Especially in relation to the work with trauma patients we are hearing more and more about “Embodied Approaches”. In an interview Dr. Peter Levine, trauma expert and the founder of “Somatic Experiencing”, was asked what the core ingredients of trauma are?
“That in a way is simple. Trauma is experiencing fear in the face of helplessness. Fear plus helplessness equals trauma. And also that there’s no person there with you at that time, an empathic other that’s witnessing and helping you witness what you’re experiencing. In situations where a child, for example, is neglected, traumatised or abused, that compassionate other is usually not there and so that’s another condition for long-lasting trauma.”
Trauma is defined as an experience that is overwhelming and hinders a sense of safety and security. It always involves some kind of terror and powerlessness. Many people are becoming aware of ACES (adverse childhood experiences) and so it’s also important to describe the difference between adversity and trauma. De Thierry, B. (2014)
We sometimes have a misconception about what trauma is, and only associate it with major, life threatening events like accidents, death, crime or natural disasters, which are of course often cause for major trauma. Scientific research is coming to the conclusion though, that trauma can be caused by much more subtle, yet equally damaging conditions in a person’s life, particularly during childhood.
I also believe that what we are currently collectively experiencing, both in relation to the Covid Pandemic as well as the Climate Crisis, can be classed as trauma relating back to the previous definition of trauma “as an experience that is overwhelming and hinders a sense of safety and security.” The terms of eco anxiety and eco fear point somewhat into that direction, I personally believe that the term eco trauma is also valid. What could be more traumatising than the possibility of complete climate chaos for ourselves, future generations and all the living beings on our Planet Earth?
There is a significant body of evidence now available which illustrates that the majority of clients who present for mental health treatment are primarily dealing with the impact of psychological trauma. Scientific evidence from neurobiology shows that trauma impacts on areas of the brain, which are sub-cortical, governing instinct (reptilian brain) and therefore not accessible by cognition. Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the need for professionals to have the therapeutic skills which support their clients in developing the ability to regulate their nervous systems in their bodies through embodied approaches. These skills include embodied awareness and multi-sensory focused methodologies such as yoga, mindfulness, movement, massage, art, Nature Immersion Therapies etc. There are also more specialised treatment modalities such as Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing or Marian Dunlea’s BodyDreaming for example, which require intense training/experience/qualification and provide powerful and effective support for trauma sufferers.
Embodiment in the context of Mindfulness Rooted Ecotherapy means to reconnect to our physical sensations as part of the healing process and coming back to our roots, literally. Embodied approaches are not just beneficial for therapeutic trauma treatment, but are a firm part of the MRE approach guiding us to fully experience and connect to ourselves and to Nature, and to give us tools to deal with the emotional upheaval of living in these turbulent times. When we are in the middle of stress response, the most effective way to regulate our nervous system is to come into our bodies. This is supported by multi-sensory experiences which is one of the core foundations of Mindfulness Rooted Ecotherapy.
Some of the physical dissociation we are experiencing in our Western world is rooted culturally. As a society we are very head/mind/brain focused with many inhibitions, we don’t encourage free emotional, creative and physical expression in our daily lives. We are taught to study and learn about things from a young age, rather than experience them. Children are often reprimanded for exuberant behaviour, which soon becomes internalised and we learn to conform to a system which does not prioritise holistic expression and learning.
We live in our heads much of the time with mounting distractions, overstimulation, excessive use of technology and social media, and the looming challenges of the times we live in. In times of stress or overwhelm we are often told “to keep it together” rather than scream it all out. Our lifestyle is more sedentary than ever and everyday physical activities and interactions are decreasing. We are paying the price for this in recent times with a dramatic rise in mental (and physical) health symptoms but thankfully there seems to be a recent shift which recognises the need for changes in education, healthcare and general lifestyle.
In MRE we have the opportunity to apply many embodied methods to help clients connect back to themselves, to those around us, to the world we live in. Multi-sensory experiencing and creative and emotional expression are an integral part of MRE. In formal Mindfulness practice we have exercises such as awareness of breath, mindful eating, mindful walking and body scan for example, which pull us intentionally into our body and the sensations within it. One of my personal favourites in stressful situations is “feeling my feet” where I direct my attention to my feet, the pressure on my soles, the temperature, any tightness or tingling, can I wriggle my middle toe? ;-).
Anxiety and other mental health symptoms often express themselves through excessive rumination in our minds. By applying embodied mindfulness and multi-sensory skills to any activity and situation, we help ourselves and clients get out of our heads for a few moments, connect to sensations in our bodies and get a break, a moment to breathe. In everyday life this can be as mundane and easy as taking a cold shower for a few seconds, using simple body tapping techniques, doing a short cycle of the senses or immersing our feet in a cold stream for example.
Other embodied interventions include multi-sensory engagement through Nature connecting activities, movement approaches such as yoga or dancing, roleplay, awareness of textures and sensations, creative art forms such as pottery, weaving, painting etc. It’s really anything that directs our attention to physical sensations and helps us to become aware and connected to ourselves in the present moment.
Only a couple of days ago I received a beautiful book in relation to embodied practices: “Finding Quiet Strength” by Judith Kleinman. It’s a beautiful accessible guide to simple yet powerful exercises and I would highly recommend it.
If you are interested in learning more about our Mindfulness Rooted Ecotherapy Training find out more here.