To be more fully alive and free means having greater capacity to meet everything in life we face—happy, sad, pain & loss, etc.—with our hearts less defended and thus able to access the love that’s deep within. Our bodies, with more ease and vitality to heal, connect and create the life we want. Our minds, not catastrophic but trusting all can be well. We may not be aware of how deeply braced we are. Instinctively, we brace to protect against feeling crushed and to manage high nervous system activation.
Puerto Peñasco, Mexico | Dec 25, 2022 | where this blog began
The focus of this blog is for folks with early distresses who feel shame, alone, or judged for not having control over their automatic contractive states. Overwhelmed as little ones, we got busy figuring out how to survive, to fix ourselves to be lovable, and forgo our needs (e.g. even as babies, we cry less, move less) to take care of distraught caregivers. Later in life, we may people please, numb ourselves from feeling with work/food/alcohol/internet, and so forth.
From my trainings in somatic-based trauma, as well as my own and my clients’ experiences, I’ve come to see how our early life impact our ability to stay more open. Not only did we need to be welcomed/touched/seen/heard, we also needed co-regulation—calm caregivers to soothe us as we encountered scary emotions and bodily sensations/energies, thus building resilience and a strong Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest). This enables us to self-soothe as well as engage with others to down-regulate overwhelm and threat. The VVC continues to grow throughout life when we feel safe to connect in nourishing ways.
Clients may show up with anxiety/shut down, OCD, eating issues, relationship challenges, lack of purpose, migraines, chronic fatigue/pain, IBS, etc. When chronically hyper-aroused, it’s harder for the body to rest/digest/heal.
In exploring their patterns together, I sometimes notice how reflexive and physical clients’ reactions are even when there was no early abuse or neglect. Many had to disconnect from their authentic self to be loved. Tension/energetic blocks show up somewhere in the midline—solar plexus, throat, gut, pelvis, neck, and/or shoulders hunched over with chest collapsed. As they reconnect to their real selves, they relax, feel energized, clear and soft toward self.
I frequently support clients to expand the body by opening their joints, as well as holding different parts of the body as taught by my Integral Somatic Psychology teacher Dr. Raja Selvam (www.integralsomaticpsychology.com). Emotions can get stuck in the joints and in the core of our body. The brain doesn’t know the difference between physical and emotional pain, so if we’re overwhelmed, we may shut down or dissociate. But if we expand the body through movement and touch, there’s more room for emotions to be digested. Also, by bringing the arms and legs back online rather than being flaccid, our psyche knows we can run/fight if necessary.
Bracing can be deep and intense in the viscera (i.e., internal organs) from womb to two years old. I once heard Stephen Terrell, PsyD (www.austinattached.com) describe preverbal trauma this way. For a pregnant mother who has a dysregulated nervous system from life stress or her own early traumas, or maybe an unwanted pregnancy, the womb environment doesn’t feel safe. A developing fetus is supposed to float in the womb. But instead it pulls against the womb wall in a contraction which might remain throughout life, causing one to experience people or the world as unsafe. However, a lot of "repair" can happen if mother gets support, becomes regulated and is able to nurture the growing baby/child.
Dr. Laurence Heller (www.drlaurenceheller.com), founder of the NeuroAffective Relational Model© (NARM), has created a specialized psychobiological approach to working with developmental trauma. He speaks about life themes that relate to our capacity for deep connection and aliveness. The earliest phase—what he calls connection survival style—concerns folks who have dealt with existential threat from womb to infancy and the psychological issues that follow.
When internal body sensations feel threatening, the world is perceived as dangerous. People often cope by isolation and dissociation. They may be drawn to spiritual work, live in their head, have a hard time feeling anything in the body, or find that what is felt is associated with a sense of nameless dread. It may show up as phobias, like a fear of illness or fear of death. (Oddly, the fear of death or illness may be reflective of a fear of life.) Having a name for the dread, even if it isn't accurate, gives a focus and sense of power to do something.
When clients obsess about not surviving a little symptom/issue or wake up feeling dread, I invite them to give space for the part of themselves that said they want to thrive rather than focusing on managing the dread. Not fighting the survival part, but holding both sides, they often can settle a bit inside.
Dr. Heller has said that underneath the anxiety could be anger. We’re wired to protest if our needs are unmet, but that response often got shut down when we were little. If clients are anxious, I know not to try and regulate it away. For example, one client has a pattern of feeling frustrated but fears his anger. Like many, he was dismissed/punished as a child when he protested. When he can own that he is mad and allow himself to feel—i.e., energetically contain the life force energy in his body and also be aware of the message of his anger (“I don’t like what you’re doing”)—he feels stronger inside and the anxiety level comes down. Then if he chooses to speak up, it comes from a place of inner strength and not lashing or acting out with aggravation or aggression.
With preverbal trauma, it can be helpful to self-regulate with stabilizing exercises. From my Somatic Experiencing (SE) trauma trainings, I learned about a syndrome called Global High Intensity Activation (GHIA) where we get stuck on high sympathetic arousal—tense, anxious, out of control. A person can be triggered in just a few seconds to where every cell in the body feels like it’s going to die. To preserve life, the nervous system shuts them down—the voice may become monotone, low energy, shallow breathing, shoulders hunched over, gut tight, etc. But underneath this shutdown is very high activation.
One of my SE teachers, Dr. Abi Blakeslee (www.abiblakeslee.com), says GHIA is like being plugged into a socket. She once suggested that a client of mine self-regulate every 2 hours, to ratchet things down and look for small shifts of 2-6%, which may be barely noticeable and on the surface not so motivating. But I invite clients to train the brain to notice these tiny shifts (like softening, warmth, flow, vibration) instead of allowing the survival brain to remain stuck on thoughts such as “I’m not going to make it.” Simple things, like orienting to the present space, squeeze the arms and legs, and grounding in the chair can help. Folks with GHIA cannot tolerate bigger shifts. Deb Dana, LCSW in her book, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection says research indicates small shifts accumulate, and over time bigger shifts can be felt.
It’s also vital to build tolerance for expansion. Clients may contract when things improve as their system can’t hold that much aliveness and it feels too vulnerable to not brace for “the other shoe to drop.” A client with preverbal trauma became very anxious each time her income increased. When asked what’s scary about thriving, it was a fear of losing everything and not surviving—perhaps that nameless dread.
Taking in bits of good, thousands of times, like the beauty of sunrise, sweet moments with family/friends/pets, etc., can take us out of the reptilian/survival part of the brain. Neuroscience says when we’re grateful our brain releases dopamine and serotonin which makes us feel good.
Touch can be helpful to address early traumas somatically as well as settle a very activated nervous system to support embodiment. In my Somatic Resilience Regulation (SSR) training, taught by Kathy Kain, PhD and Stephen Terrell, PsyD ( www.resilienceandregulation.com/), the focus is to create a safe haven while holding organs and parts of the body, either physically or intentionally (energetically) over Zoom. For example, the kidney adrenals are part of the signaling system of our stress response and the brainstem secretes substances around vigilance of our environment. The practitioner communicates through touch (such as kidney/adrenals/brainstem) and the younger self uses the somatic channel for access to safety and connection.
I sometimes incorporate Intentional Touch when clients are highly dysregulated or when very young parts show up. One client, whose mother was unconscious for 2 weeks when she was an infant, shared that she felt too attached to a partner. As she dropped into that energy of that, she felt numb, detached, “calm.” As we Presenced that, there was a flood of emotion, breath shallow, arms immobile. I offered remote touch to her kidney/adrenal and brainstem and gave messages to young parts like, ‘I’m here, you’re not alone.’
She settled and realized that she needed to ask herself, ‘What do I want?’ Invest more time with people she might have a future with, and that ultimately she’d be okay, saying, ‘I can take care of myself.’
I’m learning a very direct way to work with bracing from Jim Feil, MA, DC, RPP, BCST. His Formative Embodiment work draws on many years of studies with master teachers in polarity, embryology, human development, Cranial Biodynamics and Pre and Perinatal Therapy.
How can we access our formative intelligence which is pulsatory with energetic expansive and contractive dimensions? We can engage with automatic constrictions with curiosity rather than helplessness. Though our formative intelligence has known how to evolve us since conception, we can lose touch with it. In this work, one process we do is look for gestures and shapes in the body. We intensify and de-intensify them in tiny amounts which can bring about bodily waves, insights, feelings, sensations, energy flows, etc. As we track that, a reorganization may happen, giving a sense of freedom and aliveness.
One client shared that she felt anxious and uncertain. Her left hand gripped her solar plexus/heart area. I invited her to slow down, intensify & de-intensify multiple times, with pauses to allow new sensations and information to reorganize her system. What emerged was the helplessness she felt as a child in a chaotic home. She saw her compulsive need to control and fix others before she can settle. She felt stuck and looked at me with “help!” in her eyes.
What’s needed is Presence by another with tenderness and total acceptance of all parts of us with—zero fixing. If we can find or ask for that level of holding and our system takes it in, bit by bit we can feel more whole, less empty from early lack, a lack which fuels the need for outside validation to know we matter. Her right hand began to engage. Opening it a tiny bit caused more anxiety. But as she stayed with the activation, the hand, then the arm, stretched wide open in a receptive pose all on its own. She felt more alive and free, even though she was still unsure about the future. When we’re open, more possibilities are available.
I hope you found something useful in this blog. There is still so much more to learn and apply. I’d like to share a simple way to build resilience which Kathy Kain calls “Objecting Without Contracting.” Whatever you don’t want that is happening, notice where you feel it in the body. Bring breath to it. Bring in kindness, maybe from someone, even a spiritual figure. The invitation is how to stay present, allow the breath to move, and not harden yourself by constricting while objecting to what is.
With support for our bodies and from people whom we can feel deeply met by, we can begin to trust we’ll be okay and not perish if we feel the depths of our pain. There’s a vitality to grief, if we allow ourselves to feel it, as opposed to a depressive kind of grief that doesn’t move and feels endless. We can tap into our inner strength when we’re willing to feel the energy of anger and hear its message without shutting down or acting out. When we don’t constrict as much, we feel more of our innate aliveness. Unbraced, we have access to our deep heart which is vast and can hold everything.
Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a psychotherapist or mental health counselor. The info above is for educational purposes. It is not a substitute for licensed medical, psychological or psychiatric help.
Brianna Ho Delott, MBA, BBA-PSYC is a Master NARM Practitioner & P-Somatic Experiencing Practitioner; also certified in Integral Somatic Psychology and spiritual counseling with the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. She’s completed the Transforming the Experienced-Based Brain (for fetus/infant traumas) as well as other trauma healing modalities. She supports clients internationally to reconnect with their aliveness and their real selves. www.BriannaHoDelott.com