Touch into Calm

LA and Orange County Body Centered Psychotherapy
Therapy for Stress, Trauma, Depression, Relationship Issues
Adults, Children, and Family

Trauma/Stress Continuum

Imagine a line or continuum of 0-10.  At 0 on the continuum, we are living within our window of tolerance for basic everyday occurrences of stress.  Our activation level rises, we might feel a bit uncomfortable, and at the same time we are functioning and eventually the stress resolves itself by solving the problem, getting away from the problem, exercising afterward, and taking good care of ourselves.  At 1 or 2, we may for example, be in a stressful job where we are continually dealing with a negative coworker who may remind us of someone from our past. We try to avoid them or find ourselves arguing with them, and our stress responses go up: increased heart rate, sweating, clammy palms, and nervousness when we confront them. 

Now at 5 and 6, we are in a stressful job situation, where more events seem to aggravate us; we’re taking home work, and our boss may be asking for more than was previously expected. We are also finding ourselves snapping at our spouse or kids for no very good reason, or even trying to withdraw from family functions.  The stress becomes ongoing and cumulative.  The stress is outside our window of tolerance and it’s affecting our daily functioning and relationships.  In fact, we’re having trouble sleeping, we’re developing frequent headaches and the doctor just said that we've got high blood pressure.  We’re having trouble staying in the moment, enjoying family outings.   We’re forgetting appointments, people’s names, things which we used to hold in our brain with ease.  The stress is now affecting our physical health as well as our thoughts, emotions and personal relationships.  This is accumulated stress.  It can begin at any time in our life; but if it occurs early and or if it is continuous, we develop a stress pattern.  That means that our body has set a kind of default high stress pattern.  We are outside our window of tolerance so much that our body goes on high alert, all the time; or perhaps, goes on more of an avoidance/alert up and down wave, where we might feel anxiety or dread, mixed with lows of sluggishness, feeling out of it, tired, etc.  It feels kind of like flipping from anxiety to depression and it shows up in different levels of intensity and symptoms for each person.  We might occasionally notice that we are sitting in our chair reading emails and sense all the muscles in our body are braced or tense for no apparent reason.  There seems to be extra unwanted energy that needs to be discharged.  This is a form of stress response or trauma that many of us live much of our lives with, and it often leads to mid-life physical symptoms and diseases that can be avoided or resolved.  Dealing with it now, in a psycho-physiological way, will help us find relief, and we learn a new way of being in the world where we can change our default high stress pattern to a calmer state or pattern where we can experience more joy in life again.  Here is where we see that stress and trauma are physiological responses, as well as emotional and cognitive.  In body centered therapy, we deal with all of it, starting with the body and including sensation, imagery, behavior, emotions and meaning. 

Of course, when a person places themselves as an 8, 9, or 10 on that ever-changing continuum, we are experiencing a higher, more intense, more pervasive sense of stress and trauma.  There may have been different levels of intensity of early childhood trauma, or severe and acute trauma, such as a bad car accident, loss of a loved one through death or divorce, medical or surgical trauma and especially, combat trauma.

There are different types of trauma, and each person's life experiences are unique.  All types and levels of severity of trauma can be dealt with gently through a body centered psychobiological approach to healing. In some, but not all cases, it is a good idea to have a psychiatrist, other MD, or specialist involved in the healing process, especially if medication or other supports are needed, for whatever reason.  Sometimes people who are experiencing trauma and repeated stress will understandably self-medicate through use of alcohol, drugs, food; or engage in other self-destructive yet relieving behaviors to reduce the stress.  As the nervous system begins to relax and sense safety, there will be less need to use these behaviors, and a plan to extinguish them can be made.

The diagnostic term for trauma is PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It is not the event itself that is the trauma, but it is our system's physical and emotional responses as well as stress patterns or stress states that emerge with respect to daily functioning and relationships that are affected.  These aggravating symptoms present themselves as trauma or a traumatic event. Shock Trauma is this kind of incident or event related type of trauma.  When a person has had a relatively resilient and safe childhood, and later on in life, for example, experiences a frightening car accident, they may likely experience this event as traumatic, and we might consider this shock trauma.  The person may develop stress response symptoms that interfere with their sense of well-being.  They may experience fear of driving, fear of riding in the car on freeways or bridges even as a passenger.  Their life functioning is disrupted and they may begin to exhibit fear responses or anxiety about other things in life that they used to be able to handle. This could result in experiencing fear about having to leave the house in general, especially when driving or riding in the car is necessary.  A positive outcome can be achieved from this psychobiological therapy.

Another type of trauma is Developmental or sometimes referred to as Complex Trauma. Developmental Trauma occurs within the first 18 years of life and often earlier.  It may begin as early as in the womb if there is stress to the fetus, during the birth process or soon after birth. These are physiological stresses to the young system and can make them vulnerable to developmental stress patterns or trauma.  In early life, it is essential that the baby, toddler or child feel a strong sense of being safe in the world. There are many things that happen in life that can make the world feel unsafe for whatever reason.  Attachment/bonding with the caregivers is essential, because humans are dependent on our caregivers for many years as the brain, sensation, emotion, motor function, social engagement and language all develop. When attachment is ruptured between the child and parent; for example, by a caregiver who may have been unavailable for any reason to the child, this stresses the system on a physiological level, affecting all areas of functioning.

Before logical thought and perhaps even language have developed, a child's system will subconsciously develop stress patterns to deal with the overwhelming stress of not having basic needs including attachment and bonding sufficiently met.  If there is constant discord and stress on one or both parents, the child's system senses it and responds.  There are so many things that can and do happen in the process of growing up that can make us feel unsafe. Many of them happen completely by accident.  Other times, there may be long standing disruptions such as neglect, verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse.  Sometimes there is substance abuse by one or more of the caregivers to cope with their own stress levels.  Any number of things can happen to cause what we would call developmental trauma. In this situation, a person learns stress coping patterns to deal with the overwhelm of not having their needs met. This type of trauma often occurs in a pre-verbal and subconscious stage when stress patterns are developed and held within the body.  This is why deep body sensing and touch therapy are so important to effect deep and lasting change in the person's system as a whole.  There may be a kind of hyper- or hypo-arousal state, which becomes the person's default stress pattern for how they routinely approach the world.  Often these patterns fluctuate from hypo to hyper, which might feel like depression or stuckness to high anxiety.

It is difficult to function and relate to others effectively when we are experiencing these low and high intensity states.  The problem with the effects of developmental trauma is that it sets the person up to be more vulnerable to other traumas later in life, because they often do not fully develop sufficient self-protective responses, social/verbal skills and boundaries. If left untreated, it can lead to difficulties with physical health, job stress, bonding issues in relationship, overwhelm, self-medicating and substance abuse, chronic medical conditions, etc.  
Developmental trauma is addressed by helping the client to create a sense of safety, to help co-regulate stress with the therapist, until the person can learn to self-regulate stress levels. Attachment repair also creates safety and a way for the person to engage with self and others in a flexible and safe style.  Attachment repair begins with a healthy developing bond with the therapist. As indicated, with the body centered or SE approach to therapy, we begin to sense an increase of balance or coherence in our system; we increase resilience as we build our window of tolerance, or our capacity to hold both pleasant and unpleasant life experiences.  We begin to experience more moments of calm alertness, a sense well-being in the world, and joy.
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