Breaking the Cycle: Resolving sexual trauma via the Body P2
Published15 July, 2016
Breaking the Cycle: Resolving sexual trauma via the body Part Two
As discussed in the previous post Society, History and Sexual Trauma: A common tragedy guarded in secrecy P1 the prevalence of sexual abuse is massive and historically, as seen in literature and artwork, such abuse is nothing new. Nonetheless prevalence of an action doesn´t always make it less traumatic, even if it appears to be socially accepted. As Freud pointed out, it appears to be the ´passivity´ (being acted upon rather than being the actor) of the sexual act that creates the trauma, which follows perfectly the laws of evolution. When an animal is put into an undesired situation, they have the option of fight, flight or freeze. If fight/flight are viewed not as an option, the animal will go into freeze, become immobile and if the symptoms aren´t resolved quickly, than crippling helplessness can ensue.
Animals in the wild, when coming out of this freeze mode will literally shake and tremble and use their breath to release the ´frozen´ fight/flight energies. A video of this release can be seen here. As human beings, thanks to our pre-frontal cortex and social programming, we do not move into this mode automatically. Consequently, this stuck energy, like a corrupted computer program, repeats itself again and again while it remains within the tissue of the body and the programming of cells and neurotransmitters. The results are all kinds of symptoms like:
….all of which fall under the umbrella category of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If the freeze mode goes on long enough, eventually this can lead to another state of a being called helplessness.
Helplessness, as observed by Seligman who built upon the theories of Pavlov, stops a creature from taking action to change painful or harmful circumstances because they have learned that their actions are futile. This work on helplessness underlies much of the cognitive behavior and positive psychology movement and is closely linked to the measurement of Locus of Control and levels of depression.
In my opinion, CBT and the concepts and practices around positive psychology are effective and scientifically sound, IF the individual is not stuck in one of the evolutionary functions of fight/flight or freeze (or submit=helplessness). If the latter is the case, no amount of positive affirmations or journal writing will help a person overcome their symptoms of PTSD, especially complex trauma symptoms that are indicative of sexual abuse. This is because these approaches only address mental patterns located in the pre-frontal cortex and ignore the unconscious corporeal patterns and reactions that are programed into the more primitive parts of the limbic brain and brain stem.
Due to the location of these corporeal programs, which are located outside the range of logical thinking patterns, the body must be incorporated into the therapy. The wisdom of the body must be used to ´un-freeze´ the fight/flight/freeze pattern the patient utilized at some point in their life as an instinctual and effective defensive mechanism.
Defining Somatic Experience and avoiding catharsis in resolving trauma:
Somatic Experience is a therapeutic approach developed by Dr. Peter Levine that that uses the body as its base for identifying and releasing trauma trapped within the psyche. Through conscious bodily awareness, with the guidance of a trained therapist, the client begins to identify unfulfilled fight or flight responses that remain stuck within the body and brain (which are really one in the same). Via body awareness and gentle ´titulation´ which is psycho-babble for slow and progressive arousal, the client is able to release blocked fight/flight responses via tears, movement and visceral trembling (just to name a few of the symptoms of trauma release I saw in my training).
Clients are always brought back to ´safety´ and taught self-regulation so that they understand that their body is their ally, not their enemy. In stark contrast to some other traumatic release approaches, catharsis is avoided. In SE it is taught that catharsis is indicative of a mind/body disassociation and does little to integrate the traumatic experience into the present. Furthermore, from a neuroscience stand point, due to the high arousal paired with the negative memory, catharsis may actually ´re-traumatize´ the individual and further strengthen the pathways between neurons that are wired for traumatized behavior and triggers.
Somatic Experience, Tantra, Yoga and resolving Sexual Abuse:
In my training I have seen the SE approach effectively discharge trauma in the body. Levine also has various case studies supporting the claim that SE is an effective therapy for relieving and releasing the fight/flight response that was inhibited during childhood sexual abuse. As I pondered more and more the connection between Yoga and SE. I couldn´t help but also make the connections between the sexual concepts and practices taught in Tantra and the basic concepts of SE. As stated here, I am no Tantra expert, but due to all my studying into Yoga and psychology I have touched upon various practices and concepts associated with Tantra and stories of it being able to heal the wounds of sexual abuse.
The art of OMing
One of these healing Tantra practices I found in the book Slow Sex by Nicole Daedone. In her book Daedone does an EXCELLENT job describing the female psycho/social/sexual world and introduces a specific Tibeten Tantra technique taught to her via a monk. She states that at first, she felt nothing. She had become so desensitized to the sensations of her body and vagina, and addicted to pressure, that despite total focus and gentle stimulation upon the clitoris, she felt almost nothing during the first practice. Nonetheless, over time this changed and slowly, she discusses how this conscious practice healed her wounds and helped her find a new energy and power inherent to human sexuality, especially female sexuality. In Yoga they might call this an awakening of Kundalini. In China they would call it Chi, whatever the label, it would be recognized as released and realized sexual energy. In her videos and books Daedone cites other cases of women and men who have had similar healing experiences and is now dedicated to teaching this technique, she has titled OM (orgasmic meditation), all over the world.
Pondering Daedone´s book in light of the SE training I understand how this practice from a scientific and evolutionary perspective could be so healing. There is first, a safe space that is held and provided by an intimate partner. This safety is punctuated by the fact that the partner keeps his/or her clothes on during the practice. For fifteen minutes the woman is asked to just allow herself to be and to feel. There is no pressure to perform or please the other. She is there only to receive and communicate her needs accordingly. The touch is gentle and subtle and penetration and orgasm are not part of the practice (though orgasm may happen, it is not the goal)
Looking at how trauma is treated using SE, this Tantra practice of OM´ing as taught by Daedone, follows the same principals. Catharsis (in the form of orgasm) is not pursued and the OM´ing act is based 100% around increasing both partners awareness of bodily sensations and acceptance of those sensations. They may be pleasurable or they may not be. Like in SE, practitioners of OM have testified to body temperature changes, flashes of memory/images, a need to move various parts of the body and a sense of peace and release at the end of the practice. There is a charge and discharge of sexual energy that is slow and gentle, not rough and quick (like expressed via many a porn site). Furthermore, encouragement to communicate and guide the practice, with affirmative responses, I would argue helps the practitioner to regain a sense of control and autonomy which was lost as the ´passive´participant in the trauma of sexual abuse. This empowerment is also core to SE as the therapist is very sensitive to following the rhythm and desires of the client, without forcing movements or their own concepts or interpretations upon them. In both approaches, passive victimization and mind/body disconnection is replaced with empowered speech and confident corporeal connection. As a plus, penetrative sex also becomes more enjoyable, which is not at all surprising if trauma blocked sensation to the genitals or caused pain or discomfort.
The healing art of consciously Making Love:
The second book concerning Tantra practices I will reference is Making Love by Barry Long. Long takes a different approach and limits stimulation to the act of penetration while focusing upon and engaging the five senses to increase and be fully involved in the act of love making. Like OMing, Long states that there must be a specific time and place set aside for love making. During the act of making love, an on-going dialogue is required between partners as well as open eyes and eye contact. Long argues that this eye contact keeps both parties in the present with each other rather then going off into some other thought or fantasy. Furthermore, it is the woman who guides the rhythm of penetration and the man who accepts the invitation.
Long discusses at length the trauma the female sex has received due to the selfishness and misinformation taught to men concerning female sexuality. He states that the lack of education and communication creates neurosis in women (ie. Hysteria) and impotence and sexual dissatisfaction among men. It is via the slow and conscious practice of love making, Long proposes that these neurosis are dissolved and both female and male sexuality fulfilled.
Though different in technique, both Daedone and Long approach sex from a similar basis. The act is conscious, it involves an on-going dialogue of what is being felt and what is needed and in doing so, both participants remain present in the sensations of the moment. Fantasies are prohibited and orgasm is an afterthought, not the goal. Social connection via eye contact and gentle touch is key as well increasing the both partners sense of control via open communication and affirmative responses.
The basis of the Tantra practices presented by Long and Daedone are the same in Somatic Experience
In SE patients are guided by their therapists into their bodily sensations. They are asked to keep describing what they feel via sensation description, not labels or interpretations. In other words, pre-frontal cortex fantasies that may have been developed to explain trauma, are discouraged. Like in the dialogue between partners in Tantra, the therapist works with the dialogue communicated via words and bodily markers to bring a client to a space where they can connect with their body and feel the charge of trauma and then gently release it. Catharsis, like orgasm in Tantra, is not the goal. Just like in Tantra, pure simple present awareness held and supported in the safe social context of the therapists eye contact and resonance is what enables a client to keep from disassociating and moves them into gently releasing the trauma blocked within the body. As described above, this social connection and support via eye contact and communication is the same that is encouraged between partners in Tantra.
Evolution and Tantra and resolving Sexual Trauma
From the perspective of evolution both Tantra practices and SE makes perfect scientific sense. Eye contact and resonance activates the primal part of us that needs safe human connection. It is what releases oxytocin, the attachment hormone, which is responsible for creating bonds between child and parent, parent and partners. Focusing on body sensations and allowing those sensations to exist, and then release, without interpretation, is fundamental to healing trauma as it allows one to become acquainted with one’s body basic survival reactions. This awareness gives the patient the ability to self-regulate arousal and release blocked flight/fight responses. In doing so, a sense of self-mastery is gained (pre-frontal cortex activation here) and the debilitating perception of helplessness is replaced with a sense of mastery and even pleasure.
In this light and brief synopsis of Somatic Experience and the bit of knowledge I have of Tantric practices, I would argue that the 2% of Tantra that discusses sexual practices, was developed as an ancient answer to an ancient problem. Trauma has always existed and if sexual trauma is so prolific in our day and age of women´s rights as pointed out in my former entry here, imagine the statistics 1000, 2000 or 3000 years ago. It appears that the root to resolving trauma, specifically sexual trauma, is in increasing body awareness, especially around the genital area, while creating safe spaces and assuring a kind and gentle social connection via eye contact, verbal communication and touch. In this way, whether sitting in a chair in a therapists office or in the arms of ones partner, the traumatized individual is taken into and gently out of points of arousal. This gentle, pendulating and titulating between charge and discharge of blocked flight/flight responses is what eventually opens energy blocks and thaws out frozen responses thereby dissolving numbness and debilitating helplessness and its accompanying neurosis.