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Healing the Nervous System: the ocean (awareness) and the waves (emotions felt in the body & mind)

Healing the nervous system requires working in the present moment to discover subtle messages with a therapist attuned to the client’s experiences.

Moments of connection bring up different implicit and explicit memories. When approached with curiosity and openness, this process orients the nervous system to the here-and-now. This is the slow process of attending to impulses, reactivity, sensations, memories, and disorientation, which is healing to the nervous system.

Stephen Porges, developer of the polyvagal theory, said that the nervous system attunes to others in three ways, which can manifest in either healthy or unhealthy ways. These are expressed by tone of voice, facial expressions, neck-shoulder stances, and the heart beat. The healthy fight/flight responses allow us to react to stress in response to the felt sense of boundaries. When overwhelmed, the tendency is to feel anxious and stressed-out, and when prolonged can cause depression and debility.

New research using fMRI scanners has shown that during group communication, the neurological activations converge in ways that correlate with the resonance process during the therapeutic session, termed brain-to-brain synchronicity. Other findings suggest that implicit memories influence both cognitive thinking and affective arousal states, especially in response to threat. Somatic regulation instead enhances thinking, learning, and healthy behaviors, going against the mainstream hypothesis that the cortex is the seat of consciousness.

Traumatic encoded memories are now considered to be primarily bodily and emotional states. Repetition of disturbing storylines produce internal sensations that trigger emotional stances. These triggering situations evoke automatic responses, experienced as feeling strong emotions like anger and anxiety. Though these emotions reflect memories of the past, they are experienced as if happening in the present (Fisher, 2010). Triggers can evoke numerous negative emotions that create obstacles to the kind of close communication that dispels painful loneliness.

Training in somatic-oriented listening skills allows the therapist to use awareness of the triggers to coregulate with the client’s affect states. Training the client in somatic awareness and listening skills can enable them to also stay embodied and differentiated.

Progress can be achieved by tending the mind’s playground in this way. Somatic therapies are used to enhance our ability to attune and listen to subtle sensations that brings the mind back home to the body, carefully and step-by-step. Orienting ourselves in the here-and-now is the first step.

SELF HELP somatic practices The following activities can increase embodied self-awareness:

· Place one hand over brainstem, the other over forehead

· Place a hand on area of stuck sensation and breath into it

· Make sure the neck is not overextended

· Make sounds that express the sensation

· Move toes and/or fingers

· Expand awareness of sensations to other areas; then focus on these changed sensations

· Come back to the room. Write down thoughts, images, and sensory sensations that are now present

· For therapists: continue to guide the client into short periods of focussing on the target, alternated by reminding them to orient themselves in the room with their sense perceptions and mindful reflections of their new perspective around the target event. You can suggest that the client use the butterfly hug and tap on both forearms, which will calm the nervous system while feeling the warmth of their self-hug.

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