Jeffrey Rutstein

Dr. Jeffrey Rutstein is a clinical psychologist, an expert in the treatment of trauma, a certified Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic psychotherapist, and a meditation teacher who has been in private practice for over 35 years. He has practiced meditation for over 50 years. He has devoted his professional life to helping people reduce their suffering and struggle while empowering them to claim their strengths, their talents, and their unique abilities to live a more fulfilling and rich life.

Author photo © Josh Hailey

Also By Author

Unwinding Trauma and PTSD: The Nervous System, Somatic...

The mind-body connection is still a new concept in Western medicine. Descartes’s declaration “I think, therefore I am” encouraged many to view the mind as separate from and superior to the bodyfor almost 400 years! So, to understand the discovery of feedback loops in the nervous system linking body and mind is to undergo a major paradigm shift, with radical implications for how we view and treat conditions like trauma and PTSD—and how you can empower yourself around your own healing journey.

Why Embodiment Decreases for Trauma Survivors

Until trauma survivors feel their safety has been truly restored, their nervous system relies on defensive mechanisms like dissociation, numbing out, or immobilization. This can feel subjectively like becoming a two-dimensional “stick figure” energetically, with a body that’s barely there.

If you feel like you’re not really inhabiting your body, know that it’s not your fault and you probably had very good historical reasons to leave it. With recent advances in mind-body therapies and somatic psychology, however, there are many ways—when you’re ready—to safely return to experiencing your fully embodied self. 

Perhaps the most popular of these therapies is Somatic Experiencing®.

What Is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic Experiencing is a form of therapy originally developed by Dr. Peter Levine. It proceeds from the premise that trauma is not just “in your head.” Though you may feel off-kilter psychologically in the wake of trauma, you’re not “crazy”you have a nervous system that has been put into overdrive.

The body can’t distinguish physical trauma from mental or emotional trauma, and this leads the brain, once you’ve had trauma, to get stuck in a state of believing that you’re in perpetual danger.

Without a way to shake off the effects of having been in a dangerous situation in the past, trauma survivors disconnect from their bodies; the trauma gets “frozen” inside. With this frozenness in the body, your emotions can become dysregulated easily; you might at times feel spacey, agitated, depressed, panicky, collapsed—or all of the above.

Again, it’s not your fault that any of this is happening: dissociating and numbing are a natural  defense mechanism. Still, it may take some work, often within a therapeutic container, to start to “thaw” the frozenness or unwind the trauma.

Somatic Experiencing practitioners help clients increase their awareness of their kinesthetic, embodied experience, and lead them through techniques to gradually release stresses that have been locked into the body. Allowing both physical responses and emotions to come through, bit by bit, restores psychological balance and can help resolve even long-term PTSD.

How It All Works: Polyvagal Theory

Neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. Stephen Porges synthesized Polyvagal Theory as a way to explain human behavior in terms of the evolution of our autonomic nervous system. It not only provides a biological frame for parts of Somatic Experiencing, it has helped therapists develop a host of somatically attuned interventions and refined the way they interact with clients.

The centerpiece of Polyvagal Theory is the vagus nerve. This long nerve mediates what Porges calls the “social engagement” system. The vagus nerve’s ventral branch supports social engagement: a calm and playful, pro-social state. Its dorsal branch supports the opposite: immobilization (characterized by dissociation, depression, numbness, or “freeze.”)

If you undergo a trauma, the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve activates a state of immobilization. On the other hand, when you feel safe and embodied, your parasympathetic nervous system functions smoothly and you can (ideally) engage socially. What makes all this possible is neuroception, perception that takes place without our conscious awareness, tipping us from safety into other modes, like fight, flight, or freeze.

Clinicians trained in Polyvagal Theory support clients in making shifts in their autonomic responses, from “freeze” and shutdown to fight or flight—to safety—in order to restore a healthy range of responses and the feeling of being safe. 

Practicing co-regulation with their clients helps the clients to re-establish inner safety and other positive feeling states.

How You Can Increase Your Embodiment

Trauma severs us from our body, and embodiment brings us back. 

Embodiment practices like somatic therapies, qigong, and various athletic activities are some of the best medicine around for the nervous system. Even just taking a long walk while paying attention to your feet making contact with the earth can be quite supportive.

Sounds True also has created The Healing Trauma Program to offer support for your healing. The course has a faculty of 13 esteemed trauma experts—including Somatic Experiencing founder Dr. Peter Levine, Polyvagal Theory expert Deb Dana, Dr. Gabor Maté, Konda Mason, Thomas Hübl, and many others. The program takes place over nine months and is truly an immersion into the world of trauma recovery, with teachings, guided practices, live practice sessions and Live Q&As. Find out more about The Healing Trauma Program.

A Compassionate Approach to Recognizing Trauma Bonding

The theory of attachment styles became popularized in the last 15 years; now trauma is (finally) getting recognition from the mainstream. But most of us aren’t yet clear about the very deep connection that exists between trauma and certain attachment styles. This is where the concept of “trauma bonding” comes into play.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding happens when we get attached to someone who is often neglectful or abusive (physically, emotionally, or psychologically), but is also occasionally kind. When we’re attached to someone like this, we typically explain away their bad behavior, claiming “they had a hard day” or “it was my fault they got mad at me.” Rationalization offers us a semblance of protection from seeing the reality of the danger and inequality in the relationship. 

It’s common to form a trauma bonding pattern when one of our parents or partners is erratic, abusive, or absent. But often the template of trauma bonding gets applied to many of our relationships.

Signs You Have a Trauma Bond

If you’re in a trauma bond relationship right now, you may make dramatic or sudden life changes or even great sacrifices for the sake of the relationship to the detriment of outside friendships, family, and your autonomy. 

Even if the original, harmful relationship is now a thing of the past (e.g., you moved out, you broke up with the manipulative partner, or your former abuser has died), the trauma bonding pattern may remain embedded until you learn how to consciously uproot it.

Signs this trauma bonding template is still present can include:

  • Emotionally caretaking others while your own needs and desires are swept under the rug
  • Acting as if you continually need to prove your worth to others (and yourself)
  • Avoiding being authentic or open because it feels like too great a risk
  • Feeling frustrated, exhausted, hypervigilant, or unsupported in relationships due to perceiving pressure coming from others
  • A pattern of feeling disempowered around coworkers, a spouse, or family members

What Causes Trauma Bonding?

When we experience stress and feel (consciously or unconsciously) we’re in danger, our sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response. As long as that circuitry is activated, we’re not able to plan for the future or assess risks very clearly; our nervous system gets locked in survival mode to get through the stress. In other words, it’s not your fault that you can’t see what’s going on.

The challenge is heightened because of the intermittent reinforcement that characterizes trauma bonds: we receive occasional comfort or love in the relationship, which is sprinkled on top of the typical abuse or neglect. Like other forms of intermittent reinforcement, it’s an addictive combination to be exposed to, and one that hampers our ability to understand we’re being mistreated. 

Because we focus so intently on the positive reinforcement we experience from time to time with our abuser, we contort ourselves psychologically to try to get the love as often as we can. Once this pattern is established, it is naturally hard to stop engaging it—again, because of the way our nervous system developed. Getting outside support to stop the cycle is an act of strength and wisdom.

Should You Break a Trauma Bond?  

If you’re in clear and real danger, it is most important to find a way to safely remove yourself from harm. Over the longer term, the best approach is learning to create healthy relational boundaries so as not to form or reform trauma bonds.  

Once you start to become aware of the trauma bonding pattern operating in you, you can recognize and address the behaviors it causes. You can uncover and listen to your buried needs and wants, and reclaim your personal power and freedom. Doing this can help you shift your nervous system out of past trauma bonding tendencies and toward new possibilities, including nurturing mutual relationships with people who are interested in your happiness and will support your thriving.

To find out more about healing traumas (including trauma bonding), please check out The Healing Trauma Program, hosted by Jeffrey Rutstein, PsyD, CHT.

Healing the Trauma that You Don’t Know You Have

Most people living today are more traumatized than they know. But how could that be? 

When we experience very distressing events, our nervous system goes into a state of overwhelm (or what neuroscientists call dysregulation). You may end up feeling less like yourself, unable to have a healthy range of experiences, but can’t easily connect the dots mentally or heal emotionally. It’s not your fault that this happens—it’s your nervous system’s built-in way of protecting you, and it happens outside your conscious awareness. 

However, you can learn to recognize the effects of trauma. You can follow those threads through the maze of your past, to find ways of healing in the present that will improve your health mentally and emotionally.

Types of Trauma

While individuals differ in their responses, there are broad categories of trauma that we should all know exist: childhood trauma, racial trauma, sexual trauma, religious trauma, narcissistic abuse, war, pandemics and other natural disasters, and intergenerational trauma. Three of these types are briefly covered below.

Childhood Trauma

No family is perfect, but some do active harm. Too often, children suffer neglect and physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, often with no outside resources to protect them. Childhood trauma can also happen if the mother is treated violently, someone in the family has substance abuse problems or a mental illness, the parents are going through a divorce or separation, or one of the parents or a sibling dies. 

In all of these situations, because a child’s nervous system is not yet fully developed, the childhood trauma often goes unidentified until something triggers a memory or compounds it, years or decades later.  

Narcissistic Abuse

Many of us know someone who exhibits signs of narcissism, focusing exclusively on themselves and unable to empathize with or “make room for” others. If you’ve suffered abuse by a narcissist, whether they were a parent, partner, or boss, you may no longer trust your instincts in relationships or feel guilty about things that aren’t actually your fault or responsibility. You may feel you have to be “special” to gain recognition, and you may have developed a case of perfectionism to keep away the shame that your abuser made you feel for not living up to their impossible standard.

Global Events: Pandemic Trauma and War Trauma

The pandemic put virtually all of us into a “sustained survival mode” that evoked or caused trauma. The pandemic saw a 25 percent increase in anxiety and depression, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). As a shared trauma, it also led to widespread Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and burnout among health-care workers. It affected parents who had to juggle supervising their children and working from home while schools were closed. And it deeply impacted those who experienced the loss of a loved one unexpectedly to COVID, who were often not able to say goodbye in person, weaving trauma into the fabric of their grief.

The first formally identified cases of PTSD (known as “shell-shock”) were in soldiers who served during World War I. Tragically, wars have been embedded into the human experience since recorded history. No matter whether it be the recent conflict in the Ukraine, the uprising in Iran, or ongoing conflicts elsewhere, the impact on the psyche of those living in those areas is severe. As widespread violence and threats of violence go on, month after month, traumatic stress compounds for both soldiers and civilians living in warzones. Even in areas where conflict is not directly taking place, there can be trauma impressed into those living in ongoing fear of nuclear war or attack.

How Trauma Works in the Nervous System

To understand your trauma, you’ll need to get to know your nervous system and how it responds to signals of danger, real or perceived.

Over the course of human evolution, our nervous system developed three kinds of responses to threats to help us get through dangerous experiences intact. These subsystems are known as: social engagement, sympathetic mobilization, and parasympathetic immobilization systems. They usually operate below our conscious awareness, but when someone experiences ongoing distress or a trauma that doesn’t resolve, the neurological connections behind these responses get strengthened and we become “stuck” in maladaptive patterns—through no fault of our own.

When the social engagement system responds, we look for help or someone to rescue us from the situation. If this response is encouraged, we may habitually “fawn” around others, hoping to appease anyone causing us distress. We can develop too much compassion for others, leading us to forget to care for ourselves, which over time creates more stress and trauma in our nervous system.

When the sympathetic nervous system responds, we engage in “fight, flight, or freeze,” to try to figure out what to do with the threat (freeze), then to subdue it (fight), or else escape it (flight). When this system is “stuck” in overdrive, we may have problems like depression, anxiety, or phobias.

If all other tactics fail, the parasympathetic nervous system can still put us into a collapsed, shut-down state (“faint”), as a way to survive with the least possible amount of damage when fighting or fleeing aren’t possible. This state is linked to depression and dissociation.

Symptoms of Trauma and PTSD

If you’ve sustained any form of trauma in the past, you may experience various difficulties, depending on the way the trauma got stuck in your system:

  • Anxiety or Panic Attacks
  • Denial
  • Feeling emotionally numb or hopeless
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulty connecting with others
  • Overwhelming shame or guilt
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Addictions
  • Insomnia and dysregulated sleep
  • Flashbacks

Another way to determine whether you’ve dealt with trauma is to think about how you show up in a relationship. Do you enjoy some of your interactions with others, or do you often feel inner pressure around everyone you meet? Do you feel nurtured by one or more people in your life, or do you feel responsible to everyone, all the time? Do you feel uncertain around your loved ones, like you’re not really sure you can rely on them? 

When we’ve experienced trauma in a past relationship, be it with a neglectful parent, an erratic partner, or an abusive boss, our nervous system tracks the impact, and it affects our present relationships—until we shed light on what’s happened and learn how to work through its effects on us.

Treatments for Trauma

In the last few decades, neurobiology has blossomed and cross-pollinated with psychology. New discoveries have been made, new theories have been tested, and thankfully, a range of therapies and treatments for trauma have been developed to help us cultivate deep self-regulation. Among them are somatic therapies such as Somatic Experiencing and sensorimotor psychotherapy, trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and “brainspotting,” and trauma-informed psychodynamic therapy.

Therapy is a wonderful option, but if you’ve been through individual therapy or want additional support, there are other ways to learn skills to work through trauma. 

By committing to your own healing, you’ll not only create greater balance in your life, you will stop trauma from being passed on to the next generation—and you’ll bring a healing presence into the world.

If you’d like support in your commitment to healing trauma, you can check out The Healing Trauma Program, hosted by Jeffrey Rutstein, PsyD, CHT.

You Might Also Enjoy

Embracing Empathy as Your Superpower

What do I do when a loved one is suffering? How do I have empathy if I’m getting a divorce or losing my job? If my family treats me unfairly? Or if I’m emotionally overwhelmed or in chronic pain?

If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, I’ve written The Genius of Empathy for you. It also includes a beautiful foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

In the book, I present empathy as a healing force that helps you overcome obstacles in your life with dignity, grace, and power. As a psychiatrist and empath, I draw from my insights and present techniques from my own life and from the healing journeys of my clients, students, and readers. As I say in the book, “Empathy softens the struggle, quiets the unkind voices, and lets you befriend yourself again.”

Empathy doesn’t mean being “on call” 24 hours a day for those in need. Empaths can often wear an invisible sign that says, “I can help you.” However, if you want to heal yourself, have better relationships, and contribute to healing our tumultuous world, you must learn how to set healthy boundaries and observe, not absorb, the energy of others.

To start taking a more proactive role in how much empathy you give others at any one time, I suggest that you keep in mind the following “rights.” They will help you maintain a healthy mindset and prevent or lessen any empathy overwhelm that might arise:

  • I have the right to say a loving, positive “no” or “no, thank-you.”
  • I have the right to set limits with how long I listen to people’s problems.
  • I have the right to rest and not be always available to everyone.
  • I have the right to quiet peacefulness in my home and in my heart.

Practice: Take a Sound Break to Repair Yourself

Plan periods of quiet to recover from our noisy, fast-paced world. This helps calm your nervous system and your mind, an act of self-empathy.

It’s rejuvenating to schedule at least five minutes of quiet or, even better, complete silence for an hour or more where no one can intrude. As I do, hang a Do Not Disturb sign on your office or bedroom door. During this reset period, you’ve officially escaped from the world. You’re free of demands and noxious sounds. You may also get noise canceling earbuds to block out noise.

If too much quiet is unsettling, go for a walk in a local park or a peaceful neighborhood to decompress from excessive sound stimulation. Simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other, which is called mindful walking. Nothing to do. Nothing to be. Move slowly and refrain from talking. If thoughts come, keep refocusing on your breath, each inhalation and exhalation. Just letting life settle will regenerate your body and empathic heart.

Embracing your empathy does require courage. It can feel scary. If you’re ready to discover its healing power, I would be honored to be your guide to helping you in overcoming your fears and obstacles, and enhancing this essential skill for long-term change.

Though many of us have never met, I feel connected to you. Connection is what fuels life. While empathy is what allows you to find peace. With both, we can make sense of this world together.

Book
Learn More
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | Sounds True

Digital Audio
Ignite empathy as a superpower for personal healing, deeper relationships, and more potent work in the world. New York Times bestselling author Dr. Judith Orloff draws on insights from neuroscience, psychology, and energy medicine to show us how to access our sensitivities, soothe our nervous systems, and embody our most fierce and authentic selves.

Learn More

Anita Moorjani: Embodying Love in a Fear-Based World

How do we stem the tides of fear and aggression sweeping over our divided world? How can we spread the love that heals and uplifts everyone? Sharing insights from her bestselling book, Dying to Be Me, and her latest work, Sensitive Is the New Strong, Anita Moorjani offers her hope-giving answers to these questions of compelling urgency for our times. 

Tune in for this remarkable teacher’s inspiring (and in many ways utterly mind-blowing) conversation with Sounds True’s founder, Tami Simon, as they discuss: a nonlinear understanding of time; living fearlessly; how to attune to the helping beings that surround us at all times; raising your vibrational frequency; the practice of asking for signs; following your intuition; how humanity’s belief in scarcity is contributing to our self-destruction; the root cause of the divisiveness in today’s world, and why we need a new way of defining “strength”; moving beyond limitations inherited from our families and cultures; the consequences of repressing oneself; becoming unapologetically who we are; the body as a reflection of our state of consciousness; multiple lives, one soul; embracing your gifts as an empath; and more.

Note: This episode originally aired on Sounds True One, where these special episodes of Insights at the Edge are available to watch live on video and with exclusive access to Q&As with our guests. Learn more at join.soundstrue.com.

What is Somatic Abolitionism?

Somatic Abolitionism is a living, embodied anti-racist practice, a form of culture building, and a way of being in the world. In this immersive audio workshop, Resmaa Menakem presents ten sessions of insights and body-based practices to help listeners liberate themselves—and all of us—from racialized trauma and the strictures of white-body supremacy.

Listen to the first 15 minutes of this audio program:

This is an adapted excerpt from You, Me, Us and Racialized Trauma by Resmaa Menakem.

You, Me, Us, and Racialized Trauma

Somatic Abolitionism is a living, embodied anti-racist practice, a form of culture building, and a way of being in the world. In an immersive audio workshop, Resmaa Menakem presents ten sessions of insights and body-based practices to help listeners liberate themselves—and all of us—from racialized trauma and the strictures of white-body supremacy.

Learn More

>