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I'm a therapist and I was wrong about trauma recovery

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

When I first learned the Polyvagal Theory and the autonomic aspects of trauma recovery, I got something wrong.

I thought that getting unstuck was done all at once.

I remember learning from Peter Levine and seeing him work with people. It seemed like they were healing entirely in one moment. His oft-repeated story of Nancy shaking and trembling in session, releasing the trauma that was stuck inside of her. His work with Ray on stage, getting him to slowly open his jaw and allow a trauma release. And a video of working with a baby, gently touching his back and allowing the baby to release its trauma while being held by his Mother (I think someone linked me to that one, can't cite it for you, sorry).

Things that seem like miracles.

Turns out, Levine was doing some great work, yes.

But Nancy and he continued to work on her trauma. And I can't cite it because I didn't note it, but he said in one of his books that he doesn't work with clients in the same way as he did with Nancy afterward. I don't know if he regretted doing the tiger image thing with her, but it's something he took more time with.

And the soldier with PTSD, Ray? That wasn't a one-time event on stage either. Ray was in a group in the audience of people that had been through some preliminary work using Somatic Experiencing and had some follow-up meetings with Levine. His traumatized state didn't go away all at once either.

I thought my clients were supposed to be going through the full-body trauma releasing shaking and trembling. I thought it was all-or-nothing. But I was not seeing that in my clients for the most part. And the first time I did, the client came back the following week - and although things were different - they said they were still living in a mostly traumatized state.

Huh?! Why was this? Why weren't they able to access and stay in their safety state? Why weren't they releasing their trauma? Why did their presenting problems persist?!

I'll be honest. I was disappointed in myself. Frustrated and confused and doubting myself.

Lots of reasons

There's way too many reasons they didn't have a miraculous change. From family context to the path of getting traumatized they went through. From the strength of their vagal brake to their reliance on behavioral adaptations.

Lots and lots of reasons.

The issue in trauma work is not simply releasing the trauma. I wish it were, but it's not. It's as much an issue of developing the safety pathways, the vagal brake. We need more distress tolerance before releasing trauma.

And by the way, "releasing trauma" correlates with one path of trauma - shock trauma. Or an acute life threat reaction. This applies to the person that is immobilized while also ready for flight/fight sympathetic activity; the person stuck in a freeze state.

For the individual that is living in a dorsal vagal shutdown, "releasing the trauma" doesn't really apply to them necessarily. For them, it's more about coming out of a dissociative disconnection, then allowing sympathetic activity to return.

But recovering from both of these paths of trauma is not done all at once. Releasing a shock trauma is not just a matter of shaking and trembling. And allowing sympathetic energy to return is not a matter of willing it to do so.

Although there are indeed lots of reasons why someone may stay stuck in a defensive state, the similarity they will all have is an inability or difficulty with accessing their safety state.

Change is not linear

Developing the vagal brake is a gradual process. And it's not a linear one.

That means that there will be obstacles along the way. These could be real-life obstacles, like literal safety problems. This could also be internal world obstacles, like chronic illness.

I'm more concerned with the obstacles that emerge from your emotions, cognitions, impulses and sensations. As you gain more access to your safety state, what happens is that the stuck defensive state begins to emerge.

The natural process of self-regulation begins to happen. For example, as one becomes more grounded in the present moment through anchoring in their senses, their shutdown state will naturally alleviate and then fight energy will enter their system. This shift is different and uncomfortable for people, so they end up going back down their ladder into their shutdown state.

Change is not linear. There will be moments that feel like progress and moments that feel like setbacks. This is the normal process of change, as frustrating as that is.

Change requires dedication and practice

Making change is gradual and that definitely includes developing the vagal brake. The gradual process of increasing distress tolerance is something that needs to be done with a dedicated practice, like through my online course, Building Safety Anchors.

With my therapy clients, we're able to access safety in each session, stretch the capacity of their vagal brake through working on defenses and then coming back to safety. And I always give my therapy clients something to work on during the week to continue to strengthen their safety state between sessions.

I challenge my clients to further feel into their defensive state as they are ready for it. But by and large, especially in the beginning stages of therapy, building the safety pathways is the primary concern. In session and also between sessions.

Therapy is different, I know. The co-regulation of it; being able to work individually with an expert. Much different. The dedicated practice is the commonality I want you to get from that.

Be patient with yourself

To sum it up, Fellow Stucknaut, I invite you to be as patient with yourself as you can. Change will happen, especially if you're focusing on developing your distress tolerance through a dedicated practice like Building Safety Anchors.

Celebrate your wins when you notice them by mindfully feeling the pride or clarity you're opening up. And when you have setbacks, learn from them and re-dedicate yourself to your practice.


Feb 02, 2023

I wish one could rephrase distress tolerance to something like mobilization tolerance. And rephrase the fight energy that will enter the system to something like mobilization energy. Authenticity might be another word as in authenticity tolerance and authenticity energy. My system very much wants to be authentic.


Justin, this article makes sense but I causes me to feel angry. In a recent experience (knowing that my window of tolerance has expanded)I felt challenged and insulted during a difficult conversation. I’ve been doing this work for 9 years and still I felt the need to ‘get the heck out and curl up the the corner’.

I mention this because when you say the healing isn’t linear and requires persistent attention to the work I 100% agree. This work is hard. Even with this experience I recognize my progress. Now, I need to learn how not to sit in self criticism when things go backwards.

Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Jan 31, 2023
Replying to

Glad you're recognizing your progress and able to identify your next step! Thanks for reading and commenting. Definitely isn't easy to get unstuck.

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