I thought it might be helpful to post a list of frequently asked questions, or FAQs, about post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and somatic therapy. Please note: Despite the format of this post, these answers only reflect general trends I see frequently. None of these answers constitute any therapeutic advice for any individual. Please consult with a qualified professional for that. See also my post here regarding terms for use of this website.
1. WHAT IS TRAUMA?
In the somatic perspective, trauma is in the body, not in the event. It’s the body’s internal reaction of overwhelm to any circumstances that are bigger than its ability to cope.
According to Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing (SE) therapy, the fight or flight response can’t complete itself because the person’s defenses or coping resources are overwhelmed. Whatever happpened was too big, or too much, or for too long. So the response becomes stuck in the body, causing symptoms. Not surprisingly, then, some people experience a lot of energy from trauma: anxiety, irritability, hypervigilance, etc. Others’ bodies say, “whoa, this is too much!” and so they shut down and experience depression, low energy, numbness.
Incidentally, this framework explains why several different people can have very different reactions to the very same event. It also explains why children are more easily traumatized: They don’t have physical strength, life experience, or independence to fight things off, or flee, so they are easily overwhemed. It’s also noteworthy that trauma can be in reaction to either external circumstances or internal, such as injury or illness.
2. WHY AM I FEELING THIS WAY? IT ISN’T LOGICAL! AM I CRAZY?
Remember, traumatic stress is survival energy that’s stuck in the body. It is a huge amount of the body’s life energy, trying to survive! So that’s why it can feel so immense and out of control.
Dr. Levine defines trauma as a normal response to abnormal, intolerable circumstances. So no, people who have post-traumatic stress or something similar, aren’t “crazy” in the sense of out of touch with reality. If we can slow down and really listen to what our bodies are trying to say, with the assistance of a skilled facilitator–we often see that they are really in touch with reality–even if it’s the reality of the past, not the present.
3. WHY CAN’T I RELAX?
Again, because at some level the body thinks it has to act NOW in order to survive. That’s not compatible with relaxing or resting. Many cases of insomnia come from this type of problem.
4. BUT I DIDN’T HAVE ANY TRAUMA. I KNOW SO MANY PEOPLE WHO HAD IT MUCH WORSE THAN I DID. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?
Well, we all know about what is sometimes called “Big T” Trauma: things that are conventionally recognized as trauma. These include being assaulted, being in a war, or a big car crash, or a natural disaster.
However, there’s not nearly as much recognition of “small t” trauma: things that can still be overwhelming, even though people aren’t aware their bodies might react this way. Common examples of “small t trauma” include: surgeries, childhood illnesses, falls, loss of a significant relationship. Young children, whose bodies and nervous systems are still developing, are particularly sensitive to what might seem like small disruptions, or disruptions that are acknowledged but seen as necessary or for the child’s own good.
There are also many underacknowledged categories of trauma, including racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination; poverty; and academic trauma, which may or may not relate to a history of having struggled with learning disabilities.
5. IS IT PERMANENT?
As Dr. Levine frequently points out, humans are designed to endure and overcome tremendous adversity. Many of us have survived and even thrived after incredibly difficult circumstances. We have systems in our bodies that help us move the stuck activation through and out; and I am forever grateful to Dr. Levine and his colleagues for “discovering” and learning how to access these recovery systems.
I would add, the degree to which an individual recovers depends on several different factors. I have seen many cases of complete recovery, and many other cases of substantial improvement. In my opinion, symptoms of traumatic experience tend to be much less permanent than traditionally thought. In any case, it’s nearly impossible to begin healing with the idea that it won’t work, or that the condition will never improve.
6. OKAY, SO, HOW DO I GET RID OF IT?
Because these events and symptoms tend to be overwhelming, it’s really important to work with someone who’s well trained and competent in resolving these symptoms. And no, this post is truly not an ad for my practice. In my experience, this is just the way it is. People are social creatures, and we need each other’s help. We’re wired that way, as a species. We need a stable, calm, competent nervous system to help us move past this stuff.
Fortunately, there are many good practitioners out there. SE itself has truly become a global community, with trainings and practitioners available on every continent besides Antarctica! There are many other trauma healing modalities, including Hakomi, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Bodynamics, EMDR, and others.
In my view, SE has a particular strength. This is a vital ingredient; without it, I have seen many other trauma therapies go awry, even inadvertently worsening symptoms. The first thing we SE practitioners are taught is how to titrate. That means, we do not expose the client to more of their own stress reaction than they can tolerate. In my view, taking it a little bit at a time, and gradually building the client’s capacity, often makes the difference between success and failure in trauma therapies.
So, those are a few of the most frequent questions I hear regarding stress, trauma and recovery. I’ll update this post from time to time if I can think of anything further to add to it. My warmest wishes to all on their life’s journey towards health and healing.