Your nervous system constantly takes in sensory information and responds accordingly. When there is no perceived threat to your safety, you feel calm, can likely breathe easily and your heartbeat is slower. You may have heard the terms ‘fight or flight’; these are the mobility responses of the nervous system. When the nervous system senses danger and rings the alarm like a smoke detector, can you move into mobility (flight or fight) to stay alive?
Sometimes fight or flight isn’t an option when what we’re faced with completely overwhelms us. When this happens, we can go into a freeze state or a state of mental and/or physical immobility, like a gazelle playing dead when a hungry lion outruns it. This inability to respond or complete our natural, self-protective mobility responses (fight or flight) can result in survival energy getting trapped in our nervous system.
Imagine your nervous system is like your hand. Notice when your hand is relaxed and open it is able to move easily and complete all kinds of tasks. Now make a tight fist and notice the energy it takes to keep the hand closed and the fingers tight, and how other parts of your body have also likely tensed with your hand such as your stomach. Your hand is not able to do as much in this position, and the tension in your body may be uncomfortable (and familiar).
Over time our nervous system can spend so much time in fight, flight or freeze these states become the default setting making it even hard to move into a state of rest and relaxation, even when we want to. Cumulative cycles of unreleased survival energy also build up over time and can affect learning and memory, and cause health concerns such as high blood pressure, heart disease and weight gain.
So how do you know what state your nervous system is in? Symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system can include:
- Being easily startled;
- Feeling ‘numb’ emotionally and physically;
- Addiction including substances or behaviours such as gambling and shopping;
- Feeling ‘spacey’ and disconnected;
- Posttraumatic stress;
- Occupational stress;
- Relationship issues;
- Chronic pain;
- Joint and muscle pain/tension not resulting from injury;
- Dizziness or vertigo;
Trauma is one of the biggest causes of nervous system dysregulation. Trauma does not necessarily result from the action, situation or circumstance but how we responded or were able to respond at the time. Trauma can emerge from:
- Childhood sexual, emotional or physical abuse;
- Ruptures in attachment/attunement with primary caregivers;
- Illness (i.e., medical condition, addiction or mental health concerns) in our primary caregiver(s);
- Early death or loss (i.e., incarceration) of primary caregiver(s);
- Directly witnessing the hurt or harm of others;
- Motor vehicle accidents;
- Occupational stress injuries;
- Near death experiences;
- Worksite injuries;
- Falls or near-falls;
- War and escape from war-torn countries;
- Sexual harassment;
- Sexual assault;
- Pre and perinatal (before and during birth) issues;
As each of us is unique, our sessions will also be unique. After our first session, I’ll put a treatment plan together that supports your therapeutic goals. This may include seated work using Somatic Experiencing and/or Internal Family Systems, boundary work, practical exploration and exercises involving the orientation system, proprioception and interoception, therapeutic play, movement exercises, and/or therapeutic touch. You may also have situations or concerns that arise between sessions. As this is a collaborative approach, we will check in at the beginning of each session to determine what is needed that day.
If appropriate, and with your consent, I may introduce touch during sessions as a means to support your nervous system towards regulation, re-establish (or perhaps experience for the first time) a sense of attunement/secure attachment, move survival energy, mobilize deeper self-protective responses, and/or bring support or attention to a system or body part. This work can involve therapist contact with the head, adrenals, joints, chest, back, and/or abdomen. Clients remain fully clothed at all times, and touch may be offered while you are seated or on a massage table. Therapeutic touch is profoundly deep work that encourages movement, mobility, connection, attunement, and safety.
In addition to working with clients individually, I also offer couples’ therapy using the Psychobiological Approach to Couples’ Therapy or PACT model, an approach that aligns well with Somatic Experiencing. In my experience, PACT is different from other models, as it focuses on the dynamics between the couple through the lens of attachment versus the presenting problems. During the first session, I gather a thorough background from each member of the couple including family history, and from this develop a treatment plan with the goal of moving the couple towards secure functioning behaviours. The difference between individual and couples’ work is pretty simple. While in the therapy room, individual clients are in my care and the couple are in each others’ care.
There was once a myth people were unable to heal from trauma. Research and the effectiveness of treatments that include the nervous system are evidence this is no longer true. When the nervous system is given the time and space to speak, and feels supported, vitality and healthy regulation emerge.