A trauma is any shocking, frightening and emotionally overwhelming event (or series of events) that is beyond our control, such as a car crash, being assaulted physically or sexually, witnessing a serious accident, finding out that you have a life-threatening illness, being in a war zone, and so on.
Many people who come for therapy have had some kind of traumatic experience. This may be a one-off event, a series of events, or ongoing neglect or abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) during childhood.
Whereas it is normal to feel stressed and upset for a while after a trauma, more serious traumatic events, those that lasted for a long time, or were experienced repeatedly, are more likely to cause post-traumatic stress. Symptoms are wide ranging and may include frightening flashbacks and nightmares, sudden mood swings, feeling anxious, depressed, irritable or numb, being unable to relax and a general sense of just not feeling right, including physically.
The Threat System: The psychologist Paul Gilbert talks about the ‘Threat System’ – our nervous system’s immediate response to danger of any kind by fight or flight. During a traumatic event high levels of stress hormones may temporarily disable the part of the brain that regulates conscious memory, causing our memory of the situations to be hazy. However, when something happens that has some similarity with the original trauma, our ‘threat system’ jumps into action; we feel overwhelmed, as if it is all happening again, and cannot function normally. This is also the case with childhood trauma, when the original trauma may seem too long ago to be still relevant, but is still affecting our life.
Somatic trauma therapy is a gentle approach that allows you to come to terms with what happened, at your own speed. An important part of the therapy is helping you to recognise what is happening in your body when your threat system begins to be triggered and to develop strategies and techniques that restore your sense of balance and safety.
With Somatic trauma therapy great care is taken not to retraumatise you by going too quickly, or beyond what you can cope with at the time. The process is not unlike letting the gas out of a bottle of pop that has been shaken: if you simply take the top off, most of the pop will spill out and create a mess. But if you only open it slightly and let just a little gas out at the time, you will eventually be able to drink your pop without a drop having been spilt. Of course what is released with somatic trauma therapy is not gas, but trapped tension and stress.