I’ve been doing Somatic Experiencing training this year, a program I have deep respect for and a practice that has been very helpful in my own personal trauma work and in crafting programs that are trauma-informed. Somatic Experiencing explores how implicit trauma memories are stored in the muscles of our body, and how we can work to meet unmet safety needs from past trauma through present moment choice and empowerment.
The first year training is offered in three 4-day blocks. During the first block I was in the early stages of chronic fatigue, having little understanding of what was happening in my body and having even less understanding of how to take care of it. I also did not really understand just how sensitive I am, and how my senses can only take in a certain amount of new stimulation at a time. By day 3 of the training, I was overwhelmed and had to take a day off to lay in bed and recover so that I could return for the final day.
Being in Choice
By the second block I understood much more about how to pace myself, so I planned 11 hours of sleep per night, a 40-minute nap during the lunch break, and no extra work during the four days. My mission was simply to do the training at a pace my body could handle.
In the training room I set myself up well, tending to each of my sensory needs:
- I put a seat at the very back of the room where I could have some space (proprioception);
- I positioned the seat far enough away from the noisy fridge in the corner that my auditory senses could handle it (hearing);
- I brought in cushions so that my seat was comfortable and I wore comfortable clothing that didn’t dig in or distract me (touch);
- my cushions also allowed me to sit with my knees slightly lower than my hips and with my lower back supported so that I could comfortably sit in a supported upright position (balance/vestibular system);
- I remembered to check in with my body (interoception) and make adjustments (sensory modulation) where I felt discomfort, like releasing my shoulders down when they felt tight, allowing my belly muscles to relax, allowing my thigh muscles to relax;
- I brought 3 pairs of seeing glasses with different prescriptions to make sure I had one that helped me see best, and I was ready to wear my sunglasses inside if I found the lighting too painful (sight); and
- I brought tasty food in keeping with my detox diet (taste).
I loved the first day and half of the training. I loved what I was learning about the threat defense system, why my body does what she does in response to threat, and how I can constantly support her in her efforts to bring herself back into regulation. I loved that what I was learning fit beautifully into the Somatic Self-Compassion program and other trauma-informed programs I teach and plan to teach. And I loved being with all of those helping professionals who so earnestly want to support the wider community to live more authentic, free lives.
Being Out of Choice
Then, half way through the afternoon of day 2, a few things happened quickly and I was no longer regulated. All of my strategies for keeping my senses from being overwhelmed couldn’t support me as:
- suddenly a bunch of people stood around me as I sat in my chair during a group process and I felt trapped;
- I was unexpectedly put into a small group with people I hadn’t worked with on the first day, after anticipating working with the same people again; and
- I was unexpectedly positioned in the middle of a very loud room in a place I didn’t feel comfortable with, whereas the previous day my group was in a quieter corner of the room.
For someone as sensitive as me, these three things were enough to put me into overwhelm, a place where we can’t learn and we can’t grow. We basically go into threat defense mode in this place.
First Line of Defense Strategies
I did my best to “roll with it” with some strategies I could bring in while I was in the training:
- I took a bathroom break to gather myself alone in a stall;
- I drank water to nourish myself and to give myself choice;
- I asserted myself and told the group about some of my spatial/proprioception needs as we were working out where exactly to position ourselves;
- I asserted that I wasn’t going to be one of the first people in the group to volunteer to take part in an exercise because I felt overwhelmed.
I sat with these first lines of defense for a while, and realized that I was still overwhelmed and that these were not enough. Part of me felt I should stay in the group even if I was uncomfortable, which would have moved me deeper into a freeze/immobilization state, but the stronger part of me wanted to respond to this threat with flight. So I let the small group know that I needed to take a break outside because I was feeling overwhelmed. The beautiful thing about being in a training about how to manage overwhelm is that everyone understands what you mean and is very kind about you taking care of yourself. I gracefully left the room.
Recouping and Reevaluating
My next strategy then was to walk outside and get into my car to gather myself. My car’s interior is familiar and safe; I had intentionally parked it near some flowers and trees so that I had some visual relief from the concrete and straight lines of the building; and I could control the climate so that I was at a comfortable temperature. I sat at the steering wheel and checked in with myself.
I felt a cascade of thoughts and emotions as I reviewed my situation:
- I had felt a threat and responded to it by leaving (flight);
- I had gotten to safety (my car) and was able to then feel the emotions that weren’t accessible during the overwhelm;
- I started to judge myself (I should be able to stay in a training – what’s wrong with me that I need to leave?) and felt shame over my emotions and my actions – then I could name shame;
- I realized I was in a threat response cycle and could name it as that;
- I felt angry at the organizers of the training that they would change groups without notice, and that the room we were in was loud and cramped – then I could name anger;
- I felt sad for the younger part of me that felt overwhelmed and had had no choice many years ago – then I could name sadness;
- I felt anger at the people who didn’t give her choice all those years ago;
- I remembered that wallowing in the past was not very helpful and brought my awareness to the present moment where I could make contact with a wise old part of me that could validate all of my actions and emotions and had helped me take the actions needed to make sure I was no longer left without choice during overwhelm;
- I felt gratitude and pride at being able to access this older part of me – I realized that she is me and that what is happening is that I am becoming wiser.
I had been through a complete dysregulation/regulation cycle of:
- being overwhelmed (dysregulated, out of my window of tolerance);
- having my sympathetic nervous system kick in which lead me to escape to the restroom (flight);
- returning to the room because it was what was expected of me (a combination of sympathetic nervous system and social engagement resulting in appeasing);
- sitting with the overwhelm for a while without being able to make a decision (dorsal vagal parasympathetic response leading to freeze/immobilization);
- feeling (through interoception) that I didn’t have the resources to manage the overwhelm and that in order to stay I’d need to go further into a freeze state (using my prefrontal cortex and prior knowledge to assess the situation);
- deciding that I deserved better than to be in freeze (self-compassion/empowerment);
- telling my group I needed to leave (mobilization/social engagement);
- leaving (sympathetic/flight);
- sitting in my car (discharge of threat defense energy);
- anger (sympathetic/fight response noticed through interoception);
- sadness (ventral vagal response/parasympathetic connection with myself and my feelings noticed through interoception);
- comfort and self-appreciation (ventral vagal response/parasympathetic connection and responding with self-compassion);
Empowered Flight Decision
I walked back to the space and used one last piece of social engagement energy to let my group know that I was going to finish for the day and that I’d see them again tomorrow. The shame I felt over not being able to stay was still there as an undercurrent, but I could navigate through that. I was a little teary, but I knew what I had to do, and I began…
Once I got home I made myself comfortable, got something to eat, and decided that I wanted to process by writing all of this down. And I also wanted to tell you, dear reader, about how we can navigate these experiences through understanding them, through having some tools in our toolkit, and through developing our wisdom and self-compassion. Thank you for reading, and for being on this journey with me. If you’d like to learn more about these processes, I’d love to see you at the next Somatic Self-Compassion training.
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