How does your body react when you think about working with trauma? Does it relax and becomes curious? or does it tense up and constrict? For most of us it will be the second option. Basically this is because we are animals whose nervous systems are wired for surviving. And just thinking of trauma or a traumatic or stressful event will trigger a survival response in our nervous system. Luckily, there is another option.
The nervous system
American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. Maclean coined the term ‘Triune Brain’. While researching the brain he discovered three differents parts:
- The Reptile Brain (Brain Stem) which is designed to survive
- The Monkey/Emotional Brain (Lymbic Brain) which is designed to interact with other members of society
- The Human Brain (Neo Cortex) which is designed to analyze, plan, think…
(The research is now outdated, but the principles described still apply)
One of the most useful takeaways I’ve found is that neither our brain stem, nor our lymbic system has an understanding of the concept of time. Our Neo Cortex on the contrary is linear, rational and understands time. In other words, this means that for our brain stem and lymbic brain there is no difference between thinking of a traumatic event from years ago, and the event itself. By just thinking about it (or having another trigger like a smell or a color) our brains will start to create the same neurotransmitters and hormones as if we were experiencing the event itself. And as the brain start to flood our body with these transmitters and hormones, we start to feel as if there is a real threat. And as we start to perceive this threat through the sensations in our body, our brain will start to move even more into a survival response.
The Trauma Vortex
In trauma therapy (e.g. Somatic Experiencing) this is what we call the trauma vortex. A viscous circle that makes us go deeper into the re-experience of the threatening event(s). And this is exactly what we fear when thinking about working with our traumas. However, when this happens, it is actually almost never healing or helpful in dealing with our traumas. In simple words, the only thing that happened is that both our nervous system and our bodies reinforced the wiring that is associated with the traumatic events. We walked the only path in the jungle that we’ve known again. We’ve had an experience that can be described as intense, and we might think we’ve worked on our trauma. And nothing really has changed in our nervous system wiring.
The Healing Vortex
There is another possibility. When we come to this jungle area in our system, instead of just starting to walk this well known path, we go to the edge of the jungle and slowly start creating a new path through the jungle.
A path where we have more agency in our reactions, a path where our nervous system will be more regulated when we would walk through the jungle. We help our system complete the defensive responses (fight,flight,..) that it wasn’t able to complete in the original event. Basically, instead of revisiting the trauma, we help our nervous system and our body to repair by creating experiences that are helpful, regulating and widen or window of tolerance.
This is what should happen when you work — either in a personal session or in a group setting like a workshop — with your trauma. If you really want to change your wiring, let’s start by creating new positive experiences in your nervous system connected to the old triggers.
Disclaimer: Every short story lacks nuance. So there is a lot more to unpack and a lot more clarification possible in the story above. In keeping the story this simple my attempt is to convey a general broad perspective towards how working with trauma can/should be an experience that opens up new possibilities in our nervous system.
Author: Chris Camp
Date: 16 October 2022