Though this Somatic Experiencing® intervention is not discussed widely in SE™ circles, I consider it one of the most critical steps for resolving long-standing systemic trauma response. A history of early (0-6 years of age), repeated, traumatic experiences are easily identifiable in adult autonomic nervous system (ANS) dysregulation. The primary sign is minimal capacity for sympathetic nervous system (SNS) arousal.
SNS arousal is not bad nor it is an indication of something wrong. For instance, awe-inspiring, meaningful, interesting, or joyful experiences are arousing. The body needs SNS arousal to accomplish any activity that does not fall under the category of ‘rest and digest’ homeostatic function. Many forms of overcoupling are common in early developmental trauma (EDT) response—including overcoupling of SNS arousing states of excitement and danger.
To a very young brain, most experiences are novel. Inherent in novel experience is a quality of excitement. That means interest, exploration and play are often encoded in memories of EDT events that most adults would only consider frightening, egregious, and morally corrupt. Very young children don’t feel danger until they are directly threatened, disturbed, terrified, abandoned, or physically harmed.
This intermingling of novelty, excitement and danger can be difficult for adult survivors of EDT to accept–especially when memories are laden with disgust, shame, terror and anger. A good example of excitement/danger overcoupling is in sibling sexual abuse where a tween sibling frames perpetration on a much younger sibling as ‘play’. Initially the novelty and attention can register in the young victim’s brain as an exciting experience with no negative valence. Yet, that can shift to fear, confusion and resistance at any point during a particular perpetration event or with successive events. Overcoupling of excitement and danger increases with each successive perpetration. Eventually novelty and excitement fall away and what remains is high-dorsal vagal freeze—(a parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) safety response)—because small children can rarely run from or fight off an older perpetrator. Proliferation of successive events increases excitement/danger overcoupling in SNS dysfunction.
Obviously the first intervention is helping a patient conceptually understand excitement and danger overcoupling, and then facilitating increased capacity for presencing the body-mind system’s low threshold for excitatory body sensations, thoughts and feelings. That is the ideal time to introduce SE™ pendulation skills for initiating parasympathetic deactivation, which eventually actuates healthy SNS/PNS cycling.
I feel such joy when this work results in a patient report that includes something like, “This week I actually felt excited and just let it happen without worrying something bad would occur or I’d become so overwhelmed by good feelings. It is so freeing to not be scared of my emotions… even the good ones!”
In summary, early repeated traumatic experiences impede our natural capacity to tolerate systemic aliveness. Uncoupling excitement from danger allows the ANS to move more readily, willingly and easefully between SNS activation and PNS deactivation.