Let’s face it, from almost every direction we hear about how anxiety, trauma, depression, addiction and a host of other mental health related problems are on the rise. The frightening thing is that the victims are not only adults whose stresses are somewhat obvious, but children as well.
How Your Child Naturally Responds to Stress
Before beginning to explain how the debilitating consequences of those stresses and traumas can be arrested and even reversed it is essential to understand the physiological reaction to stress and trauma. An event that is stressful triggers what is often referred to as the “fight, flight, freeze response,” essentially a survival response. Although some of us may not be aware of the aforementioned elongated label, we have all experienced the associated physical sensations: feeling startled, shallow and quick breathing, or a racing heart.
Any of these unpleasant physiological reactions are triggered by a tiny part of your brain called the amygdala becoming alerted to danger. You don’t decide to get scared. The fear precedes experiencing the emotion. It is the automatic response of the Autonomic Nervous System which occurs instantaneously without your conscious awareness.
Your nervous system is preparing you to take action in response to the stressful event and will continue as long as the danger is sensed. When the crisis has passed, and a sense of safety has returned, your nervous system will hit the brakes and calm will be restored. As a result, your breathing and heart rate becomes slower, and your muscles relax.
Don’t think that it takes a life-threatening scare to trigger the survival response. Getting yelled at, falling, being afraid to show Dad or Mom a poor grade on a test, or getting into a heated argument with a friend can trigger the amygdala as well.
Why Can’t Your Child Calm Down?
But sometimes the original return to calm doesn’t occur so naturally. The reason for this varies. Sometimes the event overloads the nervous system’s capacity to regulate itself. And sometimes the child is prevented from implementing the stress-relieving action that the body needs to take.
Take for instance, if the kid is in a car accident, and naturally wishes to run away but is preventing from doing so by the seat belt that is jammed. What happens is that the energy in the child’s nervous system activated by the amygdala is trapped inside the body unable to be released.
When this natural survival response gets stuck, the energy that is trapped impedes the body from relaxing, often resulting in anxiety which could turn into numbness or depression. This trapped energy can produce symptoms which are interpreted as psychological but are physiological!
What happens is when the situation persists, the resilience of the nervous system declines over time as a result of being overburdened by this trapped energy. Headaches or all sorts of intestinally related problems very often are generated and misunderstood as originating from sources that are entirely unrelated.
An Innovative Solution
Somatic Experiencing is a system that was developed by Dr. Peter Levine. Dr. Levine was initially trained as a biologist. He noticed that animals in the wild would literally “shake off” excess energy such as trembling after enduring a stressful event such as barely escaping a predator.
After carefully observing this phenomenon in the wild, Dr. Levine theorized that the nervous systems of humans needed to release energy after a stressful event in much the same way. Somatic Experiencing was developed as a way to discharge the excess energy trapped in the body and thereby returning the nervous system to its state of natural resilience.
In practice, the therapist will introduce various techniques that promote the release of this trapped energy. The focus of Somatic Experiencing is not on the cognitive experience of the anxiety or trauma but instead on helping the energy release. As Dr. Levine has said, “trauma is in the body, not in the event.”
By slowly and gently bringing the child’s awareness to his/her body sensations, the skilled therapist can guide the client to gradually release that pent-up energy which is responsible for so many physical and emotional discomfort and pain. The release and ensuing relief are entirely natural.