Diane Poole Heller: We Are Designed for Connection

March 19, 2019

Diane Poole Heller: We Are Designed for Connection

Diane Poole Heller March 19, 2019

Diane Poole Heller is a licensed therapist and noted expert in trauma, integrative healing, and secure attachment. With Sounds True, she has published The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Diane about the different attachment styles that we pick up in childhood and carry subconsciously into our adult behaviors. Diane explains how these attachment patterns are engraved in both the mind and body, highlighting the long-term effects of trauma and neglect. Tami and Diane discuss strategies for coping with and healing from insecure and disorganized childhood attachment. Finally, Diane shares a visualization practice for disidentifying from generational trauma and strategies for increasing our innate connection to others. (67 minutes)

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Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D., is an established expert in the field of Child and Adult Attachment Theory and Models, trauma resolution, and integrative healing techniques. Diane developed her own signature series on Adult Attachment called DARe (Dynamic Attachment Re-patterning experience) also known as SATe (Somatic Attachment Training experience). Dr. Heller began her work with Dr. Peter Levine, founder of SETI (Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute) in 1989. As Senior Faculty for SETI, she taught Somatic Experiencing® trauma work internationally for over 25 years. As a dynamic speaker and teacher, Diane has been featured at prestigious international events and conferences. She is the author of numerous articles in the field. Her book “Crash Course” on auto accident trauma resolution is used worldwide as a resource for healing a variety of overwhelming life events. Her film, “Surviving Columbine,” produced with Cherokee Studios, aired on CNN and supported community healing in the aftermath of the school shootings. Sounds True recently published Dr. Heller’s audio book: “Healing Your Attachment Wounds: How to Create Deep and Lasting Relationships” and her upcoming book, “The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.”

As developer of DARe and president of Trauma Solutions, a psychotherapy training organization, Dr. Heller supports the helping community through an array of specialized topics. She maintains a limited private practice in Louisville, Colorado.

Author photo © Josh Levin


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Founded Sounds True in 1985 as a multimedia publishing house with a mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom. She hosts a popular weekly podcast called Insights at the Edge, where she has interviewed many of today's leading teachers. Tami lives with her wife, Julie M. Kramer, and their two spoodles, Rasberry and Bula, in Boulder, Colorado.

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Helping Someone with a Disorganized Attachment Style

You may not identify with the disorganized adaptation yourself, but perhaps people close to you live with this attachment style.

Clearly, this is not intended to serve as an end-all guide to helping these people (or anyone else, for that matter), but if you want to promote safety and secure relating in others, I highly recommend trying out the following habits. And if you’re a person of the disorganized style, I hope you’ll feel empowered to request the following practices from people you love:

Communicate simply and clearly.

As I illustrated at the beginning of this chapter, people with disorganized attachment often grew up in households with confusing mixed messages. For this reason, it’s important to be as clear and direct as possible in your speech, especially when it comes to instructions or directions, or when your partner or child seems stuck in indecision or confusion. This occurs most profoundly in the freeze state, when people can have trouble finding the right words, responding at all, or even forming basic thoughts. When this occurs, giving the disorganized person as few options as possible is the best idea. Even in a less-charged state, they might have trouble choosing where to go to dinner among a number of favorite restaurants, and under stress, it’s best to reduce any options down to two or three, max. Remember also to describe and explain things to children using age-appropriate concepts and language.

Be mindful of your tone of voice.

How we use our voice—especially the prosody, or tone of voice—communicates safety or danger to others. A melodic voice that employs fluid modulation and intonation fosters a sense of safety, whereas a monotone or robotic voice comes across as cold, uncaring, and in some cases, threatening. We often use a more musical tone of voice with babies and animals, our voice going up and down with affection in an exaggerated, singsong way. I’m not suggesting going around using the same type of voice with adults, but modulating your tone will certainly help when you’re speaking with others.

Think about how people’s voices change when they’re angry or feel endangered; that’s an evolutionary cue to the community that something’s wrong. When danger occurs, we are biologically and evolutionarily designed to shift our tone to alert the tribe. Women’s voices tend to become high-pitched and shrill, while men lower their tone and get louder, producing a booming voice. It immediately signals to other people that there is danger, that they should stop what they are doing and prepare to defend themselves. But when our voice does this under stress during a discussion or conflict with our partner—a relatively safe person (hopefully) whom we love—it can easily trigger their threat response, shifting them toward fighting or wanting to escape. So if you’re interested in reconciliation and a positive result for your relationship, it will benefit you to be mindful of how you use your voice. Practicing a calming, soothing, and well-modulated voice will reduce a sense of threat in your partner when you are trying to work out intimacy issues or relationship concerns. Shrill or booming, threat-stimulating voices will trigger our amygdala, or reptilian brain, that’s engaged in promoting survival responses, making our partner appear as an enemy rather than as our beloved.

Practice safe touch.

Using touch in a way that’s loving and conscious of another person’s boundaries also creates a feeling of safety. Physical touch amplifies anything we might be expressing verbally. In Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, Patti Wood says that we communicate regulation through regulated touch. That is, when we are regulated in our own body, we can convey physiological regulation even with a handshake. The key is to be centered and grounded in your own nervous system—within your own range of resiliency—before you employ touch in this way. Wood asserts that a simple, regulated handshake can offer more regulation than three hours of affirming, empowered conversation. Safe touch may help you and your partner regulate each other. Be mindful, however, that if your dysregulation is severe, it might be too much to touch another without dysregulating them. The chemistry or energy of your skin on theirs is communicated in a tangible way, so keep in mind the importance of taking time to establish your own regulation first if you can manage it. Think about how regulating hugs are when the other person is calm, loving, and safe. I’m not talking about those quick, pat-you-on-the-back kind of hugs, but the ones that involve bellies touching one another in a full-contact embrace. Try it with someone you feel close to. You can feel each other’s bodies regulating from this type of contact.

One technique I often use with clients is to begin by simply sitting next to the person. I feel what that’s like for a bit—getting a sense of their energy, so to speak—and allow them to get used to me. I ask if it is okay to place one of my palms near their back, between their shoulder blades, starting in their energy feld about three or four inches away from their skin, checking in with them to see how they’re doing. If that goes well, and they agree, I gently put my hand on their body and find the right amount of pressure—too much or too little can make a big difference. I also ask them to let me know where the best spot on their back is, and I shift my hand in response. By doing so, I am adjusting my contact in attunement with their request, so they have the experience of having their needs met as I convey safety, presence, and care. For ongoing support, we can teach our partners or family members to do this, too.

Look at others (and use facial expressions) with kindness.

How we use our face when we express ourself can also communicate a sense of safety to our partner. The eyes are of particular importance. Take the idea of what I call “the beam gleam.” It’s a soft, safe gaze you see between couples that display secure attachment. It involves a lot of eye contact, of course, but also a look that expresses appreciation, love, and a sense that the other person is special. As I mentioned, it’s important to invite this type of connection only when the person is available for it and not when they are dealing with shame, signaled by gaze aversion. Often their shame needs to be processed a bit before you can establish a nourishing connection with an attachment gaze. These nonverbal messages of connection and kindness really do trigger other people’s safety responses. Think about the difference in your partner’s face when they’re angry (scowling, tense) and when they’re happy to be with you (smiling, eyes wide and bright). People read your gaze and facial expressions all the time, even if they’re not conscious of it.

This is an excerpt from The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships by Diane Poole Heller, PhD.

Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D., is an established expert in the field of Child and Adult Attachment Theory and Models, trauma resolution, and integrative healing techniques. Diane developed her own signature series on Adult Attachment called DARe (Dynamic Attachment Re-patterning experience) also known as SATe (Somatic Attachment Training experience). Dr. Heller began her work with Dr. Peter Levine, founder of SETI (Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute) in 1989. As Senior Faculty for SETI, she taught Somatic Experiencing® trauma work internationally for over 25 years. As a dynamic speaker and teacher, Diane has been featured at prestigious international events and conferences. She is the author of numerous articles in the field.

Buy your copy of The Power of Attachment at your favorite bookseller!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

 

 

 

 

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Tracing the Roots of Your Attachment Style

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Let’s face it: life is sometimes quite hard. It doesn’t matter who you are; all of us inevitably bump into challenges and hardships that are beyond our control. If you’re on this planet long enough, you’re going to be hit with some form of misattunement or loss or abuse or divorce or disease or a car accident or an environmental disaster or war or who knows what. Sometimes these events are so overwhelming that we don’t even have the capacity to react or respond to them. You can’t stop these things from happening; they’re just part of what it means to be human. And to make matters even trickier, epigenetic studies now suggest that—in a manner of speaking—we may inherit the struggles of our ancestors. In one way or another, we’re affected by everything that our grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on went through and suffered from. But we’re also the products of their resiliency. Throughout time and our evolution as a species, people have been experiencing hardships and doing their best to endure and survive them.

So, life is hard, and it isn’t your fault. That’s just the way it is, which means that you can stop blaming yourself as if you alone are responsible. There are countless ways for any of us to end up experiencing trauma, and most of them have nothing to do with how we live our life or what kind of person we are. That’s the bad news.

But there’s good news, too.

We can do something about it.

We’re all born with an amazing capacity to survive, heal, and thrive, which is precisely the reason we’ve made it this far to begin with. It’s what we’re built for.

Before we go on, I want to be clear about what I mean when I say the word trauma. Without getting too technical, trauma is what results from experiencing an event over which you have little control; sometimes—as in the case with major accidents—you don’t even have time to brace yourself for the impact. These events overwhelm your ability to function normally, and this can make you lose trust in your feelings, thoughts, and even your body. In this way, trauma is a form of tremendous fear, loss of control, and profound helplessness.

I’ve also started thinking of trauma in terms of connection. The theme of broken connection has come up in my work repeatedly over the years: broken connection to our body; broken connection to our sense of self; broken connection to others, especially those we love; broken connection to feeling centered or grounded on the planet; broken connection to God, Source, Life Force, well-being, or however we might describe or relate to our inherent sense of spirituality, open-hearted awareness, and beingness. This theme has been so prominent in my work that broken connection and trauma have become almost synonymous to me.

When trauma hits us or we’ve experienced a lot of relational wounding, we can feel like we’re utterly disconnected—like we’re a tiny little me who’s isolated and all alone, as if we’re in our own little bubble floating around in a sea of distress, cut off from everyone and everything. I think it’s our work to pop that imaginary bubble, or at least to build bridges that connect us to others we care about. Unresolved trauma, in my opinion, has led to a nationwide epidemic of loneliness and hurt. And it isn’t just in our country. The evidence of this type of pain worldwide is readily available any time you turn on the news. That’s not the whole story, fortunately. We can heal and change. All of us are capable of healing and repairing these severed connections: to ourself, other people, the planet, and whatever it is that holds it all together.

But we can’t do it alone.

First of all, we not capable of healing in isolation. We need other people. Stan Tatkin, clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and developer of A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT) along with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, says that we are hurt in relationship and we heal in relationship. The presence of those close to us makes a difference even in the most dire circumstances. Just to mention one study among thousands, a hospital in Illinois recently demonstrated that coma patients recovered more quickly when they were able to hear the voices of their family members.

Like it or not, we’re all on this crazy and amazing human journey together.

We can never be completely safe, but we can move toward relative safety in life and in our relationships. We will never have our needs met perfectly, and we will never be (nor have) the perfect parent. Thankfully, that’s not required for deep and lasting healing. As we grow out of our wounded self and become a more securely attached, resilient being, we can foster the same process in others, becoming intimacy initiators and connection coaches for our families, friends, and the larger world.

Let’s take a look at both sides of our parents’ behavior. Each of us is a work in progress, and I’m sure your parents had some unfinished business along with their more admirable qualities. You may find this exercise helpful in taking a deeper look into what was problematic and painful as well as the gifts your family bestowed. So often our memories of difficult times overshadow the benefits we may have gained, so this exercise is aimed at helping us see more of the whole picture—to acknowledge and grieve wounds as well as celebrate wisdom gained. Of course, often we gain wisdom and compassion from healing our wounds as well.

 

EXERCISE: Perfectly Imperfect

 

Part One—What Was Missing or Hurtful?

You may want to start this exercise by making a list of the shortcomings or failings of each of your parents—those circumstances or behaviors that had the most negative influence on you as a child. What happened is significant, and how you internalized it is even more so. Sometimes it’s easier to recount our parents’ negative attributes than it is to remember any of their positive ones, especially for those of us with an ambivalent or disorganized attachment style. Our negative experiences may overshadow the everyday neutral or basically good experiences we may have had until we regain a sense of them after healing many early wounds. People with the avoidant attachment style tend to see their histories as mostly fine, until feelings of longing resurface and they realize what they missed relationally.

Part Two—What Was Beneficial or Supportive?

My mother was a tough teacher. She lived with unresolved emotional distress, but she was also fun-loving and generous. Despite sometimes being a less-than-ideal parent, she had her own ways of expressing her love to me with special celebrations, generous gift-giving, helping me with projects close to my heart, and shopping for fun bargains we called “treasure hunting.” My father was similarly complex: he was out of touch with his emotional self and gone a lot for his work, yet he was able to convey his love quietly in a steadfast way through providing for the family, locking the doors at night, fixing my bike, teaching me to water ski, and grilling great food for picnics. He also had the core value of volunteerism that survives in our family to this day. Both of my parents did the best they could under the circumstances, and together they taught us important core values.

Try looking at each of your parents through the lens of how they may have shown you their love. Write down all the ways you have learned important lessons, skills, and insights from your most important caregivers. It can help to describe your mother and father on their best days. As best you can, give them the benefit of the doubt and consider that they were doing the very best they could with whatever level of unresolved trauma or attachment injury they lived with, as well as with whatever resources, education, and healing strategies they had available to them at that time. See if you can detect their deep care amid their imperfections and harming behaviors, no matter how murky or inarticulate they were in expressing that love for you. What do you find?

This is an excerpt from The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships by Diane Poole Heller, PhD.

 

Diane Poole Heller head shotDiane Poole Heller, Ph.D., is an established expert in the field of Child and Adult Attachment Theory and Models, trauma resolution, and integrative healing techniques. Diane developed her own signature series on Adult Attachment called DARe (Dynamic Attachment Re-patterning experience) also known as SATe (Somatic Attachment Training experience). Dr. Heller began her work with Dr. Peter Levine, founder of SETI (Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute) in 1989. As Senior Faculty for SETI, she taught Somatic Experiencing® trauma work internationally for over 25 years. As a dynamic speaker and teacher, Diane has been featured at prestigious international events and conferences. She is the author of numerous articles in the field.

Her book Crash Course, on auto accident trauma resolution, is used worldwide as a resource for healing a variety of overwhelming life events. Her film, Surviving Columbine, produced with Cherokee Studios, aired on CNN and supported community healing in the aftermath of the school shootings. Sounds True recently published Dr. Heller’s audiobook Healing Your Attachment Wounds: How to Create Deep and Lasting Relationships, and her book, The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.

As a developer of DARe and president of Trauma Solutions, a psychotherapy training organization, Dr. Heller supports the helping community through an array of specialized topics. She maintains a limited private practice in Louisville, Colorado.

 

Power of Attachment Book Cover

Buy your copy of The Power of Attachment at your favorite bookseller!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

4 Tips to Get Back to Secure Attachment

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When we talk about what secure attachment looks like, it’s not unusual for people to give themselves a hard time. It seems like such a high bar, and when we look at it that way, it’s easy to feel not quite up to snuff. I can relate to that feeling, and I think it’s quite normal for everyone to feel that way from time to time.

We all have emotional reactions we’re not proud of, and most of us contribute our fair share to arguments and unnecessarily difficult conversations. And many of us simply aren’t as present as we’d like to be. We don’t feel quite here enough—either we’re distracted by one thing or another, or we’re not as attentive as we think we should be. Again, all of this is normal. Most of these things happen regularly—at least they do for me! The main point is to care enough to notice when things are less than ideal. That means having enough presence to know that things are a little off and enough compassion to want to do a retake, to make things better. There’s more wiggle room than you’d think. It’s okay to goof up, make mistakes, and be less than our perfect self. The attachment system is a forgiving system, and it makes a world of difference to register when we miss each other and mend when things go awry as soon as possible.

We can all do a better job, of course, and that’s where practice comes in. I want to offer you ways to practice fostering secure attachment in yourself and others. These are methods for boosting your secure attachment skills. The idea isn’t to ace every one of these, but pick out one or two that you feel called to work on and practice these the best you can. Hopefully, there are secure attachment skills here for everyone—skills you can offer others in your life, skills to practice mutually in your relationships, and skills to encourage secure attachment in yourself.

Secure Attachment Skill #1: Listen Deeply

Let’s start with one of the more obvious skills. We all know the value of listening, but most of us haven’t actually taken the time to develop our listening skills in any ongoing way. When we listen deeply, reflect back to the other person, and ask questions that help us understand them, we allow the other person to inform us of what’s going on with them—not in a superficial way, but in a manner that empowers them to really dive in, feel their feelings, and express them to us until we truly get them. We’re not simply listening until they take a breath so that we can jump into the conversation and say what’s on our mind. Listening deeply means that we respond with considerate questions meant to foster and convey understanding, and we always give space before explaining our perspective.

It’s important to note that when we listen to another person, we don’t have to believe or agree with what they are saying. Really listening to someone means that we don’t immediately respond to what they’re saying with denial or criticism. Instead of negating their concern or getting into an argument about it, we just listen. That’s it. And we can open up the contingency space even further by trying to resonate with them. “I understand why you’d be upset about that, and I can see that really hurt you,” for example. In other words, listening in this way means you’re offering to hold—to contain—whatever it is that they’re dealing with and be present with them, regardless of their emotional responses and reactions.

I think most of us have this in common: more than we want to be convinced otherwise or placated, we just really want to be heard on a deep level. That can be hard at times, of course, because relationships can bring up a lot of stuff for us, and it’s natural to have challenges when dealing with other people, especially those closest to us. But if we can do our best to listen, we can make the best of difficult situations, and we’ll have a much better chance of closing the gap between us and the person we’re listening to.

Secure Attachment Skill #2: Practice Presence

Listening is one of the ways we can show presence, which is one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves and others in relationships. Presence isn’t a static thing; it’s a way of being. Presence means showing up, paying attention, and letting the other person know that we’re there for them with whatever’s going on. It means we do our best to put aside our own worries and concerns and be with them in an undistracted way. This can be hard in today’s world when it’s common to be on our devices so much of the time, but I highly recommend setting your phone or tablet aside when you want to show someone else that you’re truly present for them. Of course, this is impossible to do perfectly all the time, but there are certain things we can do to practice presence in order to become more available to others, as well as to ourselves.

Committing to remain undistracted with another person in a world that is so full of distractions is a powerful and fulfilling practice.Try it at dinner sometime: put everyone’s silenced cell phone in a basket while you’re enjoying the meal together and see what a difference it makes in your ability to connect. Attention is an extremely valuable commodity, and I recommend as much device-free, face-to-face time as you can manage. People know if you’re fully present or not, and it matters to them. Try being present when you’re on the phone sometime. Instead of doing something else—like surfing the Internet or washing the dishes—sit down and try to be as present and attentive as you possibly can. Give undistracted time to the people who are important to you and watch how that transforms your relationships.

Secure Attachment Skill #3: Attune

Attunement can mean a lot of things, but in this case it means becoming curious about another person’s experience and working to understand what they’re all about, discovering them in new ways and trying to resonate with them. How do they see the world? How do they experience their own feelings? And whatever emotions or situations arise, attunement also means that we do our best to connect with other people and let them know we’re there. Attunement is what enables that sense of contingency to arise. It lets the other person know that we really get them—that we’re by their side. This is an invaluable experience to receive and to offer another person.

Being dedicated to attunement also keeps us in touch with when we fall out of attunement with others, which is crucial knowledge to have in relationships. We’re oriented toward connection, but we’re also aware when that connection isn’t quite as we’d like it to be. If you feel you are not quite in sync with someone or are concerned that you don’t fully understand their situation or their feelings, ask the person to tell you more about what they are trying to share. Ask caring and clarifying questions.

Secure Attachment Skill #4: Engage in Joint Attention

Joint attention means mutually being there for each other, no matter what you’re doing: meditating together, dancing to your favorite song, telling jokes, making meals, or exercising. Any activity can serve to foster more secure attachment with your partner, child, family member, or friend when enacted with joint attention. You could be watching a movie on the flat-screen from your couch and still practice joint attention (for example, occasionally making eye contact with each other, laughing together, or having a conversation later about the film).

Discover even more secure attachment skills to try in The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships by Diane Poole Heller, PhD.

4 Tips to Get Back to Secure Attachment Blog - Diane Poole Heller

Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D., is an established expert in the field of Child and Adult Attachment Theory and Models, trauma resolution, and integrative healing techniques. Diane developed her own signature series on Adult Attachment called DARe (Dynamic Attachment Re-patterning experience) also known as SATe (Somatic Attachment Training experience). Dr. Heller began her work with Dr. Peter Levine, founder of SETI (Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute) in 1989. As Senior Faculty for SETI, she taught Somatic Experiencing® trauma work internationally for over 25 years. As a dynamic speaker and teacher, Diane has been featured at prestigious international events and conferences. She is the author of numerous articles in the field.

 Her book Crash Course, on auto accident trauma resolution, is used worldwide as a resource for healing a variety of overwhelming life events. Her film, Surviving Columbine, produced with Cherokee Studios, aired on CNN and supported community healing in the aftermath of the school shootings. Sounds True recently published Dr. Heller’s audiobook Healing Your Attachment Wounds: How to Create Deep and Lasting Relationships, and her book, The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.

As developer of DARe and president of Trauma Solutions, a psychotherapy training organization, Dr. Heller supports the helping community through an array of specialized topics. She maintains a limited private practice in Louisville, Colorado.

Buy your copy of The Power of Attachment at your favorite bookseller!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

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Bruce Tift: Already Free

Have you ever wondered how to hold the following two seemingly contradictory experiences? On the one hand, you feel in touch with the vast expanse of being. You sense that your true nature is infinite, boundless, unconditionally loving, and outside of time. And on the other hand, you know that in certain situations (usually involving other people!), you are avoidant, dismissive, reactive, and shut down, and—truth be told—you have a lot of healing and personal growth work to do.

Buddhist psychotherapist Bruce Tift is a master at holding these two seemingly contradictory views, and—ready for this?—he does so “without any hope of resolution.” In this podcast, Tami Simon and Bruce Tift talk about how, in his work with clients, he skillfully embraces both the developmental view of psychotherapy and the fruitional view of Vajrayana Buddhism, the blind spots that come with each approach, and how combining them can help people avoid these pitfalls. 

Tune in as they discuss unconditional openness, and how it is important to be “open to being closed”; how neurosis requires disembodiment, and further, how our neurosis is fundamentally an avoidance strategy—“a substitute for experiential intensity”; our complaints about other people (especially our relationship partners) as opportunities to take responsibility for our own feelings of disturbance (instead of blaming other people for upsetting us); how to engage in “unconditional practices,” such as the practice of unconditional openness, unconditional embodiment, and unconditional kindness; and more.

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.

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