Originally published 2012
Last year my husband and I welcomed a furry dog-child into our tribe, a wonderful Golden Retriever named Theo. Since then, my fascination with the human condition has been rivaled by an interest in dog behavior, and how the ability of both species to naturally and internally restore wellness has commonalities. Last year, I also embarked upon a 3 year training program in a cutting-edge technique for treating trauma called Somatic Experiencing®. Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a Body Awareness technique for healing trauma by teaching the nervous system how to self-regulate, discharging stored trauma energy, and restoring the body’s innate sense of safety, goodness, and capacity to connect. Now, I’m no dog expert, and I do run the risk of oversimplifying and seeing his behavior through my own lens here, but Theo has taught me 3 specific things that have helped put the basics of treating trauma in perspective.
As mammals, dogs and humans share the same basic nervous system, which has evolved from more simple, primitive systems. Without getting too complicated, we have two basic systems that work in tandem to keep us ready and regulated: The Sympathetic Nervous System (the activating Fight/Flight “gas”), and the deactivating Parasympathetic Nervous System (the self-regulation “brake”). It’s necessary to be able to mobilize energy for a stressful situation, but it’s meant to be temporary, so it’s also essential for a nervous system to be able to come down from that danger once it has passed. For a nervous system, activation is activation. The body (dog or human) doesn’t necessarily know the difference between “good” or “bad” activation; it just has a sense of “too much”, which left unrestrained, can be downright uncomfortable. Upon arriving home, my husband and I are greeted by Theo’s requisite wiggly, enthusiastic Unconditional Love-Fest. I notice when he reaches his activation threshold, and so does he. Theo’s solution to the sense of “too much” is to avidly seek out the nearest stuffed toy, bone, or other symbol of safety and carry it around in his mouth until he calms down. It’s his way of self-soothing and self-regulating, thereby bringing his activation levels back down into his comfort zone. Humans, of course, also do this, through a variety of ways, some healthier than others. But for a traumatized system, this ability can be diminished or feel out of control. One objective in SE treatment is to re-teach the system how to regulate naturally without becoming overwhelmed.
2) Shake it off
When Theo encounters a stressful situation in the form of a mean dog or a car ride (he’s just not a fan), once removed from the stressor he takes a moment, regroups, shakes it off, and promptly goes about his dog business, unscathed. Humans, too, have this instinct. Shaking, while perhaps not the zealous, fur-flying variety, is one of the body’s natural ways of releasing all of the intense energy that becomes mobilized when our systems tell us that Fight/Flight should become engaged. Shaking serves as a sort of release valve; it’s necessary, and a good thing. Think about your last really activating experience: an accident, or a near-miss of one, an intense confrontation. Chances are, after the danger had passed, you shook, or felt the impulse to. Theo doesn’t necessarily make a conscious choice; his natural impulse is just to shake. With people, it gets a little more complicated. We might feel the impulse to let that shaking occur, but our thoughts can inhibit that instinct by telling us things like “buck up! It’s no big deal; it’s bad to feel this way”. Or we might bring that activation down artificially by taking a drink, a pill, or using some other means to stop it. But by inhibiting that organic process, we run the risk of locking that intense Fight/Flight “trauma energy” into the body, where it is stored. An unhealthy build-up of this energy can manifest itself in many ways, causing physical, emotional, and mental disruptions: Anxiety, depression, stress, dissociation, physical pain and illnesses can all have their origin in stored trauma energy. In such a traumatized system, the next time the body senses a threat or stressor, however small, all of that pent-up energy becomes re-activated, and we wonder why we are having what feels like a huge reaction over a small argument or a work deadline. It’s important to note here that not only “big” traumas can cause this system overwhelm or sense of being stuck. Trauma is relative – any threat that causes us to feel that we are helpless, powerless, or in danger (physically or emotionally) has the potential to be traumatizing. This can include minor accidents, medical/dental procedures (especially as children), or troublesome relationships. In SE treatment, we work towards gently and gradually allowing the trapped trauma energy to release, thereby creating more space for natural equilibrium and wholeness.
Despite being a rescue dog with an unknown past, Theo is well-adjusted and seeks solace and safety from us. We are his pack, and he actively seeks our company. When he’s happy, he wants to share that with us. When he’s frightened, he presses against us for the comfort and assurance that we are together and available for one another. Like dogs, humans are essentially pack animals. While we are hard-wired to rely on others for physical and emotional support, for a traumatized system, this connection can feel troubling, foreign, uncomfortable and unsafe. SE views this as a reflection of the discomfort and disconnect within our own system; if our bodies feel like an unsafe and dis-regulated place to be, it’s only natural that we might feel unsafe around others, too. This is addressed by first working toward establishing a sense of safety within the body. As we learn to become familiar with sensations and feelings and how to regulate them, the system becomes more expansive and our ability to connect with others in an authentic way comes back online.