The Talking Cure
Since the time of Freud, the “talking cure” has been the tried-and-true methodology for addressing mental health concerns. Accepted wisdom dictates that no matter the life challenges one is navigating, talking about it will help make it better. I will not disagree that many problems in life can be made better by talking them out. Having an unbiased person who truly listens, and who can offer objective advice is invaluable. Great insights can be had in this manner. Simply talking about trauma, however, even in a therapeutic setting, is not sufficient to address the profound impact trauma has on both the psyche and on the physical body. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that trauma “lives” not only in the thinking part of the brain, but in the feeling part of the brain as well. The second reason is that trauma is also stored in the body and manifests itself as emotional states and physical symptoms. Let’s take a look at the brain structure, and then address where trauma lives and how trauma becomes frozen in the body.
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean formulated this three-tiered brain model in the 1960s (https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/the-concept-of-the-triune-brain). The brain is the product of eons of evolutionary history. First to develop was the Reptilian Brain, or the part of the brain that is tasked with the most basic functions of our survival and primal instincts– heart beat regulation, monitoring blood pressure, respiration, instincts etc. The next to develop was the Mammalian Brian, so named as all mammals share these fundamental structures in common. This part is our “emotional brain” or limbic system that regulates our fight, flight or freeze, and our “rest and digest” response. Finally, there is neocortex, which includes the frontal lobe (just above your eyes) where language, deductive reasoning and a sense of “me-ness” lives (these are simplifications, of course, as the brain works as a cohesive whole when functioning).
Trauma lives in the Emotional Brain
Trauma “lives” a good deal in the emotional brain, which does not process language or a sense of time. The logic brain tells us: “This happened 20-years-ago and I should be over this by now. I just need to forget about it and move on.” A statement that I have heard many times when working with clients in trauma therapy. While objectively this statement is 100% true, the emotional part of our brain (the limbic component) neither processes a sense time, nor does it process language. It interprets all emotions as occurring now in the present moment, regardless of whether that emotion is being triggered by an event occurring presently or is triggered by an event that occurred many years in the past. The emotional impact that trauma has on us in the present is very real, and one of the strongest arguments that can be made as to why someone should engage in trauma therapy.
Trauma also lives in the Body
Dr. Peter Levine has been at the forefront of trauma therapy for over thirty years, and I have found his writings on how trauma is stored in the physical body to be incredibly enlightening. In his book, “Healing Trauma” (https://www.amazon.com/Healing-Trauma-Pioneering-Program-Restoring/dp/159179658X/ref=sr_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=healing+trauma&qid=1613241157&sr=8-5), Dr. Levine describes viewing a documentary where a terrorized polar bear was chased by a helicopter, shot with a tranquilizer dart and tagged for research purposes.
“As the massive animal comes out of that state of shock, it begins to tremble lightly. The trembling intensifies steadily, then peaks in a near convulsive shaking – limbs flailing seemingly at random. After the shaking stops, the animal takes deep, organic breaths that spread throughout its body. The bear shakes off the “frozen energy” as it surrenders in spontaneous, full-bodied breaths.
As the evidence mounted, I grew increasingly convinced that the healing of trauma is primarily a biological process or bodily process often accompanied by psychological effects. This is especially true when the trauma involved betrayal by those who were supposed to protect us. Additionally, I surmised that successful healing methods inevitably involve establishing a connection to the body. Those methods that do not enable people to reconnect with their bodies invariably have limited success.”
When the “frozen energy” that results from trauma – energy stored in the body when one was unable to fight or escape for whatever reason, is released, the system can be returned to functioning. Once a trauma occurs and the energy is “frozen,” however, the alarm system in our bodies that is tasked to warn us of dangers goes into overdrive. This results in an individual being perpetually in a state of hyperarousal as they continuously scan the horizon for danger, even when there is no immediate danger to be had. This results in chronic tension throughout the body as high levels of adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream. Releasing that physical tension, that physical memory of trauma from the body, becomes one of the primary objectives of trauma therapy. Only after the physical body / alarm system is “reset” and energies released can healing also occur on the psychological and emotional planes.
The Autonomic Nervous System – The Body’s Alarm System(https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders/autonomic-nervous-system-disorders/overview-of-the-autonomic-nervous-system).
I include this diagram here to demonstrate how pervasive the alarm system in our body is, and how it touches on almost every system in the body. I will be addressing working with the autonomic nervous system more in-depth in future posts. Suffice to say that it is made of two components; the sympathetic branch (responsible for the fight or flight response), and the parasympathetic branch (responsible for the rest and digest, or resetting the system once a danger has passed).