“Hacking” vs. “Healing”
….or, do we REALLY want to “hack” our nervous system?
It’s an appealing thought… the idea that there’s a “secret” trick, hack, tool or practice that could rewire your nervous system once and for all.
It would be awesome if we could just find the practice or the tool that would “clear” our trauma and we’d be set.
You may have seen a lot of talk about how to “reset” or “hack” your NS…
… but is that really how it works?
While there ARE practices and processes that can be enormously helpful… in my experience, true healing and rewiring of our nervous system after trauma isn’t about any one tool, or hack, or even a single practice that’s going to “clear” your trauma.
We’re complex creatures…. and our systems are unique, highly evolved and adaptable, constantly shifting, and have been through their own particular trauma history.
On top of that… if we didn’t receive the kind of safety and support at a “felt sense” level from caregivers who were in their own regulation, then our own nervous systems developed in a way that reflected this.
In other words, if we didn’t experience a felt sense of being safe, accepted, and mirrored by a healthy, attuned system… our own system’s development is going to be affected.
This means it’s not as simple as any one path that’s going to clear your trauma or reset your nervous system.
Our systems evolved in highly designed and complex ways- and Nervous System healing and re-wiring requires time, attention, and gentle, attuned care.
It requires subtly adjusting to the different stages of healing…. and learning to be present to ourselves and our systems as we increase our capacity to be present, heal, and evolve.
So — how DO we rewire, rebalance, and heal our nervous systems after trauma? What’s it look like?
While the path will be unique to each individual… there ARE typical “building blocks”, or steps along the path, that can bring us back to safety. Back to a sense of living in our bodies in a grounded, connected and empowered way.
So– keeping in mind that there’s no cookie cutter formulas– here’s my take on the principles, practices, and processes that you’ll want to embody and live into, as you heal and rewire your nervous system.
1). Making Friends with the Body.
To really heal from trauma, we’ve got to bring the process out of just the mind- and into the realm of the body’s experience.
We want to really get down into feeling the body’s sensations and being in the physical experience of what’s happening in this inner world. We’re talking about really getting to know and feel physical sensation inside the body.
Why? because the threat to the nervous system happened at a “felt-sense” level.
Whether we’re talking about early developmental trauma or shock trauma, the parts of our brain that absorb and react to danger are primitive, deep, instinctual parts of us…. and NOT so much about the “higher brain” (which is where we think and reason and operate).
And the way we get in touch with those more “primitive” places in the body and nervous system is through feeling sensation. Feeling into what’s actually happening in the physical experience.
This can take time, especially if the felt experience of living in the body has NOT been safe…. that’s why it’s so important that we go gently, safely, and at the rhythm and pace of our own system.
and this takes us to the next point…
2). Pausing and Giving Space.
Trauma was about “too much, too fast” Our nervous systems faced an overload of sensation, stimuli, threat or perceived threat – that they weren’t able to process and discharge in a healthy way.
And when we’re working with coming OUT of trauma- or releasing stored stress from the body- one of the most important practices we can work with is the simple pause. Giving yourself space in the moment, to feel. To connect to the here and now and notice what’s happening, internally and externally.
In fact, one of the most helpful things you can do for yourself to make sure that the energy from future stressful events doesn’t get stuck in the body is to take time to pause and allow yourself to feel the experience.
When a stressful event happens….as soon as is safely possible– give yourself a moment to pause, feel your breath, and feel the reaction of your body to the stress.
Simply allowing yourself, in real time, to feel the stressful reaction in your body- while staying grounded and connected to the present moment- will go a long way in keeping this stress from getting “trapped” or turned inward.
If we DON’T allow ourselves this time and space to feel what’s happening- that’s when the energy can stay trapped in a chronic state of activation (or go into a “freeze” or shutdown response).
So when you experience something that feels intense or potentially overloading- whether it’s a near- car accident, or an emotional event that triggers you…. you can help yourself greatly by allowing yourself to feel the energy in the present (or as soon as it’s safe to do so).
When you do this, you allow the surge of energy from that stress response to move through your system in an organic way – which means it’s more likely to follow it’s natural pathway to release.
3). Orienting to the present
This is closely tied into the “Pause.
When we orient to the present moment, we’re simply allowing our nervous system to feel what’s happening in the here and now.
This can be as simple as noticing your environment, and really taking in what you’re seeing. Hearing the sounds, feeling the physical sensations around you. Allowing yourself to experience what your body is feeling, and this can ground you into the present in a safe and healthy way.
4). Reconnecting to Your Impulses.
Trauma results in a disconnect to our bodies… and to our impulses, to the basic wiring of our physiology and its needs.
After trauma, being in the body can feel unsafe…. and trusting its impulses can feel dangerous.
One of the most important steps we want to do to reclaim our physical space is re-connecting to our impulses.
This starts with tracking our physiology… feeling when we have an impulse to move, to shift, to get a drink of water, when we’re hungry, need to use the bathroom.
As basic as it sounds… it’s the reconnection to these body-level impulses that starts to bring us back into connection with ourself. And in this reconnection, we also start to build the pathways that allow stress energy to naturally discharge and release.
5). Resourcing and Gentle, Lifestyle Self-Care Practices.
Cultivating safety in the body is a practice…. and self-care is about regular self-resourcing and making lifestyle practices of taking care of yourself with deep compassion.
Because when we’ve been through trauma there’s a disconnect… that separation from our physical bodies.
Especially if we’re talking about early developmental trauma – if our caregivers didn’t have the capacity to model true presence and compassion, we need to re-parent ourselves. And healing in the present is all about learning how to listen to our systems, to listen to those subtle cues before they come screams for attention.
It starts with learning to pay attention to our impulses, orient to the present moment and our environment and be in touch with what we’re feeling in the here and now… and make the choices to support ourselves with the self-care practices that soothe and connect us.
6). Allowing Trapped Energy to Move
I want to acknowledge that this step gets a little bit more advanced, because it’s highly nuanced… this is a big piece of the I work that I do with and teach my clients. In short, what we’re after is a gentle, safe, organic process of releasing energy that’s been trapped in the body.
Maybe you’ve heard about practices like shaking or trembling to release trauma… and these kinds of practices MAY absolutely be helpful.
But because of the uniqueness of our systems and histories, it’s so important to realize that releasing trauma from the body is NOT necessarily as simple as “do this process” or “shake and the energy will release”.
To release stored survival stress, your nervous system MIGHT need to shake.
OR…. it might need to cry.
Or make a sound.
Or feel an emotion, and allow the sensations of that emotion to bubble up and be safely experienced for the first time.
Or SAY SOME WORDS that never were said, that need to actually, literally come out of your mouth.
Or, very often, there’s a movement that wants to happen- a trapped impulse that need to be completed. (That’s why learning to connect to our impulses is a key step in the process).
The key here is that the process of releasing this energy is arising organically, from a felt experience of the body in the present moment.
…and that’s why we start with that importance of getting into the body — feeling what’s happening… doing so in a safe way (which is probably a gradual way if there’s been trauma)… learning to listen to and FEEL what’s happening, and when that energy wants to move, and what it wants to do.
7). Allowing waves of expansion and contraction
As we heal our nervous systems, a big piece of what we’re up to is building capacity.
Trauma constricts our systems into safe, repeatable pathways. When we heal from trauma, we’re opening up into a flexible, adaptable response to our environment…. and we have to build the capacity for this.
Building capacity inevitably brings waves of expansion and contraction. And the more we can allow this expansion and contraction to BE the process – rather than thinking something’s wrong, when we experience the contraction– the more easily our systems can move towards greater regulation.
The metaphor I like to use is the jellyfish.
…jellyfish actually move forward BY expanding AND contracting.
The contraction isn’t a step back… it’s actually part of the process forward.
And when we’re healing, there’ll be all kinds of places that FEEL like a backward step… because in the healing process, we’re inevitably feeling more uncomfortable stuff.
The stuff that was pushed away, disconnected from, is now able to come into our experience. And the process is usually messy, challenging, and full of ups and downs.
But what if those ups-and-downs actually WERE the path forward, and not any kind of a setback?
Can you celebrate the greater capacity to feel, to be present to all of the richness and depth of your humanity?
This is what healing your nervous system and expanding your capacity looks like.
8 ). Allow the uniqueness of your journey- and honor it
At the heart of healing is a very unique individual process and journey. While others can guide you… at the end of the day, no one else can REALLY tell you what your journey is or how it should look.
That’s why I truly believe that healing is the most creative act we can embark on – because it takes going into the deepest parts of yourself and resourcing and learning to feel and learning to connect again. It’s your own journey – and there’s an immense power in that.
What step is your nervous system calling you to take next, to further expand and grow? Does one of the steps above resonate most with your path right now?