What Does “Somatic” Mean: Part Two
In the previous blog post we explored how the word “psychosomatic” refers to the mind-body connection. Together the mind and body seek homeostasis—balance and stability. We maintain homeostasis by being able to feel when something is wrong so we can take action to correct it. Homeostasis works to ensure our mind-body’s number one goal: survival. Besides that, it just feels good. As trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk puts it, “If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations—if you can trust them to give you accurate information—you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.” (The Body Keeps the Score p. 96)
This post explores how trauma changes all that. We’ll look at some of the main defenses the mind-body uses against traumatic impact. We’ll also see how those defenses both help and hinder us.
Trauma Disrupts the Mind-Body Connection
In the face of an immediate threat to safety, our basic self-protective responses are fight, flight, and freeze. By definition, trauma is what develops when these responses fail to keep us safe. In the words of trauma specialist Dr. Robert Scaer, “the combination of a life threat associated with helplessness is the prerequisite for trauma to occur.” (The Body Bears the Burden, p.100)
To withstand the sensory overload this threat creates, the somatic equivalent of a breaker switch flips in your mind-body circuit. The mind and body disconnect from one another, which disrupts your ability to effectively and accurately perceive your external and internal sensory experience. The result can be a feeling of detachment from reality, your own internal experience, your sense of self, or even all three.
Common Forms of Disconnection
Everyone has a threshold where an experience can become “too much”. This is normal. Yet there is a point at which the resulting disconnection becomes problematic, even disabling. This usually happens when the disconnection becomes so frequent or intense that it impacts one’s quality of life. When this is the case, trauma is usually at the root. Although there are many kinds of disconnection, let’s explore some of the most common forms.
Dissociation is typified by a marked sense of disconnection from aspects of everyday living. Two main forms are:
- Depersonalization: a state in which your feelings and thoughts don’t seem real, as if they don’t belong to you. You begin to lose aspects of your own identity and sense of self.
- Derealization: a state where you feel detached from your surroundings; people and things seem unreal or dream-like. This is not a true break from reality (or psychosis) because in this state you are aware that it isn’t normal.
When something is too painful to accept, denial is the means by which your conscious mind blocks an external or internal event from registering. You feel the experience but then consciously reject it as being untrue or not real.
One common way to avoid confronting a painful situation is by applying mental analysis (commonly referred to as “overthinking.”). In essence, you think an emotion rather than feel it.
Desensitization (or Numbing)
Desensitization is when the volume on your internal and external sensory experience gets turned way down. The results may be physical (e.g., a high tolerance to pain or heat), emotional (e.g., apathy, “cold-heartedness”), or both.
When you disconnect from your own feelings and then displace them onto someone else, you are projecting. For example, you feel enraged with someone but accuse them of being enraged with you.
Repression enables you to block intolerable thoughts, feelings, or memories from your conscious awareness. This is different from denial because it is your subconscious mind that creates the block. With denial, your conscious mind registers the experience, but then rejects it as untrue or unreal.
The Cost/Benefit of Disconnection
When a traumatic event is experienced, these defenses attempt to protect you from intense psychological pain. Otherwise, you risk complete overwhelm (e.g., a psychotic break or physical death). Seen this way, disconnection is actually useful because it helps you survive the intolerable. It works best in the short term as a temporary buffer. However, the reality is that disconnection in its various forms can often span months or even years.
Although the immediate benefit of the disconnection is survival, the long-term cost is a compromised perception of the sensations your body sends to your mind. Remember, your mind-body relies on these perceptions to maintain homeostasis. But without the ability to sense and feel, your ability to perceive danger—and then take action against it—is impaired. Living in a state of chronic disconnection makes you more vulnerable to danger.
Furthermore, sensations and emotions (i.e., pleasure, pain, anger, joy, grief, expansion, contraction, exhilaration, despair) are all essential to the basic experience of feeling alive. Without them, life loses vitality and meaning, which is why trauma survivors have often been known to describe themselves as “the living dead.”
Compensating for the Disconnection
Ultimately, disconnection between mind and body makes true homeostasis impossible. This often increases the incidence of panic attacks, chronic and acute anxiety, somatic syndromes, chronic pain, phobias, invasive thoughts, and personality disorders, to name a few.
Furthermore, when your internal means of achieving homeostasis (or “self-regulation”) are impaired, you must resort to external sources to achieve a sense of balance and stability. Examples of external regulation include codependent relationships, substance use and abuse, disordered eating, exercise bulimia, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, scrupulosity, addiction, and religious or political fanaticism.
In general, these forms of external regulation provide relief for a time—after all, that’s why they exist. But in the long run their effectiveness decreases and are eventually replaced with a sense of feeling out-of-control. It’s often at this point that an individual will seek some form of professional help. That’s where somatic therapy can help.
In the third and final post in this series, we’ll examine how somatic therapy bridges the gap of mind-body disconnection.
Trauma is created when an individual experiences helplessness after fight, flight and freeze fail to protect them from a threat to their survival.
A breaker switch in the mind-body connection is thrown in the face of such a threat. This disconnection helps prevent overwhelm (i.e., psychosis or death). The result is an ability to bear an otherwise intolerable experience of pain and overwhelm.
The benefit is survival but the cost is the ability to maintain homeostasis (or self-regulation). Another cost is losing the sense of feeling alive.
Loss of homeostasis gives rise to a host of symptoms. These may include panic attacks, phobias, chronic pain, and even personality disorders.
External regulation is often used in the place of self-regulation to create a sense of balance and stability. Examples of external regulation are obsessive-compulsive behaviors, codependent relationships, and substance use and abuse.
When external regulation loses effectiveness, professional intervention often is sought. Somatic therapy is an effective form of professional help. Its focus is bridging the gap in mind-body connection to restore self-regulation and homeostasis.