As human beings, we are meant for social engagement with others. When we are very young, we are primarily operating from our autonomic nervous system as opposed to our conscious brain. We are reliant on environment and others (primary caregivers) to mirror a sense of safety. Our time line is much shorter and our perception appears much broader and bigger as opposed to our adult life experiences. How many of you thought your childhood home was bigger than it actually was in reality? How many of you thought holidays or birthday celebrations were too far away? What is important to understand is that the experience of our nervous system creates a perception that evolves into our reality and creates our story. Stories not only involve how we think or feel about our environment, others in life, but also our beliefs toward ourselves.
The goal of therapy is to somatically support and allow your autonomic nervous system to find its way back to a state of regulation. Over the course of each session, supportive touch begins to change your habitual patterns that were once used for survival adaption to a more settled state of being. This can include a change in perspective from “I don’t know”; “I’m confused”; “i’m scared” or “who am I” to an understanding of one’s self with greater capacity for compassion and grace and expansion of your heart towards self and social engagement with others. This process does not happen like a light switch, but rather beginning to notice a reduction in symptoms. For example, I’m sleeping 30 minutes more without waking up”; “I’m 25% less angry in a day”, etc.
The initial work happens on a table through touch of the kidneys, adrenal glands, brain stem and ankles. The therapeutic treatment will be consistent over the course of several sessions as a means to imprint boundaries and safety in the nervous system. Belief systems will emerge organically and allow for exploration in sessions. Over time the therapeutic interventions may expand to include integration of developmental reflexes, balance, attachment, grief and/or shame work depending on individual client needs.
At the beginning and throughout your therapy, you will begin to slowly identify your individual survival adaptions. Survival adaptations can show up as behavior patterns, somatic symptoms, your thoughts and beliefs about yourself and others and sometimes emotions. These survival adaptions may appear labeled by yourself or others as being “positive” and/or “negative”. In reality, they are serving different purposes: protection, nurturance, self-soothing, attempts at regulation, etc.
Some examples of thoughts and beliefs may be: “I’m lazy”; “I’m different”; “I can’t seem to get it right”, etc.
Some examples of behavior patterns may be: addictions; obsessive-compulsive behavior; rapid speech; staying busy; perfectionism; control, etc.
Some examples of somatic symptoms may be: irritable bowel; panic attacks; rapid heartbeat; insomnia; tics; back pain, etc.
Some emotional symptoms may be: anger outbursts; crying often; shut down (numb); etc.
The kidney work begins to “back-out” from present time to the past. Thus, it is not uncommon for behavior or emotional experiences that you might have had when you were younger to resurface again. Please note this is normal and to be expected as part of your healing journey. Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) cannot differentiate present time and space. It does not know the year, time of day or location of your whereabouts.
Keep a journal to note any changes (such as the examples listed above) that are happening. Notice how long the patterns of change have shifted i.e., minutes, hours, days, weeks. Please know that “changes” does not have a category of “good” or “bad” attached to them.
The way in which the autonomic nervous system is comprised is as shared in “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation” by Deb Dana and Stephen Porgess:
Hierarchy: The autonomic nervous system responds to sensations in the body and signals from the environment through three pathways of response. These pathways work in a specified order and respond to challenges in predictable ways. The three pathways and their patterns of response, in evolutionary order from oldest to newest, are the dorsal vagus (immobilization), the sympathetic nervous system (mobilization), and the ventral vagus (social engagement and connection).
Neuroception: This is the term coined by Dr. Porges to describe the way our autonomic nervous system responds to cues of safety, danger, and life-threat from within our bodies, in the world around us, and in our connections to others. Different from perception, this is “detection without awareness” (Porges, n.d.), a subcortical experience happening far below the realm of conscious thought.
Co-regulation: Polyvagal Theory identifies co-regulation as a biological imperative: a need that must be met to sustain life. It is through reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states that we feel safe to move into connection and create trusting relationships.