I always have a blanket in my office for clients. Not only for if they get cold, but for that sensory input when discussing hard things. I work with women who have experienced trauma. The brave souls who have trusted me with their stories have endured rape, sexual abuse, emotional violence, assault, and complex, life-long trauma.
For these women, their bodies and their daily life do not feel safe because their brain is stuck in survival mode. Their bodies don’t recognize that their environment is non-threatening. Their brains simply code everything as a threat and pump all the necessary survival hormones and chemicals into their bodies to prepare them for the worst.
Living this way has become the norm for many of these women, and even though they may recognize that something is not quite right, they don’t know any different. So when they start talking about a memory or the way something made them feel, their bodies start sounding alarms as if the event is presently happening rather than being just a memory.
You are actually brilliant.
An amazing part about this is that our bodies are actually brilliant because they are simply trying to find safety for us. To reduce the stress. To fight to get away. So rather than a weakness, this is a brilliant sign of resilience. We also have this amazing internal system that works conversely to calm us down. That releases hormones and chemicals to counteract the stress and bring us comfort. And you know how we can activate this? A hug.
Okay, so maybe you don’t need an actual hug (although this is one way to do it), but here’s a brief rundown of the biology of it. We have this nerve called the Vagus Nerve that runs behind our ear down the center of our torso and ends down in our pelvis. This nerve is responsible for many things, one job which specifically impacts two systems: the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. These systems are responsible for the activation and deactivation of our fight or flight response. Following so far?
So when our ancestors saw a lion while they were hunting for food, their Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) told them RUN. The SNS would pump adrenaline and cortisol in to the body, accelerate the heart rate, dilate the pupils, begin sweating, slow digestive system, etc. These were all necessary for the person to get the frick out of there or fight for their damn lives. When they were done, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) would oppositely release calming chemicals, slow heart rate, calm breathing, and provide a body environment of rest. Time to eat, have sex, go to the bathroom, and sleep! How crazy cool is it that our bodies have these amazing systems to take care of us!
When things go wrong.
For many of my lovely clients, they would experience a situation that activated their SNS and yet, the event being so incredibly traumatic and incomplete, their bodies didn’t have the opportunity to physically exert the stress chemicals (as you would fighting or running from a lion), so it gets stuck. All these women had experienced situations of extreme trauma that left them feeling helpless and unsafe in their body. Sure, they may learn to live with it, but man, it sure is not truly living.
When things go wrong like this, our bodies do not rest into our PNS response that gives us relief and closure to a situation. We are stuck in that activated state. When my clients come to me, they are desperate for relief. This constant activated state can wreak havoc on our bodies, causing us digestive issues, sickness, and lots of other health problems.
Why I have a blanket.
It turns out that the system that may seem like a curse is actually a really neat blessing. We can manually activate the PNS – remember, that’s the calming system in our body. This can be done in an infinite number of ways, but one way I like to do it is by using a blanket. Its not complicated, I simply have my client stand up, wrap the blanket around their shoulders and sit back down. I ask them to pull the blanket a little tight (not weird, just snug) and take deep breaths.
Here’s what happens behind the scenes. Inside the person, the Vagus Nerve (remember we talked about that?) gets compressed by the gentle squeeze action, much like what a hug does. This compression on the nerve communicates that its time to send the calming team out to relieve the activated one. The body then releases the necessary hormones that slow the breath, heart, etc. I may be biased, but how freaking cool is that??
The Vagus is our friend.
There is no end to the amazingness that is the Vagus Nerve. I highly suggest reading about it more. Its a super neat connector that also is involved with how our gut influences our emotions, how deep breathing affects calming, and more.
One thing I work with my clients to begin to do is to befriend their story. I want my clients to come to a place where they process and come to accept the hard chapters in their lives and find the courage and strength to write new ones. You have what it takes. Its all inside you. It just may be trapped and need a little companionship to bring it out.
If you are in the Seattle area or reside in Washington state and would like to work towards processing your story, head to this page for more information and to send me a message. xo