The first time I met Diane, her body and mind moved so fast that she was barely able to sit still for a second. It was as if she were hovering six feet above her body. She would begin a new thought before completing the last two. The image that came to mind was watching someone spinning plates. Have you ever seen someone do this? It takes a massive amount of energy to keep all the plates spinning at once. And when the momentum wanes, they all crash to the floor.
This is a good analogy of how Diane’s nervous system functioned at the time: she used gargantuan amounts of energy to keep her mind off of her anxieties. Eventually, she’d run out of fuel, losing the energy to distract herself from dark thoughts as wells as the energy to keep up with her day-to-day commitments. The resulting feelings of failure and hopelessness would trigger the addictions – bulimia and alcoholism – that she’d been battling for decades.
For a time, Diane could use her willpower and intelligence to control her symptoms, but an underlying sense of disconnection, fear, and isolation would pop up and drive different forms of compulsive behavior. For Diane, Somatic Experiencing treatment was the first time she was able to “rearrange the furniture” of her nervous system and start building the resilience and resources to handle life on her own terms, instead of reacting to many micro-traumas each day.
A History of Chaos
Diane struggled with bulimia and alcohol from the time she was 15. She grew up in an unstable blended family where she’d been abused by her stepfather and had been placed in charge of taking care of her younger siblings. She learned to turn to alcohol and bulimia to blunt the feelings of shame and anxiety that she’d been managing as far back as she could remember.
Diane spent her teens and twenties in and out of residential treatment for her eating disorder and alcoholism, yet well into her thirties, she was still struggling. When her eating disorder was quiet, the desire to drink grew more intense and vice versa. In an attempt to tame all of these behaviors, she managed her day-to-day life by following a rigid routine. If things got out of order, especially when those routines were interrupted by her younger siblings or other children who “triggered” her, her anxiety went through the roof. She was surviving, but certainly not thriving. Shortly before I met her, she even developed a new addiction – to exercise – to calm her anxiety.
Like many who struggle with addiction, Diane’s manifested itself in different ways. Does this sound familiar? Have you or a family member stopped using drugs only to then find yourself sick with chronic overspending or under-eating? If so, you’re not alone.
“Addiction experts are beginning to move away from the notion that there are multiple addictions, each tied to a specific substance or activity,” writes Howard J. Shaffer, Ph.D., CAS in the Harvard Health Blog. “Rather, the Syndrome Model of Addiction suggests that there is one addiction that is associated with multiple expressions. An object of addiction can be almost anything – drug or drug-free activity. For addiction to develop, the drug or activity must shift a person’s subjective experience in a desirable direction – feeling good or feeling better.”
In the US, much of our addiction treatment focuses on how to manage the symptoms of addiction but not its root causes. 12-Step programs and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other forms of talk therapy, while helpful, are not designed to address the biological reality of unresolved trauma in our nervous systems.
Heat, tears, unconscious movement, and breath: these are the ways in which our bodies “discharge” unresolved trauma and help our nervous systems return to a baseline of regulation. Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., the founder of Somatic Experiencing, developed exercises to achieve this after observing how wild animals, who endure life and death struggles each day, recover from traumatic events. Animals run and shake after escaping prey, which resolves the trauma in their nervous systems, whereas humans’ cognitive processes interrupt this resolution. We “think” our way into freezing, keeping the recesses of our nervous systems trapped in trauma. Somatic Experiencing can reignite the resolution process.
From what I’ve observed in my practice, I believe about 80% of mental health issues result from unresolved trauma locked in our bodies. Coming to an intellectual understanding of our trauma does not ignite the biological processes of moving it through our bodies and changing the landscape of our nervous system.
Without this physical resolution, our bodies habitually recreate those old feelings of danger and aloneness, no matter how articulate we’ve become about our past, about understanding the “why” of our life’s traumatic events. As Bessel van der Kolk says in the title of his landmark book on trauma and its impact, The Body Keeps the Score: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: the past is alive in form of gnawing interior discomfort.”
In her thirties, Diane was finally able to break through this “gnawing discomfort” through Somatic Experiencing. We were able to begin orienting her to the present and found ways for her to ground in her body safely. This slowed down her internal rhythm, enabling her to make conscious healthy decisions instead of reacting to her environment and then using alcohol or bulimia to manage the negative feelings of that would result.
Previously, she was afraid that if she slowed down she would fail or collapse. We used sound as a way to ground in the present. Diane loved music. Connecting to her felt sense of her body when she listened to a song or nature gave her an entry point to her body that felt safe and nourishing. This was an incredible resource which showed her she had a sense of mastery over her body. She was able to access joy. Over time, we built up her self-trust through this process. Discovering what makes us feel safe and nourished is how we create the resilience and resources to handle stress more effectively, lessening the craving for addictive behaviors.
Building Your Container of Safety
What I did with Diane – and do with all clients at the beginning of our work – is find safe entry points to sensory experiences within their environment. This allows the client to begin the process of being present without being overwhelmed. It allows the individual to begin the process of observing in a non-judgemental way and create her “container of safety.” By learning to observe oneself and develop a new and safe felt sense of self, we move closer to the capacity for a deeper relationship with self and ultimately, autonomy. Autonomy is the key to recovery, as is getting comfortable with the discomfort that comes along in staying true to yourself.
That container of safety looks and feels different for everyone. For Diane, it meant finding trust in slowing down so that she could recognize her moment-to-moment experience. For another client, Jason, who struggled with binge-drinking, building his container of safety started with learning how to articulate his own experience and appreciating its value.
Jason, now in his sixties, survived a childhood of abuse and found great success in the business world. There, he was able to avoid his feelings through workaholism. Jason viewed everyone he came in contact with as either an opportunity or a threat, making true intimacy impossible. He was always two steps ahead in a relationship, figuring out how he could “win,” or two steps behind, ruminating over a loss, real or perceived. When these disconnections became particularly overwhelming, Jason would go “offline” and disappear for days on a binge.
To build his container of safety, I first had him work with touch, to learn even the most basic forms of articulating his experience in the present. He struggled to say, “This feels soft, that feels scratchy.”
But over time, articulating what he felt physically made it easier to articulate his emotions. A big breakthrough came when he could articulate to his wife that he didn’t want to go to a museum on their vacation. Before, he would have gone without protest, shutting down his feelings and continuing to do so until his nervous system felt it had no choice but to go offline through binge-drinking.
A Portfolio of Treatment
Addiction has social, physical and psychological components, and whatever treatment addresses your discomfort is valuable. Don’t disregard anything that brings you progress. I believe Somatic Experiencing can be a wonderful addition to more conventional forms of treatment and support.
Jason attends 12-Step meetings regularly where he finds invaluable social support and, through shares, continues to develop his ability to articulate his experience. Diane also continues to go to AA. There, she feels a sense of mastery as she leads a weekly meeting and uses it as a place for safe and healthy social connection. She also participates in a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group to make sure she is practicing emotional regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness, and interpersonal skills.
The reasons that we develop addictions are as unique as we are. While it is reassuring to think there’s a “silver bullet” form of treatment or a program that will change our life in four weeks, science and our personal experiences tell us differently. If you’ve been struggling with addiction or compulsive behavior and have been failed by treatments that have worked for others, don’t beat yourself up. Your nervous system is not going to resolve its trauma by your mind criticizing it. Instead, I invite you to explore Somatic Experiencing and see if it is effective at helping you develop the sense of connection, safety, and ease that your addiction has been trying to help you find.