Not Being a Prisoner to Your Nervous System

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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. 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’s practiced meditation for over 50 years and has devoted his professional life to helping people reduce suffering and struggle while empowering them to claim their strengths, their talents, and their unique abilities. With Sounds True, Jeffrey Rutstein is the host of a new nine-month training program. It’s The Healing Trauma Certificate Program, a program to learn how to regulate your nervous system, embody safety, and become a healing presence.

This nine-month training program begins at the end of January in 2022 and features as faculty members, Peter Levine, Gabor Mate, Deb Dana, Dr. Sara King, Resmaa Menakem, Arielle Schwartz, John Powell, and more. You can learn more about The Healing Trauma Certificate Program at 

Now, on to our conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Rutstein about not being a prisoner in our nervous system and how we can begin to learn how to develop a type of owner’s manual in relationship to our nervous system, how we can identify the nervous system state that we’re in and shift out of protective states into more connected states, states that help us feel more free, that we have more flexibility in our lives. Here’s my conversation with the very kind and gifted Dr. Jeffrey Rutstein.

I’m excited, Jeffrey, to talk to you about healing trauma, both in ourselves and collectively in our world. And before we get to it, by way of introduction, I would love it if you could share with our listeners a bit more about you, about your early life and how you first got interested in becoming trained to be a psychologist.


Jeffrey Rutstein: Well, that’s a good question. I was born with a nervous system that leaned more into fight or flight. I just had a genetic disposition because I came out of the womb and was anxious and clingy. I remember some of my parents’ friends thought that I was actually attached to my father’s knee. He had an ACE bandage around his knee, and I used to stick my hands in there and write on his foot. So, I’d be hugging his leg. And little bit later on in childhood, I went through a period of some abuse and trauma. And my anxiety got much worse. I didn’t connect the two consciously, but a lot of my life I had been struggling with a lot of anxiety and a lot of shame, a lot of stuff that caused a lot of pain.

I started going to psychotherapy because I was fortunate enough that my parents were aware of psychotherapy. I started going when I was 10, and it was helpful, but it wasn’t really doing anything from my level of anxiety and fear that I had. And at that time there were really no medications for children, and there were no books out on relaxation techniques for kids. So, after about a year of doing therapy and still waking up every day and being sick to my stomach and nervous about going to school, I found a book in my parents’ library that was called Yoga for Americans by Indra Devi. In it, this book, she talks about in the first chapter, she was the first Caucasian woman to take Sanyasa vows at a yoga ashram.

In the first chapter, she talks about how there were ants in her house. She had spoken to the ants […]. She’d say, “I put these little sugar cubes outside for you if you don’t come in my house. But if you keep coming in my house, I’m going to have to call the exterminator.” And so, as she wrote this, she said the next day, she started putting the sugar cubes out and the ants never came back in her little hut again. And to my 11-year-old mind, I thought that this woman had the powers of the universe behind her. So, whatever she was going to tell me, I was going to believe. She spoke about how breathing practices like pranayama, deep diaphragmatic breathing, can ease the body and ease the mind and help reduce anxiety. And I started practicing Pranayama every day on and off throughout the day, and slowly but surely it helped a little bit. Not tremendously at first, but it did help.

I went further and went into both doing full asanas and yogic meditation. And then I went on to Zen meditation for many years. I became ordained as a Zen monk during my studies. And during this time, working both towards being able to have a better sense of not falling into my fear trap or shame trap, and also to be more awake, to be more present. For many years, by the way, this was kept very separate from my psychotherapy practice because back in the eighties, there was very little integration of any of Eastern contemplative techniques or systems with Western psychotherapy. I was trained as a psychoanalyst. But getting back to your question, so I was interested from a really young age at why I was having so much pain, why I was having so much worry.


TS: Yes. Jeffrey, I want to talk more about how trauma became an area of specialty for you. But before we go there, you answered this question in terms of describing your background. Your very first sentence was really interesting to me: “I was born with a certain type of nervous system.” I think most of us don’t really think that way. We don’t think about the nervous system that we were born with. We might think of certain ways that we manifested behavior as a young child, but not about the nervous system we’re born with. Tell me how you’ve come to look through that particular lens and what do you think. Did you inherit the nervous system of your mother? Is that what was going on? How do you understand this?


JR: So, yes, I do believe I inherited primarily the nervous system of my mother. But I think that most of us swim around in this idea that we’re a unitary consciousness and identity, right? So we are the same no matter what we’re doing. As long as we’re in that place actually, that kind of way of seeing us as responsible for every state we get into, there’s a lot of suffering in there, because if I was angry, I’d hate that angry self. If I was sad or cranky or difficult, I would hate that self afterwards. Through my work, both with training the mind and working with dissociation, I came to see that we’re really a lot of times operating in these defensive states. And so, we’re born with a tendency to be in one area or the other. Some of us are blessed, balanced and in the middle and settled; but some of us are blessed with a more either angry or afraid nervous system and activated nervous system. Or we might have nervous system that tends to be sleepy, tired, sluggish, low energy.

I don’t think that these are destiny. For years when I thought that it was all my fault that I was anxious, I hated me for that. I didn’t think I was born with a bad nervous system, I just thought I was born a bad human. That’s where I think a lot of pain occurs for people when they start hating themselves for having the stuff that’s wired and hard for all of us.


TS: Okay. So, that’s helpful. I think I’m starting to understand the frame and why you answered the question that way about your nervous system. Now let’s go back to your biography. Here you are, a young man. You decide to become a psychologist beginning with studying psychoanalysis. How did you then move into trauma as an area of specialty as a practitioner?


JR: I didn’t know that I was. The first case that I treated that I became aware of having trauma was in 1985. But once I diagnosed that case—and I’ll talk about that in a second—I realized I’d actually been treating cases with trauma several years before that, but during the entire course of treatment it never dawned on me that they had trauma. I was not taught about trauma in graduate school. This case came in where this woman in her forties, an artist, very articulate but massively depressed, and tried committing suicide a multitude of times during the early part of the treatment, set herself on fire, drove her car into an embankment in a tree, jumped out of a second-floor window, slit her wrists. She did a lot of these actions. After we started treatment, she was getting worse and worse and worse.

I was treating her as I was trained to treat someone who’s very depressed and overwhelmed. But I totally missed the trauma piece to that. Once my supervisor wondered with me about whether or not there could be trauma here, there actually was. It was very severe trauma. And once I started understanding how you begin to adapt to therapy to help someone who’s traumatized, she stopped decompensating. She stopped having these suicidal crises. Treatment still went on for many years after that. And in the first year and a half, I was not certain that she would survive the treatment at all.

Back in the day, there was almost nothing written on trauma, either in journals or edited and published books. I read all 30 books that were published and maybe all 25 or 30 articles that were published. I found that I had a natural aptitude for being able to be with people in extreme pain and not get so overwhelmed myself. Part of the issue with treating trauma for people is that it can be very personally and professionally demanding for the therapist, and that if the therapist gets dysregulated and overwhelmed, there’s a good chance that the patient will as well.

And because I felt like I had a natural ability to do that, I found that I just enjoyed working with people who [were struggling intensely]. At one time in my life I was saying that the difference for me is I can work with someone who’s upset because they didn’t get an A on their test or they broke up with a spouse or a boyfriend or a girlfriend—versus people who are just trying to struggle to live to the next day. For me, it felt more powerful and more of service to really try to help people survive and climb out of their suffering and not drown than to help people get through a minor hiccup.


TS: You mentioned, Jeffrey, that back in the mid 1980s, there wasn’t very much written about trauma. It wasn’t the field that it is today. Tell us, over the last 35-ish years, how have you seen our understanding, the framework we use to heal trauma, from your viewpoint, how has that framework been informed and changed over the last 35 years? What have been the big breakthrough discoveries?


JR: Well, we had the decade of the brain 1992 to 2000, and that started things off with a tremendous push of research in neuroscience and in neurophysiology. When I was an early career psychologist in the eighties, psychoanalysis was still a primary treatment modality, and all the treatment modalities at that time for trauma were talking-based. And that did help. That helped people a lot, but talking alone doesn’t change people’s nervous systems. It doesn’t help them leave this sense of traumatic activation, traumatic vigilance, traumatic wounding that stays in the tissue, that stays in the nervous system.

What we’ve learned in particular and what I’ve experienced directly is that the more that we have incorporated the body the more we’ve been able to both empower patients who typically feel disempowered and overwhelmed. Also, I believe that the real root of suffering from trauma is not just the horror and grief that still has to be processed, but a situation that has traumatized this has impacted our brain so that our nervous system, our brain stays in this hypervigilant, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Just go and just try to knock this chip off my shoulder kind of attitude. Like a hair trigger, just very close to going off.

People will feel like their minds are against them. They don’t understand that that’s another way that the trauma keeps resurfacing. It may not be always in memories of something that happened to you in the past, it could be that you get furious when someone takes your parking space or that you get massively hurt when someone criticizes your idea, that thing that are normal bumps and scrapes in life seem to take on a much deeper, much more intense significance. So working at the level of the nervous system involves working with the body in body-based practices, and they can be anywhere from yoga and some types of meditation and breathing, but also specifically to the practices that we’ve learned through research that help shift the body from activation to being more settled, being more calm, and being more connected to safety.


TS: Now, Jeffrey, in talking about yourself, you said something that I thought was really interesting that I didn’t know about you, that you seem to have a type of natural capacity to be with people who are in very difficult states of mind, difficult states of being, and that you can do that kind of work, that you didn’t choose for your expertise to be the everyday neurotic, but instead people really deeply suffering. What do you think has enabled you to be effective with people who are suffering so much?


JR: I think it’s actually a couple of things. I haven’t really thought about that before, but as I’m thinking about it right now, as you said it, I mean, one thing is I took care of my mother a lot emotionally growing up. And so she was often disturbed or enraged or very sad and crying. So, at a young age, I was used to being in that. But it wasn’t a terribly empowering feeling to do that. But I do think that my years of practice with my own experience, which is what most meditative disciplines have you work on is that I became more and more comfortable being with myself and my own discomfort, my own pain or my own whatever was arising, shame, anger criticism.

Once you do that for a while, you begin to see that almost anything that anybody else is suffering at some level is resonant with some kind of pain you’ve experienced if you’ve been present to your pain. And there was a way that pretense drops out when we’re in that much pain often, and there is a kind of rawness and authentic connection and somehow that also gave me permission to rest in a deeper sense of self than just my therapist self, if that makes sense.


TS: Yeah, it does. Thank you for that. You wrote a white paper, Jeffrey, called “The Neuroscience of Self-Regulation,” and I want to draw out some of the ideas in that paper and talk to you about them. Towards the beginning of the paper you write, “Most of our suffering and struggles are in part or in whole caused by the state of our nervous system.” And I thought to myself, “Gosh, a lot of people hear about the nervous system, and yet in my own experience, how do I know what is this state of my nervous system right now?” How do I know that? How do I assess that?


JR: That’s a great question. Well, the easiest thing to do is you first—and again this is easier for folks who have some experience with drawing their attention in—but bringing your awareness to your body and just seeing if your body right now feels well. How does it feel? Does it feel fairly relaxed and settled or does it feel tight, antsy, raring to go, little jittery, or does it feel sluggish, a little numb, a little body sleepy? That will help us orient, right? Right now, if you and I are connecting and you’re feeling fairly comfortable, and I believe I’m feeling fairly comfortable, we’re in this area of the social engagement system, which is when two or more nervous systems are connecting in a way that is friendly, and is caring, and is not attacking or defensive, that it allows both of our nervous systems to hang out in this co-regulation.

But if you’re going through the day, sometimes people can tell by their thoughts if they’re having highly critical thoughts, or highly angry thoughts, or highly anxious thoughts. Yes, that’s one way to notice. But we’re so often living in our head that we hear that narrative so much of the time. We don’t even notice when it’s there. So that way it can be helpful for people to notice. What’s the state of your body right now? Is it activated? Is it tense? Is it under-activated? Or are you comfortable? Are you feeling good right now? Are you feeling basically safe?


TS: Now, when you teach and when you are working with people, are you using the polyvagal map of the nervous system to understand what’s going on? And if so, I know in the new Healing Trauma nine-month program, you’re teaching along with Dr. Deb Dana, who has been a guest here on Insights at the Edge—and Sounds True has published her new book Anchored, where she translates polyvagal theory for ordinary mortals. And she does a great job in doing that. And I’m wondering if you’re also using the polyvagal map when you talk about the nervous system. And if so, share with us how you’re using that map.


JR: The map that I tend to use incorporates polyvagal, because I think that that’s a great way of us understanding things. But I still use the original, first mapping of Dan Siegel, Pat Ogden, with the window of tolerance. So, we have these—


TS: So, go ahead and tell us the map you use, Dr. Jeffrey Rutstein.


JR: Okay. The window of tolerance is these two parallel lines with space in between them. And that represents our functional window of tolerance, where I can have some activated emotion near the higher edge of the window or some deactivated emotion at the lower edge of the window. I’m still in my window; I’m still okay; I’m not overwhelmed. I move in and out of these states. For many of us will also move into either activation. Deb and I use this similar term of “sympathetic activation”; that’s the fight or flight part of the nervous system. Energies of anger and energies of fear and combinations of energies of anger and fear, that’s all up in the sympathetic activation domain, the hyperactivation above and outside the window.

Below the window—I use here Deb’s polyvagal term: the shutdown state, hyporegulation. This is where we go more towards hiding collapse, shutting down numbness, dissociation, shame, depression, sleepiness, passing out, lethargy. If someone has had trauma, two things will be different about their window of tolerance. Their window of tolerance will be narrower. So, the range of emotions that they can function within and feel and not be overwhelmed by is a narrow bandwidth. And it doesn’t take a trauma survivor much to get knocked into either hyperactivation or hypoactivation.

Again, we’re saying the names over with them. Hypoactivation, I also call that shutdown in polyvagal. And in the middle is the window of tolerance, but that’s also where we can access the social engagement system. And in the social engagement system, that’s where we can activate this tend and befriend energy. Now, the other states are defensive states. They’re about saving our life. Fight, flight, freeze, shutdown, that’s all about saving our life and getting safe. The “tend and befriend” is actually more about nourishing relationships, nourishing the quality of connection, enjoyment being in that moment. It does also have survival value, because the more that you tend and befriend, the more people you have to turn towards if danger is happening your way. You now have good relationships. But it’s the one place that we can act with much more choice and possibility than if we’re in our defensive states.


TS: OK. So, let’s try to make this real for people—




TS: —Jeffrey, who are listening. And someone says, “I have a lot of trauma around a previous experience of loss, a sudden loss in my life that was very traumatic for me. And as a result, this window of tolerance is small.” A lot of things trigger the memory of this person and the depth and grief of that loss, and you’re working with that person, how do you use this model that you have? How does that apply actually to the real human right in front of you that you’re working with?


JR: Again, as a therapist, we have multiple tasks, multiple roles on what we do. The first thing that I would do is to connect with where someone is. If they’re feeling grief, loss, overwhelm, like they’re drowning, I would just first make connection with how horrible that is, how hard that is, how devastating and heart emptying, heart shattering a loss this is. And first just enter the space with myself, not protecting against grief. The first thing I got to do to take care of their nervous system is I have to be anchored in mine and know where I’m anchored. If I have issues with grief or if I just went through a loss myself—like there was a time when my father passed, and I was back in therapy a week later, and someone else was talking about the funeral of their father; it was really hard for me to hold my distance because I was having my own feelings and memories being activated.

If I’m grounded and centered, I can meet her pain and be with it without doing anything about it. And that in and of itself, that companioning someone else in their state, is a little bit settling, but also helps people connect. And then, part of the work that’s done with grief is allowing expression of grief and also normalizing grief. People will say, “Well, I still haven’t gotten up and done the laundries. My spouse passed away and it’s been two months and I haven’t done laundry.” And so, then I start talking also about how when you’re in grief it is so overwhelming, and your nervous system tends to go towards shutdown. So you’re going to find that you’re going to have almost no concentration. You’ll have almost no energy to do tasks. You’ll have no energy for social interaction. You’re not going to feel like learning.

Most things will be too exhausting, and that’s not your fault, that’s just how grief is and that’s just how it’s processed in the body. And there’ll be a time for that. So, for example, normal grief reactions, we give six months to a year for someone to be in that state, because grief takes a long time. But if after someone’s lost a spouse and it’s been two years, three years, four years, and they’re staying in that same kind of shutdown space, there’d be a lot more work to help someone come out of that space, to be looking at why they’re staying in that space. And are they afraid to feel what they might feel emotionally if they bring themselves out of this shutdown, out of this diminished awareness, and they come more in contact with their feelings.


TS: It’s interesting when we talk about real humans and you working with real humans. I have a real feeling for the healing trauma work that you do with people. And when we talk about nervous systems, it’s almost like I enter my left brain. I’m trying to understand all of the model. It loses a little bit of the human feeling. I think I’m trying to bring that together in my understanding of healing trauma. I wonder if you can help me maybe by using some examples from your own life, Jeffrey, of starting to monitor and regulate when you become dysregulated. Working with your own nervous system, how that maps onto previous traumas from your life when they arise, how you understand it. Putting it all together in human terms.


JR: OK. So, 2009, I had a very bad reaction to a medication I was on for a chronic disease that I have. And it sent me to the hospital for a long period of time. I almost died because my lungs kept filling up with fluid. I was actually bleeding. My lungs were filling up with blood and they couldn’t get that to stop. And I have some memories of that time, and it was difficult. There were many times when I crashed, and I was losing consciousness. Outside the hospital, I wasn’t really haunted by those things that much. Then when COVID first started coming around (and it hadn’t even reached United States yet, and they were talking about what they were seeing in China, about these inflammatory pieces and about the lung issues and about how quickly people are bleeding out in their lungs), all of a sudden I started feeling a little short of breath again, and I started thinking, “Oh my goodness, if I get this, this would really take me out.”

Now, I don’t know if that’s actually true, right? But my nervous system actually picked that up. Now, it’s fine to make that connection and it’s fine to help me understand I should be really careful about exposure to COVID, right? But if it kept me worrying and in a state of fright for a period of time, being in a defensive state for longer than to take action doesn’t help us. So, if I spent days, weeks, months being afraid and hypervigilant like that, that only is going to exhaust me. After a few days of seeing that and feeling that, I could tell that something else was afoot because of the level of fear that I had. One of the keys for also knowing if you’re being activated by something from the past sometimes is the strength and intensity of your emotional reaction.

Once I realized I was still really stuck with this fear, I did some work directly with both taking some time to really calm down my state deliberately and intentionally. And I also did some work with, because I was aware of the traumatic piece of this, of what’s underlying, is that I could talk to myself from a regulated place. And that’s actually the key difference here, is that if I’m in a dysregulated place and I’m saying, “Come on, man, shape up, ship out,” that’s not going to do anything, right? I’m just going to be blabbering from an anxious, frightened state. If I can drop into some presence, some contact with myself in a more regulated place, I actually can speak from a place of wholeness.

I can actually be in touch with more of a sense of wholeness. And anytime that we’re in a state, we’re feeling fragmented, we’re not feeling whole, we’re feeling like we are all, all of us is anger and only anger, or grief and only grief, or shutdown and only shutdown, and when we’re regulated, we have this capacity to be able to be with a lot more of our experience and to be aware of it at the same time, instead of being in the middle of the storm, being hijacked and entranced by this storm, we’re able to see it happen and then work with it.

To me, the way of helping people realize this, particularly trauma survivors, is, I think, potentially life changing, because so many trauma survivors blame themselves for, “Why do I still have these symptoms? This happened 20, 30, 40 years ago. Why am I still doing this? I’ve talked about this for 15 years.” It’s because their nervous system is carrying on. It’s not like they don’t have enough understanding, it’s not like they don’t want to heal and feel better, their nervous system is just preemptively acting to protect them.


TS: You mentioned using this example that you took time to calm down your nervous system. And I noticed, Jeffrey, as you’re talking, you have a very calming presence, a very calming voice. Have you figured out a recipe for this with yourself—“This is how I bring forward my calming voice, my Dr. Jeffrey Rotstein voice?” So, what’s going on here?


JR: I actually became aware of speaking. I was actually living in a yoga ashram for a while in the early eighties. And we were doing some sound practice. And I found that if I was more anchored in my body, my throat opened up and my voice had a lower register. And when I’m really anxious, I talk from a higher register in a tighter voice. What I found was that my voice when I’m in a more anchored spot is conveyance of that, right? But what I think is just as powerful is that the rest of my being—because I’ve had people who have not very relaxing voices, but they’re really in the center of their being when they’re talking, and their words have the same impact on me that a more soothing voice might have as well.


TS: And what do you do to anchor in your body? What are your go-to moves when you need that?


JR: The first thing I do is I shift my awareness into my body because I’m a mentally oriented guy a lot of time, in my head; I’m thinking. I take some time to really continually drop deeper into the body. You can first come to your breath, and you can touch in. But if you hang there for a little while, you let yourself and your awareness become more sensitive to the quality of your bodily experience and tuning more to the subtle experience of the body. It’s three-dimensional presence, maybe some energy moving, the breath moving, points of contact. That awareness itself, that taking it away from mental construct building and towards direct experiencing of senses is for me a very powerful and immediate shift. But if I’ve been agitated and I touch in, and I do that for a few moments and come back out, the residual activation can still catch up with me. So there’s times where with a meditation practice I need to do 15, 20, 30 minutes of this work to really let my body fully release the activation that had been going on. Does that make sense?


TS: It does. It’s helpful. Now, you write in this paper on the neuroscience of self-regulation that for many of us, when we get to know our nervous system, we actually discover that we are in a relatively constant state of hyper arousal. And I thought of how for many people during the pandemic, this has been one of the discoveries that people have had, like, “Oh my God, I can’t sleep well. I’m anxious all the time. Whether it’s fears around getting COVID or it’s how I feel in relationship to climate change and the inequities in our world, social justice issues, the truth is I’m actually slightly hyper-aroused a lot, if not most of the time.” So, I wonder if you can talk directly to that person who has really discovered this about themselves during the pandemic.


JR: Well, I think the pandemic has been an incredible, both painful and potentially beautiful opportunity. Definitely painful though, in that it really lets us pay a lot of attention to the quality of how we go through our day. And I think there’d be a certain portion of people who are just home all day, who would just realize even without the pandemic, that they tend to be more anxious. But if you have a lot of things to do and a lot of places to go, you won’t notice how much you need to do because you’re always doing it. So, some people would’ve just noticed that anyways. But if you add on top of what we’ve been dealing with, which is this unstructured stress time where we have no idea how long it’ll go for, it’s a foe we can’t really visualize, and it could be all around us, our nervous systems weren’t meant to stay in this kind of chronic alert.

The pandemic is going to feed the energy of either fight or flight, or it’s going to feed the energy of shutdown and pandemic fatigue. “I don’t want to read about it, I don’t want to wear a mask, I don’t want to wash my hands, I don’t care.” People are going to react. It’s normal that our nervous systems—they are supposed to reflect how we are. Deb Dana has this beautiful quote: “Our nervous systems don’t tell us who we are or what we are, our nervous systems tell us how we are.” So, if you’re finding yourself activated in fight or flight, the good news is this, is that there’s a way to learn how not to spend as much time there.

Part of this comes from identifying the state and learning how to do things to shift out of it. But another thing that I think is important with this is something that actually I borrowed from a colleague of mine and friend Jon Eisman, called state hygiene, which is the idea that every now and then you should just check in and see what state you’re in. Because if you’re not otherwise mindful, you’ll be driving and doing 600 things at work—or about work even though you’re not there. You’ll usually notice, especially if you had any kind of mindfulness practice or training, where your mind is. But what I don’t know if people notice is what state we often go in. And most of us live in one or two states for most of the day. I mean, we’ll move all around, but we visit two often.


TS: Yes. You mentioned the positive impacts that come from the tend and befriend state. And I was wondering, do you have an approach where you recommend “Hey, cultivate that state. Cultivate tend and befriend. Call a friend. Reach out. Hug someone. Tend and befriend. That’s a positive thing to do”? Is that your viewpoint?


JR: No. First of all, the folks that I’m dealing with are usually feeling a lot of the times pretty horrible, depressed, despairing. I mean, not all the time, but when they could really use friends, the last thing they need to hear is, “Hey, go out and be social,” because they’re just not feeling it. 

All right, let’s back up. What we’ve learned from polyvagal is that our nervous systems move into defensive states when we perceive lack of safety. So, one of the ways of inverting that then is saying, “Okay, what do we need to do to help people begin to feel safe?” Because the safer they feel, the more they will naturally drop into the social engagement system. For example, I have some folks they can do it with me. They had very hard time relating at the beginning of therapy, and they can relate better now.

They can drop into the social engagement system when we’re together. They can receive things from the relationship that they were incapable of receiving when we first started working. But they’re still terrified of taking any of those risks out with a friend or someone else. They’re still very scared. So, they were able to make significant gains in the ability to access that state through our relationship. They’re trying to do it with their spouse more, but they still can’t experience that with friends. There’s still too much on guard and to contract it. They’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. So, for some people, right? They may benefit and need some social engagement, but it may just be a one to one. And it may only be one or two relationships. As we heal more and as we are less captured and hijacked by less trauma living in the body, then we’re able to actually widen our social contacts. We have the energy and the bandwidth for that. But if I’m just trying to manage my inner impulses and my moods, I’m not going to have much social energy.


TS: This notion of less trauma living in the body, I want to talk to you, Jeffrey, about this nine-month training program on healing trauma. We’re going to talk about it in quite some depth here in a few moments. This notion that we could actually heal trauma, this is what I’m interested in finding out about, that we could actually have less trauma. Could we bring it down to zero trauma living in the body? Does it work that way? Can trauma really be resolved, or do we just develop greater resources to deal with trauma triggers when they occur?


JR: That’s a great question, Tami. I think that the short-long answer is that it depends. It depends on how much trauma someone has had, how extensive it was, the ages in which it occurred. I do believe that people can if they’re willing to put in the work on their part, specifically about working with their body arousal states. I believe that it’s possible to get to a point where if trauma was a 10 in terms of activating your body, it’s down to a one. May not be zero. For example, let me give you something else I’ve always had. Because of my trauma and my nervous system, I’ve also had a propensity for shame, right? I can easily get sidetracked by that. Now, when I was younger, I would get absorbed in that, lost in that, and drowned in that. At this point in time, when shame comes up, I’m able to identify it really quickly as, “Oh, that’s what’s happening.”

I’m able to identify it as a state. When I use that word, I mean, “Oh, that also means that what I’m thinking and believing isn’t true.” It feels true. But as long as I know it’s a state, I know that’s what shame does. It’s supposed to make you feel ashamed. I can’t stop yet the moments of when shame will find a way to still try to come into my consciousness, but I can limit how far it takes me and how long it wraps me up versus how long or how short it takes me to come back to me. That’s what changes. And that’s the same thing with trauma. So, some things will not be triggers, some things will be triggers, but they won’t even send you into the atmosphere. Some things might send you to the atmosphere, but you’ll know what’s going on and you’ll be able to come back.

The biggest thing is that trauma and our nervous system actually also impacts a million things we don’t think about, like little decisions and thoughts during the day, “Should I stop and get coffee? There’ll be people at the coffee place. I don’t know if we’ll find a parking spot.” Now, if you’re already activated, right? And if you’ve been activated because of trauma as well in your background, those kinds of decisions will make your system more anxious and choose safety, “Oh, I don’t want to deal with so many people.” So, you go without coffee. Hey, going without coffee it’s not a horrible thing, it’s not a bad thing at all, but what I’m saying is that lots and lots of decisions throughout each of our days are affected by actually trying to keep our nervous systems not feeling unsafe.

Sometimes it feels directly related to the trauma, but sometimes the legacy of trauma is having people who are past-traumatized always be working at being perfect, always being afraid of doing anything less than perfection because it’ll show them up as being shameful. It drives our life. Our nervous system can drive our life without us being in the driver’s seat.


TS: What I hear you saying is the healing of trauma depends on a lot of these different factors as you pointed out. But all of us can have much more of a being in the driver’s seat when it comes to regulating our nervous system to a pretty high degree.


JR: Yes.


TS: We can get into the driver’s seat.


JR: Absolutely.


TS: OK. You and I have worked together on several different projects at Sounds True. You were the host of a Trauma Skills Summit and a Healing Trauma Summit with Sounds True. We also co-hosted a series on Understanding Narcissism. Soon after the pandemic began, we were having a conversation together. And you said to me, something to this effect, you said, “Tami, there is going to be a tsunami of suffering in the wake of the pandemic, in terms of people experiencing increased trauma, increased grief, loss, nervous system dysregulation. We need to do something to help.” Can you tell me what you were seeing at that time? What was the perception you were coming from as we started having this conversation together about what we could create that would be helpful?


JR: If I recall, I think it was March or April in 2020. It was right around either before or right after the first lockdown. It’s unusual in that I’m used to being with people’s trauma, right? What was interesting to me is having everyone have as one similar theme of their trauma: how the pandemic is activating their trauma for them. But then I started getting all these calls about depression and anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and concentrating kids, families, parents, leaders. And my colleagues were receiving the same great influx and calls. And I could also see that even with this happening, that was not even the tip of the iceberg, because there are so many people who are dealing with someone dying right then from COVID and then having to wait back then five months for a funeral or six months for a funeral. The kinds of traumas, the kinds of breaches, the kinds of losses that this year produced in terms of the pandemic, in terms of the racial reckoning, political divisiveness, uptick in violence of all sorts has been something that is vastly disruptive to people’s nervous systems.

No one is going to feel safe in a time like this. Under no other time, I believe, that we have in any kind of recorded history, has this much of all the mammals on the surface of this rock of the earth have been in a similar state of dysregulation disruption, this extreme for this long. And that, I felt, was going to have cataclysmic events. We needed a way to help people beyond just having everybody go to therapy. There’s going to be too much of this going on and we need people who can both face and work with their own trauma but who are also willing to be a healing presence for others. And that doesn’t mean being a therapist for them, it just means having the basic tools of recognizing, if someone’s dysregulated, what could they use right now? How many times have we been with someone, and they’ve been really upset, and we wish we knew “What might I say to help this feel better?” and searching our brains for “What words can I offer?” Usually, it’s not much of anything.

One of the things we can always offer is our state, right? So, if I’m a friend of you, Simon, and you went through a horrific loss, if I cannot be afraid of my own grief, so I can feel into your grief and allow myself to be a companion for that, it actually helps you feel less alone and isolated, even though you’re still horribly aggrieved. And the reality of that loss is still just as much overwhelming. In that moment, there will be some dim sense of connection.


TS: Yes. Jeffrey, in designing this nine-month program, part of what was really alive for me back when we were talking in the spring of 2020 and now is how being this type of healing presence has to, yes, of course, be the realm of professionals, therapists, counselors, people like that, but how we need legions of people who have this kind of ability. I started seeing it in all kinds of situations, just in a meeting where somebody would share here at work, would share about something that was happening in their family. That was obviously deeply, we could say, distressing or we could say dysregulating—call it whatever you want—the person who’s so upset. Before you know it, everybody in the room was upset and it was a high drama situation. I thought to myself, “God, I want to be a regulated presence in this meeting.”


TS: I thought managers and business leaders, they need to be trained in how to be a healing presence in the face of trauma, let alone parents, educators, people who are in the front of a yoga room and people are doing yoga exercises and all kinds of things are coming up for them. And that trauma training has still primarily been in the professional realm. It hasn’t come out and been widely accessible and available. And so, that’s a big part of my motivation in Sounds True, putting together this nine-month program. It’s interesting sometimes when I’ve described this program to people, they’ll say to me, “Tami, nine months, that’s a long time.” And I think to myself, “You think nine months is a long time? I’ve been living with the trauma I have in my life for 60 years.” I would be happy to give nine months if I thought it would actually find a new level of exiting my nervous system. I just think that’s curious. I’m curious what you think about that when people have this response to nine months being like, “That’s a long time.”


JR: I feel like to me it’s just long enough to hopefully get people really learning this into their bones, into their body, because for this to really work, it has to be learned in your marrow, in your experience of your own being, in your day. One of the things that was important for both of us, and that’s one of the reasons we decided on the length of this, was to make it transformative. I’ve led courses before, people have got things out of it, but what I really feel is transformative in this course and others like it is the idea that if one actually wants to make this shift, it is through the fabric of their life that that occurs. That becomes the classroom, right? And yeah, I think that nine months is not that long to get a strong ability to identify where you are and to be able to successfully shift out of it.

And at the end of the nine months, you may not be able to shift out of every state all the time. You probably won’t be able to, but you’ll be much better at it. And as you continue to practice, certain shifts will become easier and easier. Also, what happens is the more that we understand our states, the less we prolong them. That’s another piece. I don’t know if it’s going to take us too off topic.


TS: No, I think that’s an important point, please.


JR: When we’re in a defensive state, we’re being ruled by our older sections of brain, the mammalian brain or the reptilian brain. And those brains are before our thinking neocortex, the white cauliflower of the top level of our brain. When our actions are being directed by those areas, there’s actually a disconnect to our thinking mind because there’s not an interest in thinking, it will slow us down from saving our life. So, part of what states do is they make themselves sticky, self-repelling. So if you are in terror, everything in your mind is telling you, “You better be in terror, stay in terror. You’re in tremendous danger, don’t stop looking around. You could die any second.” And if you’re ashamed, the state is telling you, “Don’t look for an escape. You are shameful. This is the truth. Just own it for once. You suck.”

States have a way of, once we’re in them, trying to get us to stay in the state longer. Now, anyone who’s had themselves stuck in a state with or without trauma knows it’s really unpleasant, whether you’re angry for three days over a fight, or you’re anxious for two or three days over a confrontation, or you’re shut down for one or two days because you got so blown out of the water by something. And that if it takes time to actually practice so that you become adept at noticing what state you’re in, noticing how and what you need to do to shift and then doing it, that’s the epitome of having freedom and choice.


TS: Now, Jeffrey, who, in your view, is the Healing Trauma nine-month program for? I mentioned as someone who is a business leader. I think it’s for me because I’m in all kinds of situations where I want to stay grounded, regulated, and be a healing presence and embody safety for other people. Who else do you think the program’s for?


JR: I think it really is for anybody who either comes in contact with people who are going to get dysregulated—so, business leaders, coaches, educators, massage, therapists, parents, community activists, anybody who cares. It’s for people who have had trauma in their lives and have done some work but find that their bodies are still getting stuck in these activation states. It’s for helping professionals who may have learned these techniques but not embody them as well as they’d like to. They know how to teach them, but I think that if we can embody them, we have a way of teaching them even more deeply and effectively. My ultimate feeling is honestly, this could be for anybody because at its most basic level, it’s almost like an owner’s manual for your nervous system that we were never given. What it is, how to work with it, and how actually use it in the service of you being in this world, instead of being the unconscious driver of everything you do think and say in this world.


TS: An owner’s manual for my nervous system. I definitely need that. Now, Jeffrey, one final observation I want to make is that there’s this thread that’s gone through our whole conversation that I find really interesting. And that thread has to do with you pointing out that we can be in different states, but we are not the state. It seems like that’s a very important idea to you. So, how do you understand identity and the importance of understanding our identity as not being conflated, not being the same as whatever state we’re in? Why is that such an important idea?


JR: Well, because I think that one of the biggest delusions that we have is that we’re this mess, and this mess that we judge. “I’m all over the place, I’m angry, and I’m ashamed, and I get impatient, and I—” That’s one of the ways that we can tell our story, that we can have a sense of self or identity, right? We also could have an inflated or narcissistic identity: “I’m perfect, I am beyond reproach, I have no faults, everyone should be like me.” Both of those identities are not whole. And they’re avoiding parts of us and parts of our feelings. The moment that I can begin to see that I can identify, and usually when I get hijacked, I do identify with the state of being angry, or the state of being shamed, or the state of being depressed, or the state of being terrified, but that in those states as compelling and as real as they feel, what I’ve come to see is that they’re not true.

Let me say this another way. When you or I get angry, our brains will create similar patterns of thinking. The content will change but both of our thoughts when we’re angry will be about what we felt was wrong, that it was unjust, other things like that, right? That’s what anchor does, it puts the other person as the adversary. Fear, if I’m afraid, you’re afraid, anyone else is afraid, they’re worrying about something in the future that’s potentially catastrophic. So, when we’re in a state, that’s not really who we are, we’re just playing out a script written by the state. In other words, you don’t have a creative or innovative thought when you’re in a state. You just don’t. You have looping thoughts that are around the state. If I’m in shame, it’s shame, shame, shame, shame, shame. If you’re enraged, it’s rage, rage, rage, rage, rage. You’re not thinking, “Wait a minute, let me write a symphony about rage.” That’s not happening. You’re too active into the rage, rage, rage part.

If we start paying attention to where we actually have choice, of where the parts of this are that are deeper than just a knee jerk reaction, we come in contact with that part of this when we’re in the window of tolerance, when we are in the social engagement system, when we feel relatively safe and relatively connected. In that place, we’re not our crazy thoughts. In that place, we’re not having too many crazy thoughts. We still will be neurotic, but there’s a difference between having anxiety, which is fine to have [and] being overwhelmed or terrified or stuck in high anxiety; that’s unnecessary. And as long as we keep identifying with the states, we’ll get—I used to have a patient say, “Well, that’s just me. That’s how I am.” What I would say to them over time is, “It’s easier to believe that for you than to believe that you don’t have to stay this way.” Some people, again, may not feel safe enough to change.


TS: And finally, Jeffrey, to close, what’s your highest hope of what will be accomplished through the nine-month [Healing Trauma] program? What’s your highest hope for the program, for the people who participate in it?


JR: I would love for our participants to experience a sense of freedom and ease, understanding their nervous system and working with it in a way that they’re an ally to it instead of fighting against it. that they’re able to bring this understanding into relationships, to see how they contribute to disconnection and how they can contribute to connection. And ultimately to see that this is part of what’s underlying our entire screwed up world right now, is that the biggest calamitous changes going on are driven by survival functions, othering, anger, fear. These things are our ancient wiring. But if left unchecked or if we keep believing that these states are us, then we’re going to keep believing we have to oppress this people or that nation because, well, we’re us and they’re wrong. So, my hope is that we can stop some of the struggle and fighting and come to a sense of ease and peace inside in relationships, but also actively contributing to helping the world be less reactive and [to] live less from, and in, defensive states.


TS: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Jeffrey Rutstein with Sounds True. He is the host of a new [Healing Trauma Certificate Program]. It’s a nine-month training to learn how to regulate your nervous system, embody safety, and become a healing presence. The faculty that are participating in the program include Peter Levine, Gabor Mate, Deb Dana, Dr. Sara King, Resmaa Menakem, Arielle Schwartz, John Powell, and more. The program begins in January of 2022. We’d love to have you join us. You can learn more at Jeffrey, thanks so much for being a healing presence at Sounds True and in my life. Thank you.



That’s my pleasure, Tami.

TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at And if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes, and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. waking up the world.

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