Soma / Σώμα (continued…)
“The new neural pathways established by Somatic Awareness eventually replace the trauma-related pathways. Somatic Awareness changes the brain” Susan McConnell
This post is thematically linked to the previous one, in the sense that it also refers to the body, which is not separate from the mind, since the mind arises from our brain processes, though our mind processes are not just the manifestation of our brain activity, but also a relational process, Both our mind processes and our physiology are also the product of our relationships and broader cultural and natural environment.Brain, body, mind, and environment only exist in relation to one another; that is, they are intrinsically related (Northoff, 2003). In a National Geographic article I was recently reading Simon Worrall writes: “The problem with having a dualistic view of the brain and its relationship to the physical body, and the physical world, is that it makes us see ourselves as unnaturally self-contained, both as minds and as autonomous agents. In other words, we view ourselves as things that operate from within, so we’re less sensitive to things that influence us on the outside.”
In today’s post I will continue the focus on the body through presenting extracts from Susan McConnell’s book: Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy, which looks at Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) from an intensely somatic perspective and discusses how trauma and our lived experience are reflected in our physiology and levels of health. In this post I have focused on the parts of the book that discuss the impact of trauma on our ‘bodymind’ and ways to foster somatic awareness in order to heal and not on IFS, initially developed by Richard Schwartz; however, I have written about IFS in previous posts.
One of the many people who have influenced her work was Thomas Hanna, who studied neurology and developed the idea that all life experiences lead to physical patterns in the body. He coined the term “somatics” from the ancient Greek word soma, meaning body. McConnell writes: “Much of my learning and experimenting was convincing me that it is possible to overturn the mechanistic view of the body that has prevailed in Western cultures since the Enlightenment, that we could shed the objectification of our body as the Latin corpus and embrace this soma, this more subjective view of our body. We could view our body from the “inside out.” McConnell mentions that it became clear to her how societal forces and cultural structures have truncated our capacity for true embodiment, such as religious institutions that devalue the body, and schools that require little children to sit for hours at a time, and our consumerist and media-driven culture that distracts us from our body awareness..
She describes how she understood that psychotherapy is physiology and her own journey to more physical awareness and healing:
“I was caught in a passive, objectifying relationship with my body. My body could not be treated as if it were a car that could be taken in for maintenance and repair from overwork and neglect….. I began to understand how my perceptions, behaviors, and beliefs were shaping my body structure and function. Like the [domestic violence] shelter residents my physical and emotional scars were inseparable. Embracing them led to healing in both my mind and body. I came to understand that I am my body rather than I have a body.”
Our less than optimal experiences and more severe traumas of all kinds when not processed leave their residual energy and live in our bodies. Trauma and chronic stressors activate the endocrine and nervous systems toward “fight or flight”, which practically means an increase in heart and breath rates, a release of stress hormones or autonomic nervous system responses like dissociation. McConnell claims that the parts of us that carry traumas and our adaptations to trauma affect our biological systems and use genetic predispositions or organ weaknesses. She writes: “they know how to build effective walls to keep out and to imprison. They can turn the body into a fortress by blocking or buttressing energies at the joints, in the diaphragms, in the lower back. They get hold of our internal pharmaceuticals. They send hormones to affect heart and breath rates.” McConnell writes that because residues that were released from the sympathetic activation of the autonomic nervous system during trauma are held in the body the act of bringing awareness to these physical symptoms begins the process of a physiological retrieval. Our sensations reveal emotions, images, words, stories. Staying with our physical sensations and following where they led us revealed the stories behind the verbal words the “body stories”. Awareness of the body builds new neural pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic brain. Bessel van der Kolk claims that “Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past” (cited in McConnell).
Another reason why it is important to work with the body is that often our wounds from relational traumas may have occurred from conception through the first four or five years of life, for instance, which is before we had the capacity to consciously remember or had the words to tell our stories. In this case the stories of our pain or disruption will be told through the body’s sensations and movements or disruptions in sensation and movement. Mc Connell writes:
“Early attachment wounds and later traumatic wounds make a potentially indelible physiological imprint. The physiological signs leave a breadcrumb trail to where the parts are captive, leading us to a physiological retrieval. With trauma in general….. the nervous system emits a biochemical blast to try to help the person escape or get help. When their actions are unsuccessful, the nervous system goes into shutdown. Endorphins are released. Muscles collapse and become still. Blood pressure and heart rate drop. Sensory organs become numb. Memory access and storage are impaired…….. the verbal story and even images may be cut off. All that remains of the story are disturbing, intrusive physical symptoms and disruptions in their relationships. Trauma often results in fragmentation of the various aspects of our parts and will inhabit various aspects of the brain, body, and psyche. The painful event may be stored in the reptilian brain, whose language is sensation and movement. The somatic aspect of a part may be cut off from the feelings, thoughts, and images of the event. Sometimes the images and thoughts have been deeply suppressed and only fragments of the body story are available.”
So, it becomes apparent that recovery and healing or restoration of health requires awareness to begin with. McConnell quotes Dan Siegel, who cites research that indicates that strengthening our capacity for awareness improves the health of our mind, body, and relationships, including improving immunity and cardiovascular functions and enhancing epigenetic regulation. Awareness is central in any healing process. In the book somatic awareness involves a number of things. According to McConnell Somatic Awareness involves a focused, open attention to one’s bodily experience as it unfolds moment by moment. She writes that when we practice Somatic Awareness, we go inside to notice what is happening in the depths and interiors of our body…. we notice how we awaken the proprioceptive sensory nerves in our fascia that provide us with information. In relation to the fascia she writes:
“The fascial system is the largest system in the body and is the only system that touches every other system, interpenetrating and surrounding them all, enabling them to function in an integrated manner. Our fascia is central to our awareness of our body in space and our awareness of all that is happening inside our body. This connective tissue literally encircles and encases our whole body, connecting, stabilizing, supporting, and protecting the cells, bones, muscles, organs, brain, nerves, arteries, and veins and the entire body as a unit. The fascial system looks like a spider’s web or a densely woven sweater and provides shape, form, and cohesion to the body. It is present just under the skin and in the body’s deepest layers….. The fascia can be considered to be one of our richest sensory organs. It has more sensory nerve endings than our skin. Together with the bones, the fascia facilitates our balance and alignment— our dynamic relationship with gravity, our connection to the earth. The sensory nerve endings embedded within the fascia contribute to both interoception (how we feel inside ourselves) and proprioception (our awareness of our body in space). So when we “go inside” to find out what is happening in our body, it is the interoceptive capacity of the sensory nerves in our fascia that tells us that our stomach is tight, or our jaw or our toes are clenched, or our back is aching. We use proprioception when we notice our posture, balance, and movement relative to gravity. We tune in to our fascia both to listen to our body story and to understand our relationship to our body with our external environment. It links our inside with the outside.”
There are different kinds of awareness interoception and proprioception (mentioned above) exteroception, and neuroception, and Somatic Awareness involves all of them.
In the book interoception is described as the awareness of our subjective physical experience. Dan Siegel tells us that studies suggest that people who have more interoceptive abilities “have more capacity for insight and empathy, as well as, emotional balance and intuition.(cited in McConnell). McConnell writes: “We use our interoceptive awareness to attune to the various sensations and movement impulses in our body. Sensory nerve endings receive signals from our gut, heart, and other internal organs and body tissues that influence the feelings, moods, and thoughts of our parts and are the basis of our subjective sense of ourselves. Many affective neuroscientists have related interoceptive awareness with emotional and cognitive processes and see interoception as a key element in our understanding of the bodymind….”
On the other hand, exteroception is our sensitivity to and our perception of our outer environment. Mc Connell writes: “We use our senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting to get information about the world around us. We receive sensory data through our sense organs and interpret those sensory impressions. We give meaning to this data, which informs our behaviors and attitudes toward ourselves, others, and the world…..”
Proprioception is another kind of awareness of our internal system and this awareness of our muscles, our movements, and our behaviors can allow the memories in the body’s tissues to release. McConnell writes:
“It uses sensory receptors located in the skin, muscles, and joints that allow us to touch our nose with our eyes closed and walk without looking at our feet. It involves our balance, agility, and coordination. It involves the relationship of our body parts to each other and to the external world. Our proprioceptors give us a sense of our position in space, how we move through the world. They allow us to control the force or effort we move with. We sense tension in our body and the force and direction of that muscular tension. Proprioceptors function largely below our conscious awareness. They can be affected by many factors such as illness, trauma, and aging.”
McConnell also refers to neuroception as another aspect of somatic awareness. It is a term coined by Stephen Porges and it refers to the ability to perceive neurological safety in the external environment, as well as, to listen inside the body and between people’s nervous systems. According to Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory it concerns the action of the autonomic nervous systems to distinguish whether situations or people are safe or dangerous.
Finally, not all illness or suffering are the direct or indirect result of trauma and other life stressors; however, health care systems and structures that embrace complexity, are more holistic and humane, and are also trauma informed, seems to be the more contemporary, rational, democratic and respectful approach to adopt. Environmental, physical, emotional and mental factors should all be taken into account, as much as possible, and to the extent that resources allow this.