Soma / Σώμα   (continued….)

“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 fascia can be considered to be one of our richest sensory organs. ….. 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….” Dr Susan McConnell (posted July 5th)

This piece today is related to recent posts and based on Dr Arielle Schwartz’s article, Fascia and the Vagus Nerve. In this article Dr Arielle Schwartz considers how fascia plays a key role in building up resilience and suggests that we can nourish and rehydrate our fascia and the vagus nerve (which plays an important role in communicating changes in fascia to our brain) by attending to our body and mind through sensory awareness, conscious breathing, mindful movement, stretching and massage.

In relation to the vagus nerve, Dr Schwartz writes that we could think of it as a bi-directional information highway between brain and body that helps regulate our autonomic nervous system. Stressful events engage our sympathetic nervous system through the fight or flight responses. The vagus nerve allows us to let go of fight or flight for the purpose of resting, digesting, and bonding with others during times of safety. However, in situations that are traumatic or life threatening, this vagal brake can lead to nausea, dizziness, or fainting. Concerning the fascia, also known as connective tissue, she describes it, as a fibrous web that houses 250 million nerve endings and extends into every structure and system of our body, from superficial layers under our skin and deeper layers that wrap around our bones and muscles. She discusses how fascia provides a nourishing and lubricating layer around our lungs, which intertwines with the layer of fascia around our heart. There is also protective connective tissue around our digestive organs and in our endocrine glands, and thus, it plays a role in transmitting hormones throughout our body. Hardening in the fascia occurs for many reasons: emotional stress; physical injuries; lack of movement; historical traumas. Also, some level of hardening occurs every night during sleep. Overtime if recovery does not take place it can present as chronic pain, systemic inflammation, chronic fatigue syndrome, muscular tension and other problems.

Schwartz writes that physical tension in our muscles and connective tissue is a protective layer, which in somatic psychology is termed “armoring”, and it is held as a form of memory that won’t release until one feels safe. She claims that when our body goes into some kind of shock we either move into freeze (tonic immobility) or faint (collapsed immobility) responses, but when these trauma responses don’t resolve we can lose the capacity to rhythmically expand and contract. In this case fascial “fuzz” can build up and we can lose our connection to our bodily sensations and be more likely to feel disconnected or dissociated. Dr Stephen Porges, who has developed the polyvagal theory, has coined the term neuroception. In brief, neuroception [I have recently referred to this in July 5th post] is the process by which the autonomic nervous system, automatically and without conscious awareness, scans for internal and external cues of threat and responds. This life saving process in times of danger can also heighten stress levels and lead to hypervigilance when trauma is not released. However, we can also engage in conscious neuroception by observing our body for signals that give you feedback about the state of your nervous system. Dr Schwartz writes: “By observing your body, you can determine if you are feeling calm and connected, keyed up in “fight or flight,” feeling frozen or feeling shut down and collapsed. Self-knowledge of your body and mind allows you to engage in strategies that bring you into an optimal zone of nervous system regulation.” Dr Schwartz suggests that if we need to upregulate our nervous system we can engage in movement and breath practices that help mobilization strategies to unwind from chronic freeze or faint responses. We can also explore how it feels to tune into cues of safety that allow us to initiate a “relaxation response.” She writes that when we are in an “optimal zone” of nervous system regulation we feel: more connected to ourself and others; curious about our inner experience and needs; an enhanced sense of clarity; compassionate; creative; joyful; courageous; empowered and confident.

Language and social identity, healing through connection with animals, and a painting in progress

This week I was planning to post my current painting and write a bit about the painting process, but the art project is still in progress, and so, I thought I’d share some of the various things I’ve been looking at and listening to that might also interest people visiting this site.

1) A link: to an episode on the Wellbeing podcast with Forrest Hanson and Dr Katherine Kinzler about how language shapes our social identity and how we view other people. The key topics discussed are: the reasons that language is such an important signifier of identity and why the brain cares about categories; brain plasticity and early language acquisition; positive influence of bilingual exposure; language bias and dialectical prejudice and their consequences; what can be done to limit linguistic prejudice in diverse contexts and the need to talk to children about language. The podcast was of special interest to me since I acquired English, as a second language, at an early age, and also brought up my son bilingual, which gave me the chance to observe and experience a lot of what is discussed on the podcast first hand. Also, the podcast took me back in time to Henri Tajfel’s work, social psychology courses and exams.

Summarily, they discussed how the groups we belong to become an important part of our self concept. As they mentioned, we all tend to automatically divide the world into people like me and not like me. From an evolutionary perspective this fast prejudicial sorting helped our ancestors survive thousands of years ago, but can lead to many cognitive biases, stereotyping, prejudice and other errors. Henri Tajfel proved that even minimal and insignificant differences were enough to make people display in group biases. He claimed that ‘….. when skin color, or height, or some facial traits of social ‘value’ are concerned, there will be marked sharpening of differences in the degree of these characteristics perceived as belonging to individuals who are assigned to different categories(1957)…. and that ‘if a group of individuals is perceived as different from the non-group of individuals, the perceived differences between those within the group and those outside the group will automatically be sharpened, and the differences perceived between the members of the group (i.e., intragroup differences), and between those outside the group will be lessened’. He also, cautioned against explaining phenomena like discrimination, racism or oppression at a psychological level alone. He wrote: ‘No psychologist who has a sense of proportion about the possibilities and the limitations of his discipline would claim that prejudice can be ‘explained’ and dealt with on the psychological level alone. This is an infinitely complex problem, and in its handling we need the cooperation of legislators, social workers, economists, historians, sociologists, psychologists and many others’ (1963). This could be relevant to the fundamental attribution error (FAE), mentioned on the podcast, which basically, refers to how we tend to over-estimate personality-based explanations for human behaviours and underestimate contexts and environmental influences.

On this podcast Dr Kinzler presents studies that have shown that we definitely also display biases in relation to languages and accents even from early childhood. Research demonstrates preferences for native-language speakers at a young age. Children do not only automatically categorize, but also internalise stereotypes, preferences and beliefs in their social contexts. One explanation inside an evolutionary psychology framework is that children preferentially evaluate others along dimensions that distinguished social groups in prehistoric human societies. She also discusses the benefits of bilingualism and the ease that young children pick up languages, and also how bilingual exposure could decrease linguistic prejudice. Dr Kinzler talks about the benefits to being raised in a multilingual environment and the fact that early exposure to multiple languages can enhance children’s communication skills, even when they are monolingual. She speculates that this might be because it enhances perspective taking, our ability to see things from someone else’s point of view.

More themes are touched upon on the podcast like homophily, the tendency in people to associate and bond with others they view “like them” and the theory of group behavior that seeks to understand how hierarchies of power are created and perpetuated within societal groups, where often one social group holds disproportionate power and enjoys special privileges over another and influences who gets access to what kinds of social resources. Unfortunately, injustices and oppression are then normalized through justifying them as being moral or handed down to us by God. They also make reference to Nicholas Christakis (I have devoted a previous post on one of his books), who found that even though your friends are not your relatives, they are likely to be as genetically similar to you as if they were your distant cousins. They discuss code switching, which is when someone moves from using different languages or dialects in different circumstances. For example, one might reverse to using the local dialect when returning back to their village.

2) An extract from Bruce D. Perry’s (M.D. Ph.D) forward in the e-book: Transforming Trauma: Resilience & Healing Through Our Connections With Animals edited by Philip Tedeschi and Molly Anne Jenkins, which is a compilation of essays that focuses on the capacity of human-animal interactions to play a central role in the therapeutic approach to trauma.

“……In studies of the effectiveness of therapy, one common (and most powerful) factor emerges: the capacity to form a helping relationship is the best predictor of outcomes independent of clinical technique or therapeutic perspective. Reflect a moment on the intense emotional connections between humans and animals—you may have one yourself.….. It stands to reason then, that the human-animal connection could be used for therapeutic purposes…… Another emerging, important factor in therapeutic work in trauma is the importance of regulation as a key factor in effective engagement. A dysregulated child (or adult) is difficult to connect with and impossible to reason with. And, of course, a sensitized, overly reactive stress response is a major characteristic of most trauma-related syndromes. This sensitization frequently interferes with the capacity to utilize any cognitive dominant interventions. The organization of the central nervous system (CNS) is such that all sensory input (read as “all experience”—including therapeutic engagement) first is processed and, if appropriate, acted on by lower, more reactive networks in the brainstem and diencephalon before limbic and cortical networks have a chance to process or act. This means a clinician attempting to engage a dysregulated individual with these lower neural networks on hyperdrive will be fundamentally frustrated. The sequence of engagement dictated by our neuroanatomy is to regulate first, then relate, and then reason. Our capacity to get to the most important and most “human” part of our brain depends upon a minimal level of regulation. Enter man’s co-evolutionary partners, the dog and horse. In the codependent evolution of humankind and animals, dogs, specifically, were major regulators for humans. For possibly 32,000 years, humans and dogs have depended upon each other. When a known dog is present and projecting nonverbal, nurturing signals, part of the human brain knows “the camp is safe.” Dogs, with their superior capabilities in hearing and smell, expanded the sensory alarm radius for their human clan dramatically. Deep in our brain we know that if the dog is relaxed and playfully engaged, we are safe. The mere presence of a calm dog will calm us down. In contrast, a shift in vigilance or an alarm bark tells us something is afoot. Similar shifts in a horse’s behavior can have comparable impact on our regulatory state. The horse has been our co-evolutionary partner for less time than dogs, probably 8,000 years or so, but this capacity to read and respond to the subtle emotional cues of a human in ways that are regulating and reassuring is equally strong. Certainly, this co-regulatory capacity is a major component of therapeutic work with animals. A second and equally important regulating element of interacting with our animal partners is the impact that repetitive, rhythmic somatosensory….. Petting, grooming, riding, and walking with our animals will provide a powerful regulating rhythmic input that is known to calm a dysregulated individual. The combination, then, of human-animal connectedness to regulate and relationally engage (relate) provides a perfect matrix for the therapeutic process with an individual experiencing trauma. This is most helpful if the trauma has been in the context of early life relationships resulting in attachment problems; in these cases, the individual has developed human-specific relational evocative cues that can disrupt attempts to use traditional therapies that are relationally mediated. The client will be escalated and dysregulated by attempts to “connect.” In these situations, the animal-specific sensory cues that are present during the regulating and relationship-building processes are not “evocative” and disruptive. The client can engage, learn, grow, and heal in context of the human-animal relationship, preparing them for healthier human connectedness in the future…..”

3) Finally, I am also providing links to a Greek TV series, Πλάνα με Ουρά, in which we get to see how animals, especially, horses and dogs, can play a role in healing trauma and supporting physical conditions, as well as, facilitating self awareness.

a) In episode 10 at: there’s a part (37 min. onwards) about «Ιππόλυση», a center that rescues horses, which then help people through learning, healing and self-awareness sessions (ένα κέντρο που σώζει άλογα, τα οποία στη συνέχεια βοηθούν τους ανθρώπους μέσα από συνεδρίες μάθησης, θεραπείας και αυτογνωσίας).

b) In episode 12 at:, there’s also a part (18 min. onwards) about the Therapeutic Equestrian Center of Serres, where children and adults with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, severe neurological diseases, or mental retardation work with horses and staff (Στο Κέντρο Θεραπευτικής Ιππασίας Σερρών, παιδιά και ενήλικες με εγκεφαλική παράλυση, σκλήρυνση κατά πλάκας, σοβαρές νευρολογικές παθήσεις, αυτισμό ή νοητική υστέρηση συμμετέχουν σε συνεδρίες με ειδικούς και άλογα).

Soma  / Σώμα   (continued…)

Somatic awareness

“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.