Attempting to work from a purely cognitive or emotional perspective with clients who have experienced sexual trauma is like trying to build a sturdy house without laying down a solid foundation. Facilitating recovery from sexual trauma demands the inclusion of the site of the original wounding — the body.
A clinical vignette
“Jerry” arrives seven minutes late for his intake appointment. He appears disoriented and confused.
“Please,” I say, inviting him to take a seat. When our eyes meet, he turns his gaze to the floor and explains, “I think I stopped at a gas station on my way here.”
Jerry’s face is flushed and his nostrils are fluttering. Although his head seems to be the most active part of him, I am drawn to Jerry’s feet, legs and hands. The rigidity in the lower half of his body is intense. Jerry’s left foot is twisted outward in a painfully supinated position. His hands are imprisoned beneath his thighs, and his shoulders are hunched forward. The word concave comes to mind. I feel a sense of hollowness in my core as I realize that Jerry is holding his breath like a dam straining to hold water that might cause irreversible damage if released all at once.
We talk briefly. Jerry tells me about his anxiety, the panic attacks that have besieged him up to twice daily over the past few months, his ceaseless hypervigilance, the memories that haunt him, the persistent need to wash his hands and the nights dotted with brief slumber from which he is jarred awake by horrific nightmares. “I’m also having problems with my girlfriend,” Jerry says. “I know I can trust her. It’s just … I can’t shake that feeling.”
As Jerry speaks, his voice is jittery and his lips tremble. His breathing shifts from closed to ragged. “I was out taking a walk in my neighborhood one night. A guy drove up to the sidewalk and asked for directions to the community pool.” Jerry’s pitch lowers, his articulation becomes less sharp, and he drifts inside himself. I shift in my chair to gently facilitate his return to the here and now. He looks up before continuing.
“As soon as I started talking, he got out of the car, opened the door to the backseat, and then … I don’t know. It happened quickly.” He pauses. “I woke up in a hospital. My wrists were really bruised.” Jerry scans the room with his eyes, which are filling with tears. “I couldn’t save myself.” He weeps, pulling his hands out from beneath him and rolling them up into fists.
My stomach clenches, and I feel a sting in my eyes. I am all too familiar with this narrative. Many of my clients who have suffered sexual trauma describe similar experiences of numbing and freezing and an overwhelming sense of self-betrayal. I take a deep breath and redirect my attention to Jerry, who is still sobbing. I give him a few minutes. As he recovers from his outburst, he returns to holding his breath.
“Jerry?” I say gently. He looks up. “Thank you for trusting me with that. See if it’s OK to exhale. Slowly.”
Every word that Jerry says matters. I note his narrative. It is significant. I also note the paranarrative — the cauldron of sensations, emotions and racing thoughts bubbling beneath the surface of his quivering demeanor. This agitated vessel is holding a fusion of fear, isolation, shame, avoidance, mistrust, physical and emotional numbing, negative beliefs, impulsivity, diminished agency and an outright inability to tolerate the present.
While Jerry’s thoughts and emotions are overly active, his body is entirely ignored. Consequently, he is caught in the unconscious frenzy of persistent fear and some terribly unforgiving stories: The world is dangerous. I will never be safe. I can’t protect myself.
The harm Jerry has endured did not compromise his thinking or his emotions alone, however. Jerry has suffered a severe wounding to his body; hence, his collapsed posture, his irregular breathing and his restricted movement, coupled with his overall sense of being overwhelmed and his inability to maintain a state of calm.
As French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty pointed out in his seminal text, Phenomenology of Perception, our bodies are the agents by which we exist in the world. They are also the receptacles of memories that, often vanished from our conscious awareness, are still deeply etched within our being. When those memories are triggered, we experience suffering at a highly existential level that transcends consciousness. Facilitating the recovery of clients who have experienced sexual trauma must include opportunities for repairing connections with all dimensions of their being.
John Hughlings Jackson, known as the “father of English neurology,” outlined a human nervous system composed of three parts: social, sympathetic and parasympathetic, which has since inspired Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. Jackson’s model is hierarchical: The higher elements inhibit the lower elements. When a higher element on the hierarchy fails, a lower component takes over.
The highest element of the nervous system is the social one, responsible for relational contact and communication. Lower on the hierarchy is the sympathetic nervous system, which kicks in when we experience a disturbance in our inner or outer environment, thus activating our fight/flight/freeze/dissociate response. Should we not fight or flee, we plunge into freezing, immobility and dissociation. Unless the parasympathetic nervous system is reactivated, we remain frozen, incapable of responding to our environment.
Paradoxically, nonthreatening surprise situations are likely to elicit a sympathetic nervous system response, whereas threatening situations are likely to elicit a parasympathetic response, which is why many of us freeze or dissociate when confronted with a seemingly hostile situation. A healthy nervous system is one that self-regulates through a balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic functioning — that is, an arousal-activation event is followed by a period of rest and digest. An unhealthy nervous system, on the other hand, remains in either hyper- or hypoarousal, giving rise to startle, panic, hypervigilance, restlessness and emotional flooding, or to emptiness, exhaustion, disorientation, dissociation and emotional numbing, respectively. Clients who have not resolved traumatic events are often stuck in hyper- or hypoarousal.
In the aftermath of a traumatic event, survivors are likely to develop generally maladaptive coping symptoms that offer temporary relief from dysregulation. These coping symptoms include various process and substance addictions, obsessions and compulsions, and self-harm. Regardless, clients suffer the following interruptions:
- Physical/perceptual (inaccurate kinesthetic reactions to perceived threat, anxiety, dissociation, collapse)
- Contextual (difficulty perceiving and making sense of surroundings)
- Emotional (fixation on fear, rage or sadness)
- Cognitive-behavioral (intrusive, racing thoughts; memory loss; self-destructive patterned behavior)
- Spiritual/existential (loss of sense of self)
Jerry tends to cycle between hyper- and hypoarousal, as evidenced by his frequent experiences of hypervigilance and panic attacks, and his often collapsed and frozen posture. When agitated, he attempts to manage his dysregulation in a number of maladaptive ways, including engaging in impulsive (e.g., breaking up and making up with his girlfriend repeatedly) and compulsive behaviors (e.g., continually washing his hands).
Although traditional cognitively and emotionally oriented psychotherapy approaches may help Jerry ease some of these coping behaviors, they do not include methods for addressing his dysregulation. Working with Jerry’s physical process allows me to help him identify when he is in hyper- or hypoarousal and bring himself back to what leading neuropsychiatrist and interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel Siegel refers to as one’s “window of tolerance,” or the zone in which our arousal state is balanced.
Honoring the somatic narrative
The somatic approach to healing trauma was inspired by a phase-oriented model for treating trauma and dissociation that was established in the early 20th century by French psychotherapist Pierre Janet. The somatic approach requires an understanding of how nervous system dysregulation is activated as a consequence of trauma and which parts of the body and brain are involved. The counselor uses this information to help clients create a sense of safety, to facilitate clients’ use of internal resources to regulate arousal and enhance self-efficacy, and to help clients address traumatic memories and explore novel ways of being in the world. Interventions include focus on nonverbal experience, kinesthetic awareness and reshaping body movement.
In the aftermath of his traumatic assault, Jerry’s ability to organize his experience was compromised, resulting in dysregulation of arousal, challenges tracking his surroundings and increased cognitive and emotional processing. This sent his thoughts and feelings into overdrive, making it difficult to control his impulsivity. With his inability to self-regulate, Jerry is virtually incapable of remaining connected with his present moment, and specific trauma-related (and sometimes neutral) stimuli can trigger an immediate impulsive response.
According to Pat Ogden, the pioneer behind the popular attachment-based somatic approach to healing trauma known as sensorimotor psychotherapy, a primary task faced by counselors working from a somatic approach is to help clients create a balance among the various processes used to organize experience. This is done using a bottom-up model that views human experience as an initially sensory process that informs emotion, which then informs thought and behavior. Focusing on the here and now is especially important when using a body-centered approach because it allows the counselor to address how a past event is manifesting in the present.
Finally (or perhaps first and foremost), when working with the somatic dimension, high levels of therapist presence and attunement are needed to support a therapeutic alliance with appropriate boundaries that is built on safety and trust.
Creating shared space
Essential to facilitating Jerry’s connection with his physical process is my personal embodiment — that is, my ability to be in contact with and present in my own body. By anchoring myself in my body and my present-moment experience, I am better able to create an empathic space for our encounter.
I use my sensory experiences to inform the therapeutic process and guide me toward a well-rounded understanding of how Jerry exists in the world based on how he exists in the therapy room. Understanding the experience of my body when I am in contact with Jerry helps me reach out within our intersubjective space with the deepest respect for his pace while acknowledging that I am affected by his experience. From this place of compassion and empathy, sharing and being, and phenomenological engagement, an integrative somatic process begins in which I serve as a bridge between Jerry and the rest of the world.
“When you are ready,” I say to him in gentle invitation.
Organizing the client’s experience in the here and now
I listen to Jerry’s verbal narrative. I also attune to the story his body is telling and how my own body is receiving that. What body postures does Jerry fall into as he recounts specific parts of his story? What gestures accompany certain words, phrases or recollections in the here and now?
Such physical manifestations are indicative of how Jerry’s body has encoded certain events implicitly. Jerry is physically manifesting content from his implicit (unconscious), somatic memory of the traumatic event that may or may not be congruent with his declarative (conscious) memory. Keeping in mind the fallibility of declarative memory, working from a somatic approach supports access to Jerry’s implicit memory, which offers us additional insight into his experience.
Attending to Jerry’s somatic narrative, I notice that his fists hold the highest energy. My own fists are wound so tightly that I can feel my nails digging into my palms. I also notice that I am holding my breath in anticipation. I release my breath, unfold my fingers and share some observations with Jerry in the form of brief contact statements designed to enhance his awareness.
I also pose exploratory questions. “I’m noticing that as you talk about feeling incapacitated in the moment you were grabbed, your hands are balled into fists. Would it be all right to bring your attention to your hands for a moment?” Helping Jerry consciously connect with the most reactive part of his body invites his capacity to self-witness and be self-aware. This activates the prefrontal cortex that, according to body-centered trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, is responsible for emotion regulation, cognitive and social behavior, and decision-making.
As Jerry accesses his past experience in the here and now from a nonreactive place, he is better able to observe it, recognize that it happened in the past, notice how it is manifesting in the present and identify new ways of understanding it. Next, we work to identify the emotions that arise with the declarative and implicit memories of the experience and any thoughts that accompany the physical and emotional manifestations.
“What are you sensing in your fists right now?” I ask. “Examples of sensation are tingling, tightness, cold, heat.”
“They’re stuck,” Jerry says. “I can’t do anything with them.”
I ask Jerry to name the feelings that accompany that sense of stuckness. “Examples of feelings are anger, sadness, guilt, fear. ‘I feel …’ Can you fill in the blank?”
Jerry stares at the ground. “I feel … angry.” He begins to weep inconsolably. “I’m so, so angry.” He drops to the floor and curls into a fetal position. I give him a few minutes to be where he needs to be, to experience being balled up and angry.
“I’m so mad at myself. I didn’t save myself. Who does that?” I recognize that I didn’t have to invite Jerry to reflect on any thoughts accompanying the emotion and the sensation; the thoughts are emerging on their own.
Minutes later, Jerry is still holding his fists, but his tears are subsiding. I grab a box of tissues and sit on the ground near him, close enough to offer the nonphysical support he may need. I pull out a tissue and drape it gently over his left fist. He flinches and opens his eyes, looking straight ahead.
I wonder if it might be helpful to invite some awareness around how he is organizing this experience. “What are you holding inside your fists, Jerry? And what is that doing for you?” Jerry continues to look out into the ether. “Your fists,” I prod gently. “If your fists had a voice and could speak, what would they say? ‘I …’ Can you fill in the blank?”
Jerry is silent for a few seconds. “I … I am …”
“Yes, Jerry. Keep going,” I encourage him.
“I am … very angry,” he offers meekly.
“Is that what the anger inside of your fists sounds like?” I nudge gently. Jerry shifts slightly in his fetal position and then stops. “What does your body need to do right now?” I ask. “Expand? Contract? Walk away? Move closer? Is it OK to explore that need?”
“I think I need to move,” Jerry says. Without further invitation, he sits up. His upper body is still collapsed, and he seems undecided. I invite him to attend, once again, to what his body needs. Jerry inhales a little more deeply, expands moderately with his intake of breath, tightens his fists further and bellows, “I AM SO ANGRY!”
“Say that again,” I urge. “Give your fists the voice they need.”
“I AM SO ANGRY!” he screams, over and over. Twenty times. Thirty times. “I WILL NEVER LET ANYONE DO THIS TO ME AGAIN!” Jerry says even louder, holding his fists chest high and shaking them like he has someone by the collar.
Once Jerry has experienced a full release of energy, his tight fists unfold, although with some reservation. “Would it be OK to let go of the rest of that?” I invite.
Jerry’s eyes close, and I realize he may be unwilling to let go. I offer a compromise. “You don’t have to let go of your anger forever,” I say. “Maybe you can leave it in a safe place so that you can have it back whenever you want it.”
Jerry seems open to this idea. After some deliberation, he looks at a print hanging on the wall behind me and says, “I think I’ll leave it behind that picture.”
Jerry and I have just worked through a process of using an implicit memory (balled-up fists) connected with his traumatic incident to initiate a recalibration of his nervous system. This process involved:
a) Creating a shared space facilitated by my presence
b) Helping Jerry identify different facets of memory (implicit and declarative)
c) Using contact statements to help Jerry recognize the orienting patterns he is using to organize his experience (“I’m noticing …”)
d) Inviting Jerry to name his sensory, emotional and cognitive experience (“What are you experiencing …?”)
e) Allowing Jerry’s body to tell its narrative (“If your fists had a voice and could speak …”)
f) Exploring modification of Jerry’s orienting patterns (“What does your body need right now?”) and experimenting with new ways of being
g) Restoring empowering actions (“Give your fists the voice they need.”)
The next step involves making sense of our process. The hope is that Jerry will use his new understanding of his experience to make new choices informed by the here and now.
Creating meaning and energizing change
“What was that like for you?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Jerry says. “I feel like a heavy load has been lifted.” I nod. “From these,” he continues, raising his hands.
I acknowledge and affirm Jerry’s reflection. “Those fists were holding on pretty tight. What did it mean to hold tight?”
“I think … I felt in control.”
“Can you say more about that?”
“Yeah. Like I wasn’t going to lose it, I guess.”
I feel that Jerry and I are in a safe enough place for my next question. “What would happen if you allowed yourself to completely lose it?” Jerry clenches. “OK to exhale?” I invite.
Jerry releases his breath slowly. “I don’t know.”
“Jerry?” I invite him to make brief eye contact with me. “I’m not sure I buy that.” I smile gently. “What would happen?”
Jerry thinks but maintains eye contact. “I mean, I just lost it, right?”
I offer a perspective: “Seems like you trusted yourself with that too.”
“I did,” he says solemnly.
“What is it like for you to trust yourself?” I ask. “‘I …’ Can you fill in the blank?”
“I feel pretty big right now.”
“Hmm. What does big look like?” I invite. “Can you show me?” Jerry lifts his body and expands his chest. Although he does this slowly and with seeming caution, I am aware that he has given himself permission to explore a place beyond his wound. I open the door for a final inquiry that will help Jerry take what he has learned about resourcing himself outside of the therapy room: “What might you do with that bigness, Jerry?”
Working through roadblocks
Accessing and working with certain memories in the here and now is not always a straightforward process. In Jerry’s case, he sometimes exhibits an aversion to being in the present. For example, although Jerry shows relative ease connecting with his anger, in a later session he experiences great difficulty accepting his shame.
Jerry’s resistance manifests, initially, as indirect eye contact and fixation on the ground. Once we begin exploring this and Jerry identifies the emotions and thoughts connected with it, he manifests an outburst of physical agitation that is marked by twitching in his chair until he falls to the ground.
I invite Jerry to remain seated on the floor and connect with the ground (using a process we call grounding), which helps him feel connected to and supported by something outside of himself. Next I ask him to explore his center of gravity by way of a process called centering, which brings his attention back to his physical experience. Finally, I suggest containment, a self-holding exercise designed to facilitate self-regulation and awareness of one’s boundaries and overall physical presence.
Because of their focus on the physical, these exercises shift clients’ attention from the self-destructive emotional and cognitive narrative to their internal resources. With this, the counselor is tasked with pacing the session so that the client is not overwhelmed. Introducing these safety-enhancing exercises is often helpful as sexual trauma clients experience the need to recalibrate from the potentially overpowering experience of confronting their trauma.
Establishing a time frame for the therapeutic process
Clinicians working from a somatic approach are highly aware of the challenges of creating time parameters for their therapeutic work. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for clients to ask, “How long will I be in therapy?” My response is that it depends on a number of factors, including:
1) Whether the traumatic event was a single, first-time incident or is recurring
2) The client’s developmental history (i.e., milestones, attachment patterns)
3) The client’s current coping strategies
4) Systemic factors (i.e., family, community and broader social support)
5) Client openness to working with the body
6) Therapist consistency and the quality of the therapeutic alliance
That said, somatic therapy tends to be time intensive, unlike, say, brief solution-focused or cognitive-behavioral work. Jerry attended weekly 80-minute therapy sessions for approximately 10 months, followed by biweekly 50-minute sessions for three months. He is currently coming in for monthly 50-minute check-ins.
Although Jerry has not forgotten his traumatic incident, he has learned how not to be hijacked by memories, how to self-regulate when confronted with somatic, emotional or cognitive triggers and how to tap into internal resources (including his body) to address present-moment needs.
Embracing a somatic approach in working with Jerry’s sexual trauma engages his verbal and nonverbal narratives, opening a door to reshaping his way of being in the world and catalyzing new intentions and experiences. It also helps us focus on what is versus what was or what might be.
Working in the present enhances Jerry’s awareness of who and how he is in the world, what he does and how he does it, and how remaining stuck in the past or allowing himself to be hijacked by the future are choices he can modify as he works to reconnect with his window of tolerance. Being aware brings present-moment possibilities and options center stage. The emphasis is no longer on irreversible past or anticipated future experiences but on what is happening in the here and now.
Thus, clients take responsibility for their needs, feelings, thoughts and actions. Taking responsibility and ownership of situations and experiences is, in itself, a holistic, anchoring and awareness-enhancing behavior. With it comes an increased ability for clients to push the boundaries that are stifling their self-expression, identify immediate needs and engage in self-mobilization, creative experimentation, somatic expression and self-regulation, all of which are at the heart of an existence that has made peace with its past and is grounded in the present. As clients’ awareness is ignited on a holistic level, they are empowered to decide whether their patterned behaviors still serve a purpose and how those behaviors can be modified to meet present needs.
How we inhabit our bodies reflects our way of being in the world. Through our bodies, we sense and experience, receive and perceive. Exploring the physical body and its manifestations of past sexual trauma helps clients integrate the physical, emotional and cognitive dimensions of their experience. Sensory-kinesthetic exploration brings history to life in the present and anchors it here, where it is more accessible.
Conscious engagement with the body’s innate knowledge permits clients to access their own strengths in the process of healing. How empowering and transforming for our clients who have suffered from sexual trauma to recognize that their well-being exists within their own bodies — the very site of their original wounding.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Nevine Sultan is an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and a licensed private practitioner specializing in trauma, dissociative disorders and grief. She embraces an embodied phenomenological approach to counseling and psychotherapy, research and teaching. Contact her at email@example.com.
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