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"That's Bulls**t" - Trauma & the Body?

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page. Hope you enjoy the read!

How I first learned about the Polyvagal Theory

I work for a public school district and trauma is a regular aspect of what I work with. During the summers, students typically want nothing to do with school or school personnel, so they elect to skip therapy for a couple of months. Not all, but most. That gives my colleagues and I time to catch up on stuff, create curriculum and increase our professional development.

In the summer of 2018, I was caught up on all of my stuff (what I call “busy work”) and chose to use some time for my own professional development. I chose to revisit my understanding of trauma and how to work with trauma. I was taught in therapy school that “trauma lives in the body.” And this is a message that was repeated ad nauseam through various continuing education courses and seminars and lectures. But no one ever explained how. They didn’t explain what that meant. Not really.

So I did what any good scholar would do and I searched for “trauma” on YouTube. And then I let the YouTube rabbit hole do what it does, taking in video after video and sifting through the ones that needed to be sifted through. I was looking for primary sources in particular, not one of my peers’ rehashing of general therapist knowledge. But before delving into things, I told myself that I knew nothing about trauma. I needed to start over; to start from scratch and work from the ground up.

I eventually stumbled upon Peter Levine’s work on YouTube, probably one of the interviews where talks about “Nancy”. He is the creator of Somatic Experiencing, a modality that utilizes the felt sense of the body to release trauma stuck in the body. He had a treatment for trauma and also an explanation of what “trauma lives in the body” means. He discussed the autonomic nervous system and how the body can be prepared for safety or defense. I saw him perform a little miracle in his work with Rey up on stage, instructing him to slowly move his jaw, which resulted in Rey being able to do some discharge of his trauma, which was presenting as tics.

I’m glossing over the specifics; they don’t matter right now and will be discussed later on in this book. The point here is this - I found someone that could answer the question of how trauma lives in the body. And my immediate reaction was - “That’s bulls***.” How could someone “heal trauma” by moving their jaw slowly?! Was this some sort of snake-oil huckster con-man? This is nonsense!

And then I reminded myself that I know nothing. I reminded myself about working from the ground up and assuming I had everything to learn and lots of gaps in what I considered my knowledge. So I took a deep breath and continued, giving this Peter Levine character a chance… but also being wary of any snake oil offers.

As I continued with Peter Levine, things started to intrigue me. Things started to click. Like why don’t wild animals get traumatized? They are literally at the mercy of predators and the natural environment, but they don’t get traumatized like us humans. It began to make sense how people get stuck in defensive states. It at the very least got me more curious. So I continued down the YouTube autonomic nervous system trauma rabbit hole.

The next thing I found was a very dry, very academic lecture by a certain Dr. Stephen Porges. He was lecturing about his “Polyvagal Theory '' using awful power point slides. The audience seemed interested, while I could hardly make out a lot of what he was saying. But I could make out some. He was talking about the autonomic nervous system, just like Peter Levine. But he was able to go deeper into it. Apparently, he had been doing heart rate studies and literature review and could connect it to evolution. Or something like that.

Things started to make more sense. The pieces were coming together. As I continued to take in lectures and interviews from Dr. Porges, a bigger picture was forming, providing me with a new grounding in the world of understanding and treating trauma. From Porges, I found Deb Dana through the YouTube autonomic nervous system trauma vagal rabbit hole. She made things a lot easier to understand. A lot. I was able to get my hands on the writings of Levine, Porges and Dana. I studied and studied and studied. I took notes and built presentations, knowing that I could understand and teach this to my colleagues and the teachers and staff of my school district.

It made sense. I had answers about how trauma lives in the body. How it gets stuck and how we get unstuck from it. I was able to identify how the theory works in the therapeutic process and could see it live in my therapy clients. When I would share pieces of the theory with them, it would make sense and normalize their experiences. They felt validated and gained a deeper understanding of themselves. 

I was really onto something. Something revolutionary in my mind, but also the field of psychology and the practice of therapy. Not only did it answer my questions and provide a new foundation, it inspired me to be an evangelist for the theory. I created the Polyvagal Podcast (now Stuck Not Broken), an Instagram, a blog and courses, all grounded in the Polyvagal Theory. I’m not done though. I keep learning and deepening my understanding of the theory and my ability to apply it to whatever I can.

Now I want to pass it on through this book. I think you’ll find it interesting, if not enlightening. Probably normalizing and validating. That’s my hope, at least.

And no, Peter Levine never tried to sell me any snake oils.


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Thanks for reading!

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