The very nature of trauma is that it is overwhelming – it’s more than the organism can cope with. Trauma shatters our worldview and rules of fairness and justice no longer seem to apply.
Trauma often leads to a spiritual crisis and a profound re-evaluation of meaning. It takes us to very primitive place of fight–or–flight or dissociation. It’s very hard to live fully with a brain screaming “danger!”, and generating life or death scenarios at the slightest stimulus.
The best way to reset the old parts of our brain is to slowly wake up the body. Healing trauma is not about remembering. It is about self-regulating to turn down intense reactions in the body.
A simple and practical way to wake up the body and reset the brain is ‘shaking’, or Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®).
Inviting the trauma-releasing shaking using these exercises is actually quite easy, so when you’re practising TRE it’s important to understand three important aspects of the trauma response in body; freezing, flooding and dissociation to ensure the trauma-healing process is safe. Avoiding freezing, flooding and dissociation is a simple but powerful framework developed by David Berceli to help keep the process of shaking safe.
Freezing is a form of immobilisation. It’s one of the last ditch strategies we have in the face of overwhelming threat. It’s the sense of a loss of relationship to the body, where endorphins flood the spinal cord, and there is a ‘cutting off’ from feeling.
Often people’s bodies can go stiff in this stage (especially in the hands and feet), or conversely they can go very flacid – either way there’s an altered sense of the body.
You might feel cold or tingling or numb. Often the perception of your body shape changes, such as very small, far away feet, or big hands, or your belly disappears.
If this happens, it’s important to take a break from the exercise. Self-regulate and ground yourself and try again another day.
In the flooding everything starts to move too quickly – it’s associated with the ‘fight-or-flight’, mobilisation phase. Strong emotions, sensations, feelings or thoughts arise in quick succession. In flooding they are too overwhelming to be integrated into the present moment.
You might be thinking really quickly, or have the urge to talk really quickly. Your emotions might feel out of control, or you might begin to have really fast, difficult breathing patterns.
Whenever things feel like they’re beginning to get out of control, it’s important to stop the exercises, and to take back control of the situation.
Encourage yourself to slow down. Over a number of sessions learn to understand your difficult edges. Try to become more aware of the times when you start to go too quickly, because that’s when you need to stop.
This is a term that’s often used by therapists and other people in the mental health profession to describe a sort of mental withdrawal. It’s the experience of temporarily losing connection with your thoughts, sensations or feelings.
Dissociation is often used solely to describe the conscious element of the immobilisation response. In fact, ‘freezing’ and ‘dissociation’ describe the same neurology – going really, really quiet and a sense of ‘playing dead’ is the survival strategy here. We collapse and shutdown if our threat detection systems sense inescapable threat. So people might feel numb, or as though there’s a veil between them and the world.
The confusing part about dissociation is that it can often feel a little dreamy, and it often feels like quite a pleasant place. Sometimes it can feel terrifying, but it can also be quite floaty, which is one of the reasons why people sometimes confuse it with expanded spiritual experiences.
So, in summary, when you’re practising trauma healing work like TRE, it’s important to learn to interrupt freezing, flooding and dissociation as quickly as you can. Put the brakes on early and give your system time to settle and integrate.
Good luck, Steve
If you’ve experienced trauma, it’s really important to find the community and get support to rediscover what safety feels like, which may involve taking some chances and opening up to your friends and loved ones. I invite you to join one of our upcoming TRE events:
September 1st: TRE Introductory Day, Shoreditch
September 23rd: TRE Introductory Day, Camden
November 14th: TRE Introductory Day, Camden