Working with overwhelming trauma using somatic psychotherapy

q&a Feb 17, 2023
Emma Passewald Unsplash

Trauma Professional writes:

I started trying to implement the tools you teach.

I've found that in regard to the pendulation stage, taking people into bits of unpleasant memories/sensations is challenging, because even the slightest recollection of the trauma seems to automatically bring back the entire memory to the surface, which often is overwhelming. 

Even if the person is able to connect to a pleasant memory/sensation, the impact of the unpleasant memory overrides. 

Can you please provide guidance on this? 

          --- Trauma Professional


Dear Trauma Professional,

What a great question -- and such a difficult and delicate one, too!

For this, there are three elements of import: 

  1. how strong is the therapist and/or client's sense of grounded anchoring, 
  2. how strong is the "energetic rope" connecting client-and-therapist, 
  3. how strong is the pull of the trauma vortex/eddy -- the sensation of overwhelm / fear from the activation. 

The general rule is that the anchor and rope must be stronger than the vortex / eddy.  ( A+R > V : let's call this the "Anchor-Rope" principle ).

So, you can work three different aspects of this:

(1) Increase Resources and Grounded Anchoring
A clinician can increase their own and their client's grounded anchoring -- their capacity to find and hold resources, within themselves. This is the critically important and valuable resourcing work of Phase 1. Help the client find and develop strength and resources within themselves to hold, ground, contain, and stay anchored within themselves -- so that they can safely return from activation -- and not be thrown out to sea, outside of themselves.

(2) Strengthen Therapist-Client Connection ("the rope between therapist and client")
The therapist can work to try and strengthen the "energetic rope" that connects therapist and the client -- and to ensure that throughout the session the energetic connection remains open and strong. This can keep a client from getting swept away into their trauma vortex/eddy. Certain modalities, e.g. Beverly Kitaen Morse's Integrative Body Psychotherapy, sometimes use an actual physical rope that the client holds onto -- with the therapist on the other side holding the other end -- so that whenever the therapist senses that the client is drifting away, that the therapist can literally pull on the rope and the client can feel the therapist right there with them -- and in so doing keep the energetic connection between the therapist and the client strong. EMDR does this through the anchoring-connective technique of eye gaze outward, following a rhythmic pattern -- or Brainspotting using eye gaze somewhat similarly -- as an energetic rope to keep the person connected both in (with their experience) and out (with the therapist). Different modalities use different therapist-client connective techniques. But regardless of which method you use... working to maintain deep energetic connectedness with the client, whether through physical symbolic externalization of this, or through other means is critically important as well. 

(3) Decrease Activation "Dosage"
The clinician can try to dose out a smaller "chunk" of the nervous system activation. This is sometimes easier said than done -- because one titrated drop of activation sometimes clumps onto another -- and the memory cascades out. The important thing to remember here is that we don't necessarily have to go into the *explicit* memories -- which tend to be more clumpy, cascading and clustered -- and sometimes come out all at once -- and which potentially can consequently swirl a person away into a trauma vortex. Instead we can work just along the edges of *implicit memories* -- memories that may not be as clumped or clustered together -- sometimes just a feeling of tightness or buzzing, for example -- and hopefully just tap into the edges of activation... slowly, slowly, slowly, and then very quickly back again to pleasure, safety and ground. Drop by drop, bit by bit. Steve Hoskinson's Organic Intelligence emphasizes working in the "Blue", i.e., the zone of what feels pleasurable and good, rather than in the "Red", i.e., the zone of what feels uncomfortable and unpleasant. So, if there is too much "Red" happening -- then it is important to bring it back to resourcing/blue -- and not let the system get overwhelmed. Just work along the edges, the edges -- on the near-side of the pool. Slow is fast. And at the beginning it is ok, for certain, to keep one hand on shore. 

Whew! Hope that is helpful -- and thanks for such an important question!


Albert Wong, PhD
Director of Somatic Psychology
JFK University

Photo credit:  Emma Passewald @ Unsplash

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