Trauma, Somatics, and Being Fully Alive

“Trauma is lived out in the theatre of your body. You are at war with your body and your body is at war with you. How do you find safety in your body?”
— Bessel van der Kolk, MD

In August, I attended Body, Brain and Trauma, a 5-day intensive course at Hollyhock Lifelong Learning Center with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, MA. He has spent decades of research on PTSD and childhood trauma and is the author of The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaThis book is required reading for those in the Essential Somatics Clinical Somatic Education professional training and I wanted to learn more from the author himself.

Here is some of what I learned as well as my thoughts on why Hanna Somatics is a powerful complement to other therapies to help guide one to live and move more fully in the present. 

  1. Trauma changes our brains and our lives. Trauma is a tragically common event, especially for children. Trauma changes our brain and our ability to feel ourself. We become out of sync with ourselves. When we are out of sync with ourselves we become out of sync with those around us – with our communities, with the rhythm of our environment, with even our most basic needs such as nutrition, sleep, and personal hygiene. While trauma keeps us from being fully alive in the present, it isn’t about the past; it’s the residue of the past that is still within us that still controls how we behave, what we feel, and what we think. We are in a constant, unconscious state of reaction to past events.
  2. The very parts of the brain that define “who we are” (what van der Kolk called the “Mohawk of Awareness") go offline when we are traumatized. The ability to observe yourself from within (self-sense), self-regulate, understand the difference between past, present and future, and the ability to focus and filter out unnecessary information occurs in these areas. Thankfully, there are activities that can bring these areas of the brain back online.
  3. Trauma can be helped through movement. Movement, both slow and vigorous (play, conversation, writing, theater games, drumming, martial arts, dancing with others, art, singing with others, etc.) can help us attune to others and sync up in a fun, safe way with those around you. Echoing Thomas Hanna, van der Kolk told us that emotions are about movement and that the brain is an organ whose function is one of muscular coordination. Information and talking is important, yet movement and connection to our place in the world is critical to allowing who we want to be to reemerge. Movement programs that teach self-regulation and somatic awareness are crucial for children as well as adults.
  4. The environment at Hollyhock was conducive to taking these steps to rewiring the brain from trauma: beach walks, bicycling, singing, kayaking, gentle yoga, nature walks, and delicious, healthy food shared with others created a sense of community. I had just finished teaching a Myth of Aging retreat to a group of students who had come to learn to sense themselves, calm their nervous systems and brains, and create more physical freedom. How perfect to go from a movement experience to a course that explained more deeply how events of the past can prevent us from feeling fully alive.

Clinical (Hanna) Somatics is a safe way to reclaim a sense of agency. In addition to supportive therapies like EMDR, pscyhotherapy, art therapy, or music, it can go a long way towards rewiring the traumatized brain and moving one towards awareness, choice, and embodiment.

Bring the Mohawk of Awareness back online: Thomas Hanna observed that to improve our overall functioning (and subsequently our ability to control ourselves, our thinking, and our choices) we must first go within, to our “sensing selves” – that same sensing self that taught us how to know ourselves when we were children. The brain learns through repetition and feedback. The more you sense and move with curiosity and awareness the more able you are to retrain your brain to become more self-sensing, self-regulating and self-actualizing. "Who you are" and who you can be changes.

Bring movement and emotions into sync: The Green Light, Red Light, and Trauma stress reflexes are hard-wired in our primitive brains. These physical responses to stress are also emotional: joy, freedom, avoidance, escape, protection, fear, and anxiety. Only by recreating these reflexes can we become aware of them when they happen involuntarily. This can help put emotional and bodily sensations into perspective.

Curiosity and Imagination are first steps to change: A traumatized brain is not fully in the present. The timing function of the brain does not adjust to the belief of “this too shall pass.” Curiosity and imagination wakes up the timing functions of your brain so you can sense – just for today – how you can release tension and experience yourself more fully. Hanna Somatic Movement is sensory motor training. What you sense you can change.

Restore the ability to self-regulate to become more present: Pandiculation, the action pattern taught in Hanna Somatics, resets the resting level of tension in our central nervous system and muscles. It sends new feedback to the brain so that you can connect what you are moving to how you feel. Animals in the wild pandiculate up to 40 times a day in order to stay present in their bodies and in control of their movement! Safety from within begins with your ability to sense yourself and connect what you feel to what is actually happening in the present.

Humans are intensely social creatures with a need to give to others, play, contribute, and grow. Inside each one of us is the innate ability to move beyond our past and into a future of our own making. There is hope, support, and methods that really work to help us on that road.  I encourage those of you for whom this information has been helpful to seek out the help you need in order to bring yourself back into the rhythm of life.

Read more about the Trauma Center here.

Listen to Bessel van der Kolk here.