“I know in my head that I am safe and I am not alone here in the session with you, but inside of me I just feel so isolated - like in my bones - that I ABSOLUTELY KNOW I cannot trust anyone, not even you. I want to trust you, but my body just says “No” and shuts down so I am closed to you.”
These were the words of a client I had been working with for over 2 years. That’s right, two years of almost weekly, gentle and slow therapy in which my primary aim was to simply create enough safety and trust for her to access the trauma that lay below the surface of her so-called ‘problems’. Yet still we could not go there…
Because I knew that any ploughing over those hidden traumas would only result in further re-traumatisation unless she felt 100% safe in my presence. In these situations I often find myself thinking of a quote from one of my heroes, Gabor Mate:
"Trauma is not the event, it is what happens inside of you when the event takes place."
What happens inside us during a trauma is influenced to a very large degree by the degree of ISOLATION we experience. Even when surrounded by other people it is possible to feel completely isolated in a traumatic experience. This is especially true if that trauma is happening on a daily basis in a family or group.
After 30 years of clinical practice I have learned that the longer it takes a client to trust and accept me, the deeper and more intractable the trauma that lies at the root of their problems. In other words, the less isolated they feel, the easier it is to ‘lance’ the energetic and emotional ‘boil’ that trauma creates deep within the psyche.
What I also knew about this client was that her ‘problems’ were not her problem at all. The problems lay with what happened to her, and even more important than what happened to her, they lay with the ISOLATION she felt at the time of the trauma and afterwards. Trauma is always about something outside of our control, something we cannot escape – therefore it is always about external circumstances beyond our control. The client is the victim of this external force and sometimes the trauma of that external force has been passed down faithfully for many generations. Hardly the client’s problem…
And as far as the treatment of trauma goes, it has been my experience that it is the ISOLATION that is the real killer. Whilst I am quoting from one particular client, her words do express beautifully the inner tension that so many of my clients have experienced over the decades. Whether a client resorts to arguing with me (fight) or withdrawing from me (flight or freeze) the simple truth is this:
No matter what the rational mind is saying,
the nervous system just KNOWS that it is alone.
So how can our clients learn that they are not alone? That they are safe with us? More importantly, how can their nervous system BELIEVE they are not alone? Without this certainty there can be no release, no discharge and therefore no real healing.
We know that trauma quite literally changes the brain. Most importantly we know that it changes the Amygdala, deep inside the limbic brain where our traumatic responses of hyper- or hypo-vigilance are triggered. This means that the Amygdala lies deep in the part of our nervous system that we share with all mammals. Not surprisingly, it is therefore not susceptible to words.
We know that it took millions of years for this nervous system of ours to evolve. In order to soothe and dissolve trauma from the Amygdala, it is our clients nervous systems, their mammalian nervous systems to be more exact, that need to know they are not isolated, that someone is there with them, that it is now safe to discharge and release and heal their trauma.
In order to understand just how to communicate directly with the nervous system, we need to go beyond the world of traditional psychotherapy and counselling ‘talk therapy’ and ‘cross over’ into the NON VERBAL world of bodywork, where healers, therapists and shamans have been expertly soothing the nervous systems of their clients for centuries, if not millennia.
Yet it is only the most recent neuroscience that is now telling us just how and to what extent this bodywork is providing us with direct access into the limbic system.
Here is where we must look if we wish to learn to speak the primal and wordless language of our nervous systems – so we can bring that knowledge back into our work with clients and use it to dissolve and discharge their trauma.