EFT AND TRAUMA
– the new clues
by Judy Byrne
Imagine you are walking down the stairs and you miss your step. You are about to fall. What do you do?
If you are lucky and there is a rail to grab, you grab it. Your body has assessed the situation and acted several synapses faster than you even feel the fear. The danger signal gets to your amygdala, the smoke alarm system of your body, so fast that you save yourself before you feel frightened. Then, when you do feel the fear, it takes even longer to get to the thinking brain so you can check out if there is maybe a loose carpet or some other trip hazard you need to do something about.
Trauma is essentially a somatic experience. It happens to body before brain and has to be dealt with at body level. This makes EFT an obvious approach, since it means we tap on points on the body while putting the mind’s attention on the memory/feelings we want to deal with, and on all the physiological sensations that go with it. When you think about a traumatic memory and get a dull, brown, heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach it does not matter what it means. You tap on that dull, brown, heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach.
But what happens when the circumstances of trauma make it impossible for us to respond in the normal way? What are the consequences when we have to suppress the natural neurophysiological response to being in a situation where we are or perceive that we are physically in danger, possibly even mortal danger? The answer can give us some subtle clues we might otherwise miss for working with trauma with EFT.
First, I want to outline the new updated understanding of just what that natural neurophysiological response is. Until recently, we thought it was like this: the fight/flight response, the automatic readying of the body to fight or flee under threat, is a function of the sympathetic nervous system. When we feel safe, the sympathetic half of the nervous system and the parasympathetic half are in balance. Threat – real or perceived – unbalances them. They stay unbalanced until we feel safe again. In some situations, probably where there seemed no hope of successfully fleeing or fighting, we would freeze. That, we believed, was all there is.
Neuroscientists are now increasingly accepting a new and more complex version of what really happens. It is called polyvagal theory* and it splits the parasympathetic half of the nervous system into two parts – the ventral vagal and the dorsal vagal. The ventral vagal is the most recent in evolutionary terms. Its response to danger is to prompt us to try to save ourselves by social engagement. We might try to talk or smile our way out of something. So a woman threatened with rape, for example, might try to “make friends” with the potential rapist. Or she might pretend she is willing to have sex if she sees the alternative as being killed when the rapist is finished. She might save herself by fooling him into believing it.
The next stage is fight/flight. Our bodies get ready to hit out or run away. Adrenalin flows. Breathing becomes fast and shallow. Blood supply to muscles increases and to the brain decreases. Who needs to do calculus when they are running away from a tiger or the attacking enemy tribe?
The third, and most ancient part of this three-part threat response is the dorsal vagal half of the parasympathetic nervous system. That is when we shut down and may even faint.
In short, our response is a hierarchy:
- try social engagement
- fight or flee
- shut down.
So if someone wanted to hit out but suppressed it because they knew that their situation would only get worse if they did, watch carefully if you are doing EFT with them. Or observe yourself carefully if you are doing it with yourself.
The child who wanted to lash out at an abuser but knew things would be worse if they did may still have a tiny residual trapped response like the slightest clenching of the fist or minute movement of an arm when they when they revisit a trauma memory decades later. That repressed response may still be trapped in the body, repeating itself but doing so in a way that will not attract attention unless you are really, really watching for it.
When we work with EFT, whether we are working on our own stuff or with someone else, we try to be acutely aware of tiny clues and cues. With others we watch body language and ask about internal sensations. With ourselves we monitor internal sensations. Nevertheless this understanding of how the body may still be remembering, unconsciously, what it wanted to do and could not, may help us to spot micro-clues, we would otherwise have missed or misunderstood.
Is someone clenching a fist? Closing down their throat? Anything you notice you can find ways to work with.
For example, does the client want to punch out? Who do they want to hit out at? It might give you information. It gives you something to tap on. They could also punch a pillow. Or a punch bag at the gym. Work out together what would be a way to release this truncated response.
Why does someone seem to glance over the same shoulder for a millesecond every time we mention a certain aspect of an event? What is happening there? Who is there? They are questions that may help someone access something they have not consciously remembered but which is still trapped in the body.
As well, understanding the social engagement part of the response helps people make sense of why they did not run or hit out when they are blaming themselves for the way they responded to a trauma. Was it really cowardice, as they are telling themselves?
Or were they just using the most sophisticated defence we have in our involuntary repertoire?
* The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation by Stephen Porges. (Porges has another book due out mid-March covering clinical insights derived from his neurophysiological theory.)
Other recommended reading: Trauma and the Body – a sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy by Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton and Clare Pain. Pat Ogden also has a new book about to come out The Body as a resource – a therapists’ guide to sensorimotor psychotherapy.
Judy has made two DVDs and an audio podcast package with accompanying powerpoint on working with trauma with EFT. Judy’s DVD’s