and begin, forcing the laughter up from your belly, feeling it contract, pushing out the sounds—barks, chuckles, giggles. You keep going, summoning the will and energy to churn sound up and out. Start with three or four minutes and increase when you feel more is needed.
You can laugh anytime you feel yourself tightening up with tension, pumping yourself up with self-importance, or freezing with fear. And the more intense those feelings are, the more shut-down and self-righteous, the more pained and lost and hopeless you are, the more important laughter is. Then laughter may even be lifesaving. After a few minutes of forced laughter, effort may dissolve, and the laughter itself may take charge. Now each unwilled, involuntary, body-shaking, belly-aching jolt provokes the next in a waterfall of laughter.
Laughter can be contagious. Other people will want to laugh with you.
And after laughing, as you become relaxed and less serious, you may find that people relate to you differently. Sensing the change in you, they may greet you or smile at you on the street. And you may find that you’re happy to see them and that you enjoy the warmth of this new connection.
Don’t take my word for any of this. Do the experiment with daily laughter and see.
James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma from which this article is excerpted.
About the Author:
Dr. James Gordon is the author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma (HarperOne; September 2019). He is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. Dr. Gordon is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, former researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health and, Chair of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, and a clinical professor of Psychiatry and Family Medicine at Georgetown Medical School. He authored or edited ten previous books, including Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-stage Journey Out of Depression. He has written often for numerous popular publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian, as well as in professional journals. He has served as an expert for such outlets as 60 Minutes, the Today show, Good Morning America, CBS Sunday Morning, Nightline, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and many others. For more information, please visit https://jamesgordonmd.com and follow the author on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.