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  • Mark Sutton

Principles of Somatic Trauma Release

The psychological and emotional effects of trauma have been the areas where most research has been undertaken. However, as understanding and research into neurology, physiology and psycho-biology as well as psychology grows, there is growing evidence that all these systems are interdependent and work together as a survival mechanism. From this perspective, Trauma can be viewed as something that affects the body/mind continuum or in other words what affects the mind affects the body and vice versa. Let’s look at an example: if you recall in detail an event that has had a strong impact on you how does the body reacts in response does it contract in protection or open up in delight? Similarly engaging the body in movement (as opposed to freeze) can alter our thinking. These neurological, anatomical and biological changes that occur in response to traumatic experiences create secondary adaptive psychological responses which can lead to their normal personality becoming hijacked by the body’s instinctual natural reactions. For example, a nomally caring individual in response to continued overstimulation following a traumatic event becomes physically tense and contracted and over-reactive to even minor triggers with a concurrent change in personality to highly emotional, defensive or distant. It follows that when the instinctual reactions have been restored to normal, then the changes to the secondary personality will return to normal.

But how do we restore our system? In common with all in the animal kingdom we have an inbuilt, hardwired mechanism for releasing trauma: we shake uncontrollably in response to a traumatic event and it is the body’s way of discharging the built up energy, tension and chemicals that result from the response to a life threatening (or perceived life threatening) event and returning it to rest and relaxation. Unfortunately, Humans have deadened or cut ourselves off from this response or have overridden the system for a variety of reasons, some cultural, some situational (being immobilised in a state of fear). Once our ego defences take charge, conflict begins between the mind and body, one which the body cannot win and as a result charge produced by hyperarousal then needs to be discharged in another fashion and this is commonly done by contracting the muscles and maintaining the charge in the form of tensions. If these are not released at a later date or the traumatic experiences are ongoing, then the undischarged energy remains trapped and forms a loop of continued protection and defence which leads to chronic states of tension and to the development of Post Traumatic Symptoms.

The components of the BBTRs system are there to release the tensions and the undischarged energy. The deep connected breathing which is the core of the system stimulates the Sympathetic Nervous system to go into flight or fight, Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) induce neurogenic tremoring to begin the process of shaking and therapeutic touch in areas of chronic tension furthers the release of the energy. The energy is not released all at once, it is titrated, that is it is allowed to be released over the period of the session and can be seen in distinctive waves of excitation and release. Keeping the person present to the sensations in the body and tracking their movement and change allows this release to become a conscious, slow, non-traumatic event and stops the person from checking out or dissociating. Frequently simply asking the client to bring their awareness to an area of tension allows release to occur, if for example I ask someone to bring their awareness to their legs, then the neurogenic tremoring becomes more pronounced almost immediately. Frequently, certainly in initial sessions, there is vocal and emotional release, which I both encourage and allow to happen and frequently Specific memories can be evoked, placed into sequence and into context of the mind/body continuum and no longer dominate or produce an unconscious response. At the end of a session clients frequently talk about feelings of peace and calmness, of bliss and enhanced well-being, a sure sign that the system is in the process of resetting itself. Prior to a session I look at the physical holding patterns and talk to the client about them, where the tension is located, how they are holding themselves physically and how that relates to the current emotional state. Post session, the patterns are different, the muscles less tense and the person more open. For example, a person presenting with emotional upset may frequently be hunched forwards as their holding pattern (body-armouring) is protecting the heart. This overstretches the shoulder muscles and commonly produces tension in the neck and shoulders: post session typically the stance is straighter, the shoulders further back and the head held higher.

The effects of BBTRs are cumulative and differ from simply exercising the muscles. The effects of simple body exercise only release tensions at a surface level and do not affect the core chronic tensions that have been created by traumatic experiences and while Yoga and exercise can be a support in release between sessions, to release trauma effectively a more direct and skilled approach in needed to reach the core tensions. Having gone through the BBTR process myself (which is necessary for any therapist), working systematically with the body tensions and allowing myself to physically, vocally and emotionally release has altered significantly the way I interact with the world: what once would have caused an emotionally overwhelming situation no longer does so. Life does not feel as threatening or cold, my interactions with others are more intimate and genuine and my connections and bonds more secure and stable.

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