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What you're getting wrong in trauma recovery

Therapists, coaches and "self-healers" ignore one crucial aspect in trauma recovery and it could end up being disastrous and retraumatizing.

And that's building the strength of the Polyvagal safety state.

The problem

The problem is that they skip building the strength of their vagal brake before beginning more direct trauma work. What ends up happening is that therapy clients or "self-healers" in trauma recovery courses are pushed into talking about or thinking about something that they are simply not ready for.

Or encouraged to look at their "parts" in some way and the relationship between them. Or their "shadow" or their "ego". All of these pop and unnecessary psych constructs can and probably do contain defensive state activation somewhere beyond the vague and muddled ideas.

So the traumatized individual may end up in a Polyvagal defensive state, like flight/fight, shutdown or freeze. There's a good chance that this person is triggered back into the moment of the event(s) that they are trying to get help for in the first place. They are back in the defensive state and are unable to self-regulate into their safety state.

They leave the session dysregulated and retraumatized. Their stuck autonomic nervous system state is simply reinforced. This is the problem.

The therapist or the recovery course is not intentionally doing so. They may even believe they are doing a "good job." They're getting their clients to confront their past and that's good, right? They're getting their clients to "feel their feelings" or "sit with it"... that's good too, right?



At least - no... for now.

All of these things could potentially be helpful. Confronting, feeling, sitting with... these can be great. Just not before you're ready.

The priority in doing trauma work is to maintain your access to your Polyvagal state of safety and social connection. To be anchored in safety. From there, you can actually feel the stuck flight/fight, shutdown or freeze states with openness and curiosity.

When anchored in safety, the defensive states change into something different. They will be experienced differently across each of your domains of cognition, emotion, sensation and impulse.

A stuck fight sympathetic state won't be experienced as uncontrollable anger. It may instead turn into power and a sense of possibility and motivation. Even if it is experienced as anger, it won't be out of control. Instead, it will be tolerable and you'll be more likely to directly experience it mindfully and with curiosity.

When in safety, the immobility of a stuck freeze state is filled with less fear and the potential to actually release the frozen flight/fight energy opens up.

Yes, it's possible to develop the strength of your safety pathways and reduce your defensive state on a daily basis. I built a course that is designed to do just that. It's called Building Safety Anchors and it lays the groundwork for future trauma work by building a strong anchor in the safety state.

I actually do not recommend you take my Unstucking Defensive States course - which is all about directly relieving trauma - unless you have a strong anchoring in your safety state. I recommend BSA for that, but ultimately it doesn't matter to me as long as you're somehow developing your vagal brake before more active and direct trauma work, like in UDS.

The priority for trauma work is safety

You need to be anchored in your state of safety. This means that your biological pathways (ventral vagal) responsible for connection will be active. When these myelinated pathways are active, they will keep your heartbeat at a calmer pace, which keeps the flight/fight potential lower.

If the safety pathways are off, then the heart rate goes up and the sympathetic flight/fight state kicks in, resulting in feelings like anxiety and anger, possibly panic or overwhelm.

Safety comes first.

Then, once anchored in safety, you can turn your attention toward the more difficult experiences you're having. Once you're anchored, then you can delve into your grief, shame, trauma and more.

But even while doing the more difficult work, you still need to be checking in with yourself to gauge your capacity to continue. When the defensive energies surface - which they will - they need to be balanced out by safety.

It's completely okay for those defensive Polyvagal states and feelings to come up. It's going to happen. But we want to be able to balance it with feelings of safety, like connection, calm, interest, motivation, curiosity and confidence.

When safety is not prioritized

If safety is not prioritized and the process is rushed, you run the risk of retraumatizing yourself.

You might be saying, "Well, I'm always in a defensive state, so what?" Okay, I get it. I can see where you're coming from. My response is this -

"If you're retraumatizing yourself, then you're less likely to do what's effective or try something new that might be effective." If you're retraumatizing yourself by going too far and too fast into the trauma, then the context of the retraumatization now will be associated with the trauma. In other words - You'll start associating therapy or self-development with being traumatizing.

I've heard from enough of my clients that come to me from bad therapists or misused modalities that this is true. They're kinda on their last attempt at therapy. They've almost had it. Nothing has worked. In fact, this is the sentiment that I am getting when people enter my courses as well. They're nearly completely given up on their self-development; all their attempts have not helped or have made things worse.

Like my clients that tell me they simply dissociate and numb out during an EMDR or TFCBT session. Yeah, they told the story. Yeah, they got through it. But they had to go deeply into a defensive state to do so and the practitioner wasn't able to tell.

They weren't in their safety state enough to do the trauma work. And I don't blame them. It's not their fault.

Like I said at the outset, this is what the vast majority of practitioners miss.

Please prioritize safety

I'm begging you, prioritiz your safety state. I know you want to get unstuck. I know you want it now too. I know you're tired of waiting and hoping and being let down.

Honor those feelings, but also allow some space for anchoring further in your safety state. I made Building Safety Anchors for you. If you're interested but have concerns, don't hesitate to contact me. You can even set up a 1:1 brief chat with me and I will answer any questions that you have. Find out more on the BSA page.


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