Most modern trauma psychotherapy treatments aim to include the body in some way in the work of healing trauma.
Yet many patients with complex trauma conditions have an understandable phobia about noticing their body, or are numb or dissociated from their body. Body awareness often triggers a danger response or feels unsafe in some way.
For example, health professionals may start by inviting patients to practice mindfulness, eg with the breath, only to find that simply focusing on the breath has inadvertently triggered a fight/ flight/ freeze/ dissociation or hypervigilance response. So it is essential to approach any body work with great caution, respect, gentleness and preparation!
Preferably, the health professional will undertake additional training in somatic modality such as sensorimotor psychotherapy or somatic experiencing before attempting any such work, and will also be aware of their own transference and countertransference through their own in depth personal psychotherapy experience. I add this caution as untold harm is possible via unaware or unskilled interventions when working with the body. Please do not attempt this unless you are professionally prepared!
How do we work safely with the body? There is a four step process that can help to set this up. This week we will discuss step one, which is setting the stage properly, to create the optimal setting before beginning any body work.
According to Dr. Andy Harkin, a Sensorimotor Psychotherapist from the UK now living in Australia, we need to be clear with the patient HOW we are working with the body as well as WHY. He talks about this on youtube
So, ideally, we could start with Psychoeducation, right? Hmm, not so fast! What if the patient is not ready for this? Patients at the more complex end of the trauma spectrum will probably need preparation, prior to the apparently simple step of psychoeducation.
There is no point trying to educate if a person is in sympathetic nervous system hyperarousal. Their frontal lobes are effectively “offline” for survival reasons, so the capacity to absorb information is greatly reduced, and if they are distressed enough they will quite probably misperceive what is being said as their system is primed to detect danger to help them survive. Ideally, education is not offered until the patient is as calm and settled as possible.
So first step, ensure that you the therapist are calm and grounded, quiet and still, and let your nervous system, body and voice help the patient settle into a calmer state. Explain what you are doing simply. Your limbic system and mirror cells really can help, as calmness is contagious!
At this stage, you are not aiming for the person to be totally relaxed, nor are you beginning to talk about any trauma. Instead, you are just aiming to practice being present with the patient in a way that offers a small amount of relief from SNS symptoms if they are in hyperarousal. A calm gentle presence, some quiet reassuring words, and just sitting.
For some patients, you can invite and co-create small experiments to foster collaboration in helping the room to feel calmer, for example adjusting blinds or reducing lighting a little, adjusting the position or distance of the chairs, adjusting how you are both facing in relation to each other.
It is important to focus on CALMNESS instead of SAFETY. Saying the word “safety” can often trigger hypervigilance and hyperarousal in complex trauma patients.
Some patients feel calmer if they have something to squeeze or hold, a cushion or soft fabric. Some people need to stand up to feel calmer, this seems to be true especially where the spine is collapsed or the posture is slumped. Also, orienting to the room and then naming the date and time can help. Ask the patient to simply notice “calmer” or “less calm” inside the room. Use hand signals not words to communicate regarding this.
Avoid the impulse to DO something such as talking incessantly or writing out a prescription and instead practice just BEING with the patient in a calm and respectful manner.
Sometimes, depending on the patient and situation, being light and playful can also help. Depending on the patient, sometimes I scrunch up and toss paper balls, do side by side colouring in, roll or push large gym balls, play peekaboo, squeeze playdough, ask them to pass something in a funny voice etc.
You may spend hours, weeks or months like this with the patient, helping them to develop a felt sense of calmness and tranquillity in the room, helping them learn to soothe and settle, and gently explaining why this is the foundation for the work of healing. This is body work, as you are helping the patients body, brain and nervous system get used to the unfamiliar state of being in the window of tolerance.
As they begin to settle, you will be able to offer more in the way of psychoeducation. Although you may have very intelligent and sophisticated patients, it is important that the learning material is simplified initially. In my experience, even the word Amygdala can cause panic!
Choose your learning materials- visual, tactile, olfactory, toys and other objects- carefully and allow time and opportunity to absorb the information before you give more. Visual aids or videos are useful for this, for example the 3D Brain App. You can make your own aids or purchase from Janina Fisher and many other international sources. For the patient with hyperarousal, slow is always better, and you must be able to hold that space and repeatedly explain to the patient why you cannot rush, especially healing!
Now you are ready to explain in detail how trauma affects the body systems and processes, in a way that is appropriate for your patient. You can also begin to educate about the importance of learning mindfulness at this stage and perhaps now begin to notice mindfully together the experience of being calmer.
To strengthen the patient’s commitment to the work of healing, it makes sense that you practice what you are teaching including developing capacity for interoception, awareness of subtle changes in your own body, and being able to develop a wide vocabulary for describing what you notice. The therapist’s capacity to be embodied greatly enhances the possibility that the patient will eventually learn something more about embodiment.
Next, and before approaching any work with the body, it is important to negotiate conscious permission giving from the person to do the work of healing. This will require negotiation with all the parts if structural dissociation or DID are present. Respect for the patient and their parts is critical at this point. Do not start any body work without permission being established. Do not ignore parts who are undecided. Do not rush this step! We will discuss the art and science embedded in the process of permission giving as part of the forthcoming trainings to be offered next year for health professionals.
The above approach is based on the work of prominent trauma leaders as described elsewhere on this site, and my own experiences as a practitioner working with complex trauma, dissociation and DID. Your views and comments about this post are welcome.