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  • Writer's pictureAli Astrid Moto

Resetting Our Nervous System

This is a discussion from Dr. Peter Levine and the National Institute for Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, and my input.

Dr. Levine: "When I first started developing my approach to trauma - and this was in the sixties and seventies, so it was way before the definition of trauma as PTSD - I noticed how many different kinds of sometimes even seemingly ordinary events could cause people to develop symptoms that would be later defined as trauma, as PTSD."

"And I also was really curious why animals in the wild - because the parts of our brain that respond to stress are really quite the same in all mammals, including us - and if they became so easily traumatized, they probably would never survive because they would lose the edge, and then they wouldn't survive nor would the species survive."

"So, I realized there must be some powerful innate mechansim that helps people rebound; that sort of resets our nervous system after encounters with stress, highly arousing encounters with stress. And I discovered that these reactions that reset the nervous system are identical with animals and with people. The difference is that we learn to override it because of the fear of powerful sensations."

I believe that if we had certain supports and safety within our environment, we could be able to override the threat responses and regulate easily. But, we don't have a safe and nurturing environment, especially in the U.S., we are riddled with toxic stress and "unsafe" daily.

What Dr. Levine is describing is our "Bottom Up" processing system and the "Alarm" or ANS system inside us that goes off during threat/stress from our environment or perceived threat. We are very much like other mammals and have a deep need to survive driving our internal system.

Dr. Levine saw in his work that if guided through a specific process using the body, they could recapture their natural resilience. This was done through understanding and getting in touch with body sensations. What Dr. Stephen Borges calls "Neuroception." (I discuss this further in my classes and sessions.)

Dr. Levine goes on to say, "Because I realized that trauma was about being stuck in these high levels of arousal or in low -level, shut down levels of dissociation. So it really became a matter of learning how to help people to contain these sensations and help them to move through, back into life, to discharge, as it were these high-levels of activation."

We know now that the brain and body are working as one system. We can use that fact to shift how our brain perceives a highly arousing sensation. This can done through bilateral stimulation, like in EMDR, through Yoga, and other Somatic processes. Polyvagal Regulation is based on this understanding too. More on Polyvagal Theory

Dr. Levine noticed that, "...if you just overwhelm the person, the nervous system really can't tell the difference between the trauma and just being overwhelmed/overloaded."

(Why I often discuss the harm of Exposure Therapy, and telling our painful stories over and over on therapy.)

Dr. Levine developed a Somatic process that allowed for a "reprocessing" of the neural-pathways of stress and threat to regulated and freedom. This involved creating a safe space, then using a pattern of arousal or activation (expansion) of the threat (what Dr. Levine calls titration), then shifting into safety and resilience (contraction). This pattern of "expansion and contraction" is repeated until the initial disturbance is diminished enough to get a resilience within the system. This of course is assessed by an expert therapist in this process. "...From the sense of relative safety created by the therapist and the environment, we help the person support initial exploration and acceptance of sensations..." -Dr. Levine.

This kind of method of shifting from a threat response to a homeostasis or resilient nervous system, is similar to what happens in an EMDR "reprocessing" session. The therapist takes the client to a bit of the arousal or activation sensation, memories will come up or fragments of memory. This is within a safe environment that is set before the reprocessing even begins. And then there is a regulation and safety brought back into the environment. Allowing the nervous system to establish a new neural connection, right now. The results can be quite rapid, allowing for top brain executive function.

Thanks to Dr. Levine's work and revolutionary approach with the use of the body as a tool in therapy, we are now at the amazing forefront of therapy that is having real change. We no longer have to suffer from our hurtful childhoods or events that have shut us down or caused alarm internally, we can change our brain to bring harmony and resilience back into us, or perhaps for the first time ever.

We are collectively understanding that our bodies aren't just vehicles to get us through this life, we are a system of emotions, sensations and experienced through our body. Everything is part of everything else within our "Brody". Not one part is not affected by the other. It's all one.


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