Befriending body sensations
Bodily sensations are expressions of response to environmental stimulus. Our bodies work out what it believes to be an appropriate response to what it believes is happening to it. Bodies that have been historically traumatised respond to present day, perceived threat, in ways that they believe maximise survival in the face of the original trauma. I have seen a client habitually respond to passing cars with a body language of anxious concern. This automatic response was their body’s way of responding to the possibility of an approaching threat. This person had been traumatised by the return of an abusive caregiver early in life, and their body had internalised approaching cars as precluding a hostile situation. Rationally the person knew there was no threat in this situation. Yet the body memory kept triggering self-protective action.
Our bodies are intricate networks of organs, muscles cells, blood vessels, nerve clusters all inter connected by visceral axioms. The sole purpose of the body, or organisms is survival. This is achieved through complex operations of digestion, motility, rest, regulation and nurture.
During a traumatic event our bodies activate the default mechanisms for survival. With the passing of the traumatic event, the body seeks to return to a state of safety. There are many situations where returning to safety is not a straightforward process. Frequently, for many there is little or no safety to return to. Remaining vulnerable, maintains an unfortunate state of hypervigilance, reactivating bodily and neural circuits which try to keep us alive.
The three F’s: basic strategies for survival
Many of us will have heard of fight/flight or freeze. These are our basic organismic survival strategies, shared by all organisms. When threatened, our first natural response is to fight back. If this strategy is not viable, we may choose to flee. Both of these strategies are action strategies; neural circuits produce hormones to trigger adrenaline which elevates blood pressure, stimulates muscle activity into taking action to hopefully bring us back into safety. What happens within our bodies is, energy is diverted away from where it is not needed, from digestion, bowel, kidney and liver activity – and sent to respiration, heart rate, and muscular motivation. The success or failure rate of this strategy is stored in muscle memory – when we face threat again our whole system, hormones, adrenaline, muscle and visceral tension is stored, ready for action. Ideally; when the threat has passed, people regroup and work towards pacifying each other, reassuring, comforting and returning to a state of safety.
If fight and flight produce consistent failure, the attacking force is too powerful, the organism is left with no option but to freeze, shut down – it has been overwhelmed. All internal resources are channelled to maximising survival. We see mice and birds paralysed with fear, and for all appearances they seem dead. The survival mechanisms in their brains have instructed their bodies to redirect all energy to where it is needed most, keeping the heart beating, oxygenating the brain stem and vital organs, sending restorative blood cells to damaged tissue or injury sites. The organism needs to be certain that the threat has sufficiently left before it can reactivate more of itself.