This is PART TWO in a three-part series. In Part One, Annaliese recounted how her soaring career ambitions were derailed by many years of intense physical ailments— and their cognitive and emotional fallout. Dr. Peter Levine’s writings led her to SE® training, which provided her first opportunity to successfully “connect the dots” and forever changed the course of her career and life aspirations.
Jump to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
When I first began training in Somatic Experiencing® I felt like a fish out of water: completely inept. The corporate war stories and meticulous makeup that had served me so well in my previous career seemed totally out of place. But what I found was a rare acceptance at a most human level from my fellow classmates and instructors. They were students of life, highly educated individuals with amazing backgrounds in cognitive behavioral therapy, bodywork, equine rescue, and many other healing arts. Among them were first responders, crisis center directors, and social workers. I was inspired by their warm welcome and indebted to them for their wisdom and skill. But there was a learning curve to contend with and in many ways I was back in kindergarten.
Prior to reading In An Unspoken Voice I’d never given much thought to my triune brain: the primitive, limbic, and neo cortex. For that matter, I can’t say I’d ever given much consideration to my autonomic nervous system either. Biology, ecology, and anthropology were courses I took to earn a degree, but they didn’t apply to me personally, did they? I recognized the concept of a fight or flight instinct and the need for safety, and had, of course, heard of trauma. But to me the term always connoted blood-and-guts war stories from battlefields or horrible near-death experiences. Trauma was something always spelled with a capital ‘T.’
When discussed in the mainstream, there was more than a hint of negative connotation about trauma (quite similar, come to think of it, to the bias and discrimination I was facing in sharing my health diagnosis with employers and others). When Peter Levine wrote, “trauma is not a disease … but rather a human experience rooted in survival instincts,” he opened my mind to a richer context of trauma than I had ever imagined. I began to consider the possibility that people could be traumatized by emotional angst such as betrayal or abandonment, chronic stress, medical procedures, auto accidents, and so many other overwhelming “stream of life” situations we all face. I began to see trauma as a normalized part of living on Planet Earth.
Finishing my first year as a student of SE, my practitioner skills were developing and I had learned an entirely new vocabulary. Terms like trauma vortex, discharge, felt sense, container, and dysregulation helped me understand what was going on within me. It appeared that I had over-coupled and under-coupled certain memories, images, places, people and emotions from my past (I was stuck in a natural response of still overreacting to some stimuli and completely underreacting to others). My central nervous system was doing the best it could, but it was dysregulated: I may have looked normal but I was a car with both the brake and the accelerator engaged.
My system had developed strategies attempting to deal with the unresolved trauma. They had seemed to work for years— but unresolved trauma that is not properly dealt with continues to grow. You can only sweep things under the rug for so long before you find yourself living a disconnected life. I felt like an elastic band that had been stretched too far, for too long, and had cracked. I quickly learned that in order to work in this arena, it is critical that your own nervous system be regulated and have the capacity to hold the space for others. I wanted to be available to help others. So, first things first, I had some work to do.
The “work” was that I needed to honor, and not override, my body and its communications. My ever-burning shoulder and knotted viscera were telltale areas in my body. Each SE training session was a vehicle that took me miles into foreign territory. I found myself exploring sensations I had always wanted to “move past,” “get over,” or just ignore. Exploring them stimulated more physical sensations which just made it all the more confusing and uncomfortable at first. My body and legs would ping and pang, feet on fire, controlled shallow tight breathing, pulses and visible muscle twitches were common, and at the close of each session I’d drift off into some sort of glassy-eyed place. I was told this was a normal discharge of the trapped energy. It was hard material and hard work— but after each session I was calmer and it felt right.
Coincidentally, the sensations experienced during an SE session were very similar to the body sensations I routinely experienced with my Multiple Sclerosis. From the body tingling, tinnitus, burning feet, and light headedness to intermittent tightness in my diaphragm, my daily experience with MS seemed suspiciously similar to my own version of a discharge. Of course, it wasn’t an exact match: living with MS and Sjogren’s entailed many moving parts that wouldn’t be part of experiencing a discharge during an SE session. In watching others, I learned there were many ways to release the energy (from body movements to laughter, deep breathing, and tears). While I shared these similarities with other students, I discovered that everyone is truly unique. But what had once been utterly frustrating now had a possible explanation. Either my trauma had created a system ripe for autoimmune attack— or my autoimmune system was mimicking SE’s discharge process. I didn’t know which was the chicken or the egg, but I felt there was a connection to be made.
I wondered: “Was my body trying to renegotiate outcomes from traumatic events I’d experienced?” There were many suspects, ranging from childhood bullying and romantic betrayals, to surgeries and falls, to family alcoholism and a suspicion of a drugged date-rape incident, just to name a few. Certainly the multiple autoimmune diagnoses and living with these diseases contributed to (and could be defined as) a traumatic event— one I lived with on a daily basis for three years before I found SE.
“Could my chronic overworking have contributed to the trauma?” I asked myself. “Or were those habits my system’s way of staying safe?” I had done a pretty good job of constantly staying in motion, always ahead of everyone so I couldn’t get hurt. Keep everyone happy. Keep everything organized and ready to go. It wasn’t all bad and it made for a pretty good strategy for the short haul. I was able to rely on my hard-won education, make a good living, and enjoy a nice lifestyle. I had earned some of life’s bragging rights; but I’ve come to understand that life is a marathon. Now that I’ve run several of those grueling races I know (particularly in my body) that you can’t run non-stop marathons your entire life. No one is built for that. What was I running from? Looking back, I was locked into patterns of non-stop activity from which I would ultimately crash. That or they would take me into a zombie numbed-out kind of space. Hello autoimmune disease, come on in!
In the midst of my second year of SE training, my ideas cemented. I was encouraged to flesh out my theory that my central nervous system was simply expressing trauma. If so, then SE had the potential to release and heal that trauma and rebuild my “wiring”— and this would make SE the most powerful holistic tool I had found thus far. Could it be true? I began to seriously share my theory with others that if SE can regulate a normal person’s nervous system then why can’t it do that— and more— for those of us fighting autoimmune and central nervous system maladies? If we could release the stored trauma through somatic work and build more resilience back into our nervous systems could we effectively put an end to the disease processes and stop the attacks? Or could we at least make ourselves healthier and more equipped to deal with the hurdles of life?
About this time my chiropractor introduced me to the book The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD. The book’s theory of neuroplasticity was a concept that I was quick to recognize on a sort of organic level. Neuro is for neurons, the cells that process all the stimuli we encounter, and plastic means “changeable or malleable.” This is what SE professes to do: It restores our system so it can handle the world again. Through just the beginning stages of experiencing SE, I’d been overjoyed to see my system renegotiate old trauma and build new neurological pathways. It felt like I was operating on fresh ground, no longer automatically stuck in old repetitive ruts. It became my heartfelt belief that SE was contributing to my system’s neuroplastic change. With that change came a quieter and healthier central nervous system and body. I had more strength, more hope, greater clarity, and less fatigue. I was getting positive results.
And of course, I wanted to heal the world. Shout it from the rooftops! I had information to share and work to be done! It was all I could do to not talk about SE to anyone and everyone who would listen. I not only wanted to heal myself, but I greatly wanted to heal and help others who were in my shoes. I found myself dreaming into the future and building a plan to help others regain their lives and their futures. With this dream I found my light and there was meaning. Health was on the horizon: not just for me, but for many others.
Next > Part 3: Slow it Down or Risk a Relapse
In the concluding entry, Annaliese discovers she must listen to her body’s sense of proper pacing— a shock to this alpha-personality. Through the tools of SE, she finds both her own relief and a calling to help others.
Photo courtesy of the author