8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance
By Michele Rosenthal
Do we use both the brain and the body in healing trauma? You bet! I’m beyond delighted to have had Robert Scaer (one of my personal trauma recovery gurus) on YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA talk about his new book, 8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance. You can listen here to Robert Scaer explain the freeze response.
We often have a tendency to believe that we heal trauma only by talking about it — that is a very narrow view. There are tons of other trauma recovery modalities that involve many other processes. In fact, an earlier episode of YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA with Peter Levine tackled how the body holds trauma, and what it takes to release it.
This week, Levine’s good friend Scaer talks about healing strategies. He’s been kind enough to let me excerpt a part of his new book here.
Using the Body To Heal Trauma
There are many, many books devoted to helping people understand how to “heal trauma.” If they all worked, this book and chapter would not be relevant. Healing the wounded brain/body in trauma is as complex as the wound itself.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve found that teaching my patients about how their brains/bodies are functioning—or not functioning—provides them with a degree of power and control over their physical experience. Knowing that their misery is real, explainable, and understandable is a form of empowerment, the antithesis of helplessness. And empowerment is an essential ingredient in any form of therapy.
Throughout this book, I’ve made an effort to provide a basic understanding of how the brain and body work in concert, often sacrificing scientific detail in order to make the information relatively accessible. The same dilemma will apply to my discussion of healing, correcting, and modulating abnormal trauma-related physiology in the brain and body. But I will make the case that if we change or heal the brain, the body will follow. The servosystem begins with the body’s sensations but ends with the brain’s executive functions. Although together they form an integral whole, the brain remains the control center, the source, and the part of the duo that is corrupted in trauma. It is the brain’s normal integrated and homeostatic physiology that we’ve got to restore. There is no “chicken or the egg” dilemma here—if you treat the chicken, you’ll improve the egg.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t use the body in the process of healing. After all, the original sensory messages that contributed to changing the brain in trauma came from the body’s sensory organs and warned the brain in the first place. Those sensory messages, and the procedural memory related to them, are the basic informational substrate of trauma in the brain. Even though the body represents these memories in sensory symptoms, abnormal movement patterns, and even deterioration of body tissue, the physiology of the brain is what drives these changes. Conversely, we can use the messages of the body once again to change the way the brain observes and regulates the body’s activity. For example, we can extinguish and “cure” the nervous tic by accessing the “felt sense” of the body to trigger the discharge, or “completion,” of the act of self-defense, which then extinguishes the motor procedural memory of the tic. Of course, it is the brain that directs this “discharge” and thus begins to heal itself.
Where these posttraumatic procedural memories are stored, and in what form, is another important consideration. In general, every traumatic event is associated with stored memories that are varied and uniquely complex, and are not part of a seamless, connected story. Each of the sensorimotor body states reflects the precisely specific sensory elements of the traumatic experience. Each traumatic experience is by nature quite unique, with several exceptions. If a traumatic act is purposely repeated by the perpetrator, such as in the case of incest, the memories, reflecting a similar, repeated event, will be relatively precise and therefore very powerful. But whatever the source, every life trauma will have its own specific memories, triggered by their own specific cues. What I am describing is a state composed of consistently reproducible procedural memories. These memories involve body sensations, visceral feelings, autonomic states (also with their own feelings), emotions, and patterns of unconscious self-protective muscle contractions. Because these memories are linked to emotion, traumatic cues will also be associated with declarative memories of the trauma. You’ll recall that declarative memories associated with a strong emotional event tend to become implicit, or relatively permanent. I’m going to call this state of implicit/procedural memories a capsule, primarily because these procedural and emotion-linked declarative memories are stored in a “container” in the exact form in which they were experienced at the moment of trauma. And each of these stored procedural memories is linked to the others, and can act as a cue to them. The procedural memories are subject to being triggered into consciousness by internal or external cues reminiscent of the traumatic event. And all effective psychotherapy must access and open this capsule and its memories in a safe place in order to extinguish them.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Robert Scaer, MD. Used with permission by the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.