Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of MeadowLark, the alumni magazine of The Meadows.
Science and Ancient Wisdom: Treatment Here-and-Now
Before reading further, take 20 to 30 seconds to do this exercise: Let your gaze leave this article and let your eyes look around wherever, and at whatever, they want - just 20 seconds or so. (Really, try it, and then come back to reading.) People in my Somatic Experiencing® (SE) Trauma Treatment courses who try this are surprised that, in a very short time, they feel noticeably more relaxed, peaceful, and in the "here-and-now." Some say they should do this all the time!
Thanks to the forward-thinking people at The Meadows, the connection between trauma and addiction is better understood and more effectively treated. Part of this treatment at The Meadows' extended-care facilities consists of working with the trauma-resolution skills of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing®. The relationship between trauma and the exercise you just tried is that, according to Bessel van der Kolk, post-traumatic stress is fundamentally a disorder in the ability to be in the here-and-now. This means that the state of- the-art in trauma therapy is no longer intense regressive or cathartic therapy. Instead, state-of-the-art therapy is the process of becoming alive to the moment.
For those I train in SE, like those at The Meadows, working in the here-and-now is a cornerstone of clinical theory and practice. When doing his dissertation decades ago, Peter Levine met Stephen Porges and explored his research. Porges' "Polyvagal Theory" (Porges, 2001) shows how one pathway of the nervous system engages freeze and another relates to social engagement. Levine discovered how to work with the transition of the nervous system through these phases (freeze and engagement), as well as the phases of fight and flight. This is SE. This article’s focus is on the engagement phase, which must be integrated into all other nervous system phases.
While Porges' emphasis is based on single linear phase transitions, in SE we work with non-linear and rapid cycling states, for instance, freeze and fight, or flight and orientation. Traumatic symptomology such as intrusion of fight, flight and freeze means that the past has become the present. Flashbacks are the classic example of such disorientation - innocuous cues can trigger an all-out response. In other words, the person temporarily experiences a state that is disconnected from the actual here-and-now environment. One of the antidotes to this traumatic recollection is orientation. I provisionally define orientation as "connecting to the environment through the senses" - in other words, coming back to our senses. This is a broader understanding of engagement than social engagement, per se. For clients whose early life experiences were marked by trauma and abuse, social engagement is actually a trigger for fight, flight and freeze. In this process of orientation, rather than being inundated with a cycle of feelings, thoughts, and sensations associated with unresolved trauma, the client's attention can be directed to the reality of the environment that is available through the senses. Typically we see decreased blood pressure and decreased heart rate, as well as the subjective experience of greater relaxation and interest. In other words, it is the difference between stopping to smell the roses and reliving getting stuck by a thorn!
With many severely disoriented clients, much of the initial therapeutic work (in addition to establishing rapport) consists of the stabilization that comes from establishing better cognitive pathways or habits of here-and-now sensory attention. In attending to the sensory experiences of the external world, physiological mechanisms for assessing safety are allowed to occur without undue influence from traumatic memory. The mechanisms of this assessment are far too important, in a survival sense, for the slow processing of linear thought or conscious effort. Porges aptly names this subconscious process of safety assessment "neuroception" (Porges, 2004). Thus, a natural orientation to the external environment via the senses facilitates the neuroception of safety.
This approach is receiving increasing scientific and popular attention (Time Magazine: Mind & Body Special Issue, January 27, 2007, pp. 55ff). Whether incorporated into CBT, DBT or meditation, the role of the observer is crucial. The process of orientation is fundamental to this cognitive activity. However, many traditions that recommend observation may not adequately reinforce with clients the importance of orientation to the outer versus the inner environment. For those with significant disorientation, it is nearly impossible to track the interior landscape without being involuntarily drawn into what SE terms the "Trauma Vortex." The involuntary and repetitive attraction to this "vortex" is the disruption of the approach-avoidance system, and it is one of the dynamics that underlies addiction and compulsive behaviors in general. Although somatically informed therapists draw from Levine's work, they often make the mistake of inviting clients' attention to the inward sensate experience, without consideration to the vital criteria that indicate whether a client can negotiate such attention without reactivating and reinforcing trauma states. For instance, one of the most common beginner's mistakes is when a therapist asks an anxious client to focus on that sensation in the body. For some clients, this can work well and provide a sense of relief and transition to a more relaxed state; for others, this can lead to further discomfort and other states of disintegration. It is vital for the therapist to immediately and accurately assess the client's capacity in order to determine the appropriate intervention. Without such assessment skill, the safer route is to begin with external orientation, which can stimulate the innate orienting response and build stability.
Once relative stability is attained, a balance of interior and exterior attention can be facilitated. Then a more neutral and practiced observation of the range of experiences can be enjoyed, as the attention can shift naturally between affective experiences, both positive and negative. (This fundamental process at the heart of SE is known as "pendulation," which I discussed briefly in the Summer 2006 edition of The Cutting Edge) This natural swing between polarities is the normal condition of the balanced nervous system. And interestingly, the resulting integration that comes from this innate oscillation is a broader and more nuanced life in the here-and-now. The experience brings awareness, presence, and a greater ability to experience life on its own terms, without undue constriction or elation. Obtained after significant work of attending, this resulting state can yield an expanse of awareness with an increasing ease of relation and a connectedness to everything that is. This state, known among meditative adepts, is simply our human mind freed of its overlay of conditioning hewn by survival networks related to approach-avoidance. Freed from the dominance of an ill-conditioned approachavoidance paradigm, one enjoys engagement with what is now, new and alive. And so, as clinicians, we can orient to the fact that we live in a time of opportunity, when mind and body are becoming reacquainted, and when science can shake hands with ancient wisdom.
Hoskinson, S. (2006) "SE's Systemic View of Functional Reward Systems." The Cutting Edge, Summer 2006. See TheMeadows.org.
Porges S. W. (2001) "The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system." International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42, 123-146.
Porges, S. (2004) "Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety." Zero to Three [Online] National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. No. 5, May. See zerotothree.org.
Stengel, R. (Ed.). (2007). The brain: A user's guide [Mind and body special issue]. TIME, 169 (5).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
STEVEN HOSKINSON, MA, MAT
Under the auspices of Hoskinson Consulting in Encinitas, California, Steven Hoskinson, MA, MAT, is an international consultant and trainer for clinicians and trauma treatment providers. Steven is a Senior International Instructor for the Foundation for Human Enrichment and has done research in creativity, myth and spirituality. His perspectives include evolutionary, developmental, cognitive-behavioral and systems approaches within a mindfulness framework. Other major influences include personal mentoring with Peter Levine, PhD, more than 20 years of experience in the contemplative arts, and a decade as a practicing aikidoist. www.HoskinsonConsulting.org