I think one of the most insidious effects of trauma is the inability to take actions that lead us where we really want to go. It’s referred to as having a sense of “agency” – the ability to freely move toward what we want. The mind knows exactly what we would like to do, but the body, the oomph, the drive, the energy we need to execute the plan, just isn’t there. I mean, not in a really sustainable, consistent way. We can force things for awhile, but it takes so much energy to do that that we can’t keep it up.
I say insidious, because it’s so prevalent, and also that we don’t (yet) identify the underlying cause, which is nervous system dysregulation or traumatic stress. The number of procrastination books out there, alone, is a testament to this. And we have many labels for this inability to act: motivation issues, laziness, anxiety, depression, or incompetence, if not procrastination. Our responses to it include everything from problem solving techniques and self help books, to positive psychology, crystals and essential oils. There are boot camps and coaching, and motivational talks. And when we exhaust the list without success, we can always find a doctor willing to medicate it.
Agency is the power to take control of our lives. Being chronically unable to take charge of our own lives comes from some internalized experience that to do so is unsafe. At some point in our lives, the survival strategy must have included suppression of that impulse. Somewhere our nervous system learned it was better to not act…basically, to freeze, in some particular instance, or maybe a lot of the time…and that learning is still deep within us, and thwarts our best efforts at change and movement toward our most authentic desires. Maybe we tried to act to protect ourselves, but despite our best efforts, something hit us too fast, and we didn’t have time to respond. The message the nervous system internalized is “I can’t protect myself”, or “I failed to protect myself” or “I need to keep trying to protect myself”. No amount of intelligent pontificating can fully compensate for the disabled life energy that is stuck in one of these nervous system patterns. It is not a “thinking problem”. Thought won’t get you out of the pattern. Most people seek help not because they don’t know what to do, but because they feel a conflict about it, usually a conflict between the impulse in the mind (“want to”) and that of the body (“can’t/don’t do it”).
You might ask, how does this happen? The nervous system can learn this response from many experiences in life: repeated invalidation when we’re young, multiple life events in a row with no time to process, a really big event like surgery or auto accident, other big losses, or long term continuous stressor(s). In all of these cases, a person’s nervous system encounters something it perceived as too big or fast or unrelenting to defend against, and likely did not have enough internal or external support to process that, the nervous system holds the message, “I was unable to defend myself, and it’s still dangerous, and I must keep trying to defend myself.” It holds the message in various forms of bound up energy originating from the impulse to act on one’s own behalf for protection that was never able to be completed, such as fight or flight.
This can tie up an enormous amount of energy in the system, impacting the ability to experience joy, connection, and the expression of our life force in all of its forms, including work, play, creativity and ironically, self-protection. Like a computer program open and running, too many of these experiences eventually bog down the whole system and it grinds to a halt. We can be hyper alert, pessimistic, or feel depressed, anxious, panicky, without purpose, missing meaning, or empty. There are so many different ways this blocked protective energy can express in the form of symptoms, it’s difficult to name them all. “Stuck”, “painfully blocked”, “not really living”, “just surviving”, is the way many of my clients describe it.
What can be done? Addressing the trauma component somatically can dramatically shift the autonomic nervous system by completing the incomplete impulses to protect self. Engaging in this process is a huge step that usually comes at the price of exhaustion…we’ve tried everything, and this Somatic Experiencing stuff seems silly and weird, but what have we got to lose at this point? It’s difficult to reach this point…admitting we can’t do it alone. We have a lot of stigma attached to identifying trauma, and also to seeking assistance for it. And there’s a bit of commitment involved – patience, time, and money. The experiences that were of longer duration are going to take longer to unwind than single or shorter duration events. This can seem daunting, but there’s a gradual, but significant and stable ongoing change that happens for the longer term work. I’ve never had quite the same experience with regular talk therapy. It can be incredibly satisfying to experience the getting unstuck and gradually becoming more empowered from a place that feels suprisingly natural and not forced. One discovers that true agency is one’s birthright, and not something got at solely by trying to change our thinking.
What if I’m not ready, or feel an aversion to self-identifying as having trauma? You can think of it as traumatic stress, or nervous system dysregulation, if that helps. A mindfulness practice can also be very supportive for noticing the patterns and separating out the past from present entwined in our responses to life. It can help us contact the truth of our experience. Mindfulness and meditation alone don’t generally fully resolve these learned patterns, but do make them ever so clear and obvious. Being more conscious to them gives us a bit more choice then we may have had before, which alone is still really helpful. In therapy, mindfulness can support the tracking with attention, our experience in the present moment for clues to what is needed for completion, be it movement, emotion, or fully sensing the experience of something inside.
Last but not least, we want to be kind to ourselves in this process, wherever we are in it. Everyone has stuff. If someone is annoying as heck and everybody but them knows it…that’s their stuff getting in the way. If you’re annoyed all the time, and no one else seems to be, then that’s your stuff at work. Self compassion means seeking support and being a support to ourselves when needed. Self compassion is something that also seems to occur naturally as an outcome of Somatic Experiencing, but there can also be great benefit from practices that cultivate self compassion, as well as those that cultivate gratitude. These practices make an excellent complement to somatic therapy because they cultivate friendliness toward self, and build the brain’s ability to notice the positive more organically. I tell people if they want to save some money, they can work on these pieces – mindfulness, self compassion, and gratitude – outside of session, because these activities support the movement toward trauma renegotiation and healthy nervous system regulation. Self compassion means having moments of intentionally putting down the whip or whatever we’re using to force ourself through our days, and being curious about another way to be. There is another way to be.