We often talk about Safety as an essential quality when it comes to healing trauma, but as with all language and wording people have their own presuppositions and perspectives on the word.
We may associate Safety with avoidance, like a "playing it safe" attitude, or we may associate it with feeling smothered, as our parents may have been over bearing in attempting to keep us safe.
In this article I am going to give some context around safety and integration, and also give voice to some pitfalls I have seen people and practitioners fall into whilst attempting to heal trauma.
Safety in the context of healing trauma is not an avoidance strategy, it is a quality that is conducive and essential for the integration and release of unmetabolized stress. Safety was what was lacking in the moment the response got stuck.
Lack of safety is the reason for trauma, we felt out of control, overwhelmed, alone, disconnected and unsupported in the midst of our distress and so we were unable to experience it fully, it remained incomplete and undigested due to the disconnection.
The imprint this kind of experience leaves on us along with the stored somatic stress are the two main aspects of trauma.
Safety does not mean the absence of intense sensation, it does not mean the absence of distress or pain and it does not mean moving away from pain. Safety means the essential support and qualities that help us to stay present, conscious, connected and resourced whilst we meet the pain directly.
Safety gives us the ability to meet trauma and integrate trauma.
Without safety we are doing nothing but spinning stored stress. I often use the example of a kitchen tap, imagine the water pressure is the activation/distress and the sink is the nervous system.
What I have seen in the past is practitioners who claim to understand trauma; turn the tap on and flood the sink, I have seen practitioners use techniques which push clients into triggers and watch the water rush out, the clients nervous system then floods and the distress tips them over into overwhelm.
Often what I have seen is the client then dissociates, and in contrast to the distress the dissociation feels very peaceful. This can then lead to the false belief that healing has occurred.
The truth is nothing has integrated, they have done nothing but bring up the trigger, spun the energy around the nervous system, had some release, dissociated, felt a sense of peace then had it go dormant again.
I have actually seen this cycle become an addiction for people, they return to the sessions again and again chasing the experience of what they believe is a discharge of traumatic stress.
This experience can further imbed feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, rage, terror and shutdown in the nervous system itself while our conscious mind believes we are healing.
I have also seen people become addicted to emotional release, which can give a sense of relief and regulation but without the proper container does not necessarily integrate the part.
We become like a sieve where things can move through and open but at the same time nothing returns to its wholeness, it can be a release without the integration.
A common example is working with anger or rage, when rage releases we may feel a sense of relief like we had let go of some anger that we had been holding on to for a long time.
That release can be very helpful in regulating the nervous system and moving forward in our healing journey, and I feel it is an essential stage, but if we keep going back session after session in order to continue to experience that kind of release and relief, we will end up caught in an endless cycle of craving and aversion, it can become an addiction.
When we include integration in this we learn to fully embody the rage, we integrate its qualities into ourselves, rather than attempt to resolve or release our rage, our relationship to it changes and we befriend it, we learn to contain it as it arises.
The essence of rage is pure power, life force, aliveness, autonomy, strength, certainty and will.
It is the energy we need when we are setting strong boundaries, it is what makes our no mean no and when channelled it can be a catalyst for collective, social and personal transformation. When rage is contained and integrated these qualities become experienced as a part of our Being.
This paragraph is meant to assist you in your journey by pointing to the difference between release and integration, ideally we experience both the growth that comes from integration and the relief of release.
When I have seen these kinds of things play out in the growing field of healing trauma, which does seem to be trending at the moment with all of the modalities out there, I do not believe it is of ill intent from the practitioner, but rather lack of education and understanding of how the nervous system works and how integration occurs, and perhaps lack of inner work and experience within themselves.
Effectively healing trauma is not something we learn from a weekend workshop, it comes from an extensive experiential understanding which is held in the correct context that includes the nervous system and how it functions, at its absolute core understanding trauma comes from doing our own work, otherwise we are like the person who has read every book about strawberries but never actually bitten into one.
When safety, presence, connection and containment are present then we can turn the tap on and off in a controlled way.
A universal quality of the traumatic experience is feeling out of control, and if we are to be effective we must assist a client (or ourselves) in regaining that sense of control by staying resourced and learning to meet the activation bit by bit.
As this happens our window of tolerance grows and what was once completely overwhelming becomes uncomfortable.
We grow in our capacity to meet our experience and our trauma, this helps to repattern the nervous system in very fundamental ways, and as we develop this capacity we not only develop an ability to have a release but to also contain the energies as they arise in daily life.
As we learn to do that, trauma becomes the catalyst for transformation, just by meeting the intensity of sensation the energies themselves transform us, rather than us transform them.
We learn to turn the tap on and back off and stay completely connected and present to our experience.
Peace & Blessing,
Matt Nettleton (Co-Creator of Embodied Processing)