Can Somatic Experiencing be used to help heal a child with attachment disorder? What if my child was adopted at birth and there was no other trauma, but they still seem to have attachment issues? Can Somatic Experiencing be helpful for any child with attachment disorder and relational trauma, even if there are no other times of abuse or neglect in their life?
I am currently attending the Somatic Experiencing Practitioner Certification training in San Diego, CA. What should have been a beautiful, sunny weekend in San Diego, turned into a cloudy, rainy weekend; however, the people, the science, and the practical tools that were shared at this conference made it feel perfect, despite the gloomy weather. It was at this conference that many of us were able to see so much correlation between Somatic Experiencing and the moods and behaviors that can often be see in our children with attachment disorder.
Using Somatic Experiencing
I would love to share with you the most practical ways Somatic Experiencing can be applied to help heal your child with attachment disorder.
One of the founding principles that Peter Levine teaches is that “Trauma is not in the event, but in the nervous system.” Healing from any form of trauma would suggest that a necessary focus and healing should be on the nervous system in the body and in the brain’s control center of the nervous system.
By itself, this is a very different approach to trauma, which has traditionally been psychoeducation and psychotherapy. These are focused on the narrative of the event, and engage the cortex or logical part of the brain to reframe the experience. Through this means, psychotherapy attempts to attach a different meaning, belief system, and reaction to the traumatic event.
Peter Levine reinforces this point when he states, “Wholeness is the integration of all three: rational brain, emotional brain, instinctual brain.” The rational brain refers to the cortex, or the outer most layer, otherwise known as the higher-functioning part of the brain, which allows us to reason and plan in a logical way.
Through the lens of Somatic Experiencing, the instinctual brain and the nervous system are the path to integration, healing, and wholeness.
The instinctual brain refers to the part of the brain that is always running subconsciously to help us survive. It keeps our heart beating, our lungs breathing, and provides us thirst and hunger. These are all active processes in our daily lives, but are subconscious. They are processes that are mediated through communication between the brain and body by the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system has two modes that it runs on. It is like driving where there are two modes: a gas pedal and a brake pedal. Both are important for getting where you want to go! However, if the driver does not use them in the correct way, at the correct times, things can go really badly.
The gas pedal would be the sympathetic nervous system, which is the instinctual response to fight or run in response to danger. It is a super-charged up form of energy that courses through the body’s nerves to the muscles in order to kick somebody away, to yell for help, or to run as fast as possible.
The brake would be the parasympathetic nervous system, which are the instincts to relax, settle in, connect, eat, and sleep.
Going back to the previous point towards the beginning, where I explained that trauma resides within the nervous system. Let’s see if we can find the trauma in our children who have attachment disorder!
A very useful tool is to track the nervous system. To do this, we draw two lines on a paper indicating the threshold of our nervous system. The upper line indicates the gas pedal or sympathetic nervous system, and the lower line is the brake or parasympathetic nervous system.
(Sympathetic Nervous System: Gas Pedal)
Window of threshold or resiliency
(Parasympathetic Nervous System: Brake Pedal)
Going over the upper threshold into the gas pedal would be someone who has “flipped the lid” as Daniel Siegel says. For example, they might go into an active defense, mobilizing their energies for fight or flight, their breathing gets fast, they might break into a sweat, their muscles tense, and they are revved up. This would be the temper tantrum, the rage, the violence, the property destruction, and the extreme emotions with anxiety and hypervigilance.
Going under the lower threshold into the brake area would look like someone shutting down emotionally and physically. They disconnect with themselves, their body and others, communication becomes minimal, and their bodies may become limp. They may even seem to go to another place in their mind. This is where depression, apathy, fatigue, pain, poor digestion, and many addictions may come from.
The natural flow of life is to have waves going up and down within the window throughout our day and life, and when an event sends us over a line, our systems are able to bring us back within the healthy window within a reasonable period of time.
Below is an example of tracking the nervous system through drawing the window of threshold for stress resiliency. The green wave represents the healthy, natural flow of life.
Trauma is stored in the nervous system; this is because our nervous systems get stuck on, get stuck off, or they can get stuck as both on and off at the same time. This could look very much like a disorganized insecure attachment, where the child has no organized way of responding to perceived emotional threat (love and vulnerability), but concurrently will get stuck in active and passive defense mechanisms.
Since trauma is stored in the nervous system, we want to track the nervous system. If we were to go to where trauma is stored and look at it, we would see that there is a wealth of information there that shows what the brain and body need in order to heal from that trauma.
How To Track The Nervous System
There are many different ways to do this, but I will be going over the Somatic Experiencing way of tracking the nervous system. We have looked at how to track the nervous system as a big picture during the normal day, but now we will look at how the nervous system (involving trauma) works in the present moment.
In the moment, tracking the nervous system involves paying close attention to the sensations and movements with which the nervous system prompts our body. You have done your graph of the big picture of what the nervous system is doing over the course of a day.
Let’s identify which sensations you are looking for that are mediated by the nervous system, because all of these will be direct ways to measure and track the nervous system.
Temperature is one sensation mediated by the nervous system. Although tracking one’s temperature is vital in this exercise, it is more important to try to focus on your body and see if there is one place that feels warmer and another place that feels cooler?
Proprioception is another sensation mediated by the nervous system. Proprioception is just the word for feeling the weight of something pressing into your body. If you push your fingers into your arm, you will feel the weight of that pressure. As you sit or stand, you can start to focus on where you feel the pressure. Is it in your hips as you sit in your chair? Do feel more weight in your legs and feet as they rest on the floor?
Environmental cues are another thing that is mediated by the nervous system. As you look around the room, what is something that catches your eye? As it catches your eye, is it calming or does it not feel right?
Light sensitivity to the eyes is another sensation mediated by the nervous system. Pay attention to which lights you have on, and how they feel on your eyes. For many people, they are not aware that the lights they use are actually bothering their eyes! This will drain your nervous system energy over time, having to manage this subconsciously while you work on your computer!
Are there places in your body that feel tense? Is there a place in your body where you feel more relaxed? Is there a place within your body that feels more dense, spacious, or expansive?
Then, notice your breath and your heartbeat. Take a deep breath in and see if you feel like you can breathe deeply or if it feels heavy or restricted. Is your heart beating fast, does it feel revved up, or is it calm and relaxed?
All these sensations are ones that are mediated by the nervous system and can be used to measure and track the nervous system in the moment. From moment to moment, these sensations actually change, but we usually have our focus on other things, and only notice it if it begins to affect what we are doing.
The nervous system holds tremendous value in healing trauma, because as Abi Blakesley said in our training yesterday, “Mental and emotional health follows the nervous system.” If the nervous system is not right, we will not be right. From my experience in medicine, I would also add that not only is our mental and emotional health a direct correlation to our nervous system, but also our physical health.
The first steps for you as a caregiver to apply Somatic Experiencing to your child with attachment disorder is to notice if your child is more stuck on or stuck off in terms of their nervous system. Do they generally get revved up with triggers, or do they shut down and disconnect?
Then begin to track their nervous system over a day. You will start discovering secrets of their nervous system that you never saw before!
Finally, start to integrate them into noticing their sensations throughout the day, such as when they are in a good place or when they are in a not so good place. Approach it from a place of curiosity.
Here are some examples of how to approach their nervous system sensations with curiosity. “I just noticed your face flush, I wonder what that could mean or how that feels inside your body.” “As we do this, I wonder what is happening inside your body and how that feels for you.”
After you start to help them get connected with their body and their internal sensations, then you can help them understand what their nervous system needs in the moment.
Here are some examples of how to gently encourage your child to give their body what it needs in that moment to calm them down, which will ultimately lead to healing: “I wonder if you were to take a deep breath with me, if that would help or not help.” Model a deep breath, and “I invite you to take a deep breath with me and see what happens.” If (and after) they take a deep breath, ask with curiosity in a slow, calm voice, “Did that help that racing feeling inside? Why and how do you think taking the deep breath help that racing feeling?”
As you think of tracking the nervous system, what do you think your nervous system window of threshold would look like? Remember, self-care is extremely important in order to keep ourselves regulated!
Do you think your child is more stuck in sympathetic (Gas Pedal) or parasympathetic (Brake)?
Somatic Experiencing is a valuable tool in working with children with attachment disorder. I encourage you to find a practitioner in your area, or search for one with specific experience in early childhood trauma and attachment issues.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Related: Underlying Physiology That Contributes To Attachment Disorder