Trauma, Fixation and Reactivity – (Somatic Experience)

by Jeff Burkhart

Lately I’ve become more aware of how virtually all of my reactivity has an element of traumatic response in it. One definition of trauma is that the nervous system loses its capacity to regulate itself – we’re caught activated and we stay activated. On a smaller scale I see this whenever I am activated. Worry, fear, anxiousness, even just being caught up in stream of thoughts, they all entail a fixation – repetition of thoughts, being stuck in the same vein, awareness narrowing to only include the thoughts and body’s negative reactions to the thoughts.

So bringing in some Somatic Experience practices to work with it has been helpful –

1) Recognizing that the reactivity is taking place

2) Feeling where the reactivity lands in the body – tension in the throat, racing thoughts, pressure in the head center, etc.

3) Then checking in with my hands to see if they are activated. Typically the hands and feet aren’t caught up in the reactivity. So tapping my fingers together, rubbing the fingers together, rubbing the palms together, feeling the hands starts to open up the nervous system. Checking in to see if the hands feel safe. Recognizing that sense of safety in the hands.

4) And then expanding on that – rotating the hands, stretching them, flexing the wrists, then the forearms. Gradually including more and more of the arms, working up to include the shoulders. And then doing the same with the feet and the legs. Opening that up to include the hips.

5) Now recognizing that the arms and legs aren’t caught up, go back to also include where the reactivity is being held in the body. Holding both the sense of safety and the reactivity in awareness, feeling the boundary between them, holding that gently in awareness, touching on one and then to other, breathing into both – this allows the nervous system to resource itself, titrate the reactivity and broaden our awareness.

6) With that capacity there is now more room to explore the reactivity. Typically we tend to fixate on the largest reaction – the fear, worry, anger, etc. So recognizing that, allow it to be in an open way, but also being curious about what it is comprised of, what is behind it. Fear can be admired for its strength and clarity. Typically when we are angry it’s because we have been hurt. And the hurt generally has its source in the past. And it usually has more depth to it – the hurt could be over a loss, and there can be sadness with that, helplessness, etc. Being open to all the pieces. It’s as if there was a pane of glass and someone took a hammer to it. Typically we fixate on the largest piece (say the anger). But in the openness we recognize and include all the pieces as they come into awareness.

7) And as we deepen, compassion may naturally arise. Holding all these pieces in gentle awareness can melt those pieces back into wholeness.

And while using the word trauma tends to denotes a large reaction, I have found these same principles to hold with something as mild as being lost in thoughts. This bringing awareness to sensory experience provides an anchor with which we can have a deeper basis for exploring our experience.

Addendum (in response to the question: “What if the hands *are* involved?):You can also start with the feet, or any part of the body that isn’t caught up. And it may be a question of just noticing the difference in the degree that they are activated. The activation may feel really strong in some areas and less so in others. So noticing that difference. Anything that gets you into sensing mode is opening up the capacity of the nervous system. So finding different means of hanging out with that, exploring that. And worst case, if the feelings aren’t accessible you can start with just movement – moving the fingers, moving the elbows up and down. Moving the knees apart and close together is very powerful. Walking at a pace that is in tune with your reactivity and then slowing that down naturally can also be very helpful.

More posts that consider somatic experience as it pertains to trauma:

●  The body releases trauma and restores goodness

●  The healing journey revealed (trauma and transformation)

●  Trauma is often held in the body and experienced as chronic pain

●  Trauma release exercises (or tension release too) — the body speaks

Peter Levine’s work (created Somatic Experience Therapy):

●  Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences

●  In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness

●  Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body

●  Freedom from Pain: Discover Your Body’s Power to Overcome Physical Pain