The body doesn’t forget anything: Do we change through the body or the mind?

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The body doesn't forget anything: Do we change through the body or the mind?

In this article I share my little-known view on the limits of coaching and personal development because I believe some changes require working on the body.

This article is the beginning of a series where I will introduce you to the importance of involving the body in your personal development path. I will talk in more detail about the poly-vagal theory and in Reconnecting with your body I will talk about different body techniques and how they can help you in your personal development.

To start this series I’m going to share in this article my point of view on the limits of coaching and personal development or mindset because for me, in terms of personal development and the ability to connect with others, it requires working on the body. This is also why I include body-psychological approaches in my coaching practice because personally, it has changed my life and the more I practice it on the people I coach, the more I see how much it metamorphoses their way of apprehending the world and others.

To do this, I’m going to base myself on the book by psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk “The body keeps the score” A book that has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. He is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University, founded the Trauma Center in Boston. He has conducted extensive studies on the nature of traumatic memory and was instrumental in the early studies of psychopharmacological treatments for PTSD. He has a particular interest in psychopathology and coined the term “Developmental Traumatic Disorder” to refer to the complex range of psychological and biological responses to trauma during human development. 

I loved this book because it tells the story of his journey as a psychiatrist who initially gave the utmost importance to the head and came to understand the role of the body in psychology. I had the complete opposite experience because I started from my body’s reactions (binge eating, emotional over-reactions) to make the link with what I had experienced in my past. 

I wanted to share with you in this article his major findings to explain the limits of headwork, coaching and personal development.

A little disclaimer: I’m not a scientific person so I hope I don’t make mistakes in the way I transcribe what he wrote in the book. I invite you to read the book for yourself because it’s really worth it if it’s a topic that interests you.

In his book Bessel Van der Kolk explains that he worked with Vietnam war veterans and also that he worked in institutes with people who were interned for various mental illnesses and that these experiences allowed him to observe that in the end the “bodies” of these people had common imbalances such as:

  • Poor agility or body coordination

  • Sleep disorders

  • Emotional overreaction or on the contrary dissociation of the body

  • Self-destructive, life-threatening or self-harming behaviours such as stopping eating, self-mutilation…

  • Flashbacks and hallucinations where the body actually reacts

  • Obsessive thinking about the event

He also noticed that at night the patients told him more about their experiences of abuse, war and violence, and he wondered if the madness they finally recounted during the day was not a fragment of the trauma they were feeling that kept turning over in them.

In the course of his career he has experienced the advent of medication for psychiatric treatment, its benefits (he even studied pharmacology for the treatment of PTSD) but that pharmacology also had its limitations, namely that it did not solve the underlying problem or that for some people medication did not work.

And so he started doing brain scans of people who had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (these are ‘strong’ traumas such as war, violence, abuse/violence, parental neglect). So he recorded brain scans in 2 cases:

  • The first one where he made them read back the scene of their trauma that they remembered

  • In another case where they described a scene where they feel safe

He then analysed the scans to see a little bit which area of the brain was reactivated by these traumas and found 3 things:

  • Just replaying the trauma scenarios causes the person’s physical reactions to the trauma to reoccur – reactions such as fright, sweat, shock – even if the person was not reliving the experience.

  • For some people the emotional brain would become alert (sounds of the sensations of the event would be reactivated) and make them stay in their past traumas and prevent them from connecting to the present moment even though the danger was no longer there. It was as if they were “stuck” in their traumatic experiences.

  • And the third point was the prevalence of the body’s information on the brain. As long as in fact the body perceives a “danger” and this perception of danger is done by the body’s signals, the body’s sensations and the effect of these sensations on your visceral organs, the head can’t be reasoned. 

In short, this means that if you have experienced a trauma you can do all the mindset you want to try to calm yourself down, to reason with yourself, but it’s useless until your body feels safe.

He also explains that for people who have experienced trauma, this trauma has three additional consequences:

  • That the level of normality is the level of trauma, so basically you can seek to re-experience the “chaos” and re-experience the “trauma” because that’s the normal level

  • That because of the trauma you are more easily activated, sensitive to danger and have more difficulty in feeling safe.

  • And finally that you can cut yourself off from your emotional feelings and therefore it cuts you off from knowing yourself through your emotions and sensations.

And finally, he puts into perspective in his book the approaches that exist to regulate one’s emotions and illustrates this with the example of the horse and the rider. The rider is your head and your reason (your rational brain). When the external environment is safe, the rider can direct his mount, make it trot, gallop and jump. The horse (your emotional brain, which is connected to your guts).

And he sums it up by saying that if the horse feels in danger, the rider has little ability to impact the horse. He says “no insights will silence it”. No amount of thinking or awareness will silence the horse.

It was this observation that led him to consider the work of Stephen Porges who explains that the autonomic nervous system also plays a role in our ability to attach and connect to others, because we are mammals and group membership is crucial to our survival, so it’s important to know who we can team up with and who can’t trust.

Stephen Porges explains that our sense of safety is influenced by how we perceive others, and this perception of others is largely influenced by whether the body feels safe or not, as a result of our experienced emotional trauma.

Your autonomic nervous system has 3 safety levels:

  • 1st level We are seeking social interaction and are also able to connect with others and feel connected. The person is relaxed, with a slower heart rate, deeper breathing.

  • 2nd level Our body goes into stress (fight or flight) and we are alert to danger, social engagement is harder, we become more sensitive to noise and find it difficult to communicate.

  • 3rd level Our body thinks that there is no more solution (freeze), the body shuts down by lowering the heart rate, breathing becomes difficult, our intestines stop working. We play dead to the environment (disengagement or even panic) until we lose consciousness.

When a person experiences emotional trauma, the autonomic nervous system is dysregulated because not only does the body remember the trauma, but it can become stuck in trauma response mode. Thus, even though the threat is gone, the body still perceives the danger and its defences remain engaged.

This affects its behaviour on several levels:

  • They find it more difficult to gain intimacy and may limit their social contacts to a superficial level.

  • They have difficulty discerning when they are safe.

  • They are more suspicious of the outside world.

Emotional trauma is not limited to situations that may have led to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr Nicole Le Pera, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “How to do the work” also known as the holistic psychologist, explains which insecure attachments can cause emotional trauma. It is when your primary caregivers (parent, teacher) or family members (brother/sister):

  • deny reality
  • do not see or hear you
  • live vicariously through you or model you
  • do not set limits
  • focus too much on your appearance
  • can’t regulate their emotions

I would also add any experience that makes you feel some kind of “danger” or involves your body (accident, birth, illness, being forced to do or eat something, addictions, medical operations, intrusive medical care, chronic stress), sudden and unexpected events (death or illness of loved ones, sudden or shocking event, war), peer pressure (lobbying).

In short, emotional trauma is the repetition of experiences perceived as stressful where the person has not felt safe and has not been able to regulate themselves either by themselves or by co-regulation with those around them.

This information can revolutionise your love life.

Yes, it’s good to work on your behaviour and communication to make it work in love.

But as long as your body doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t feel connected, there’s no point.

So how do you make your body feel safe?

  • Deactivate your past emotional traumas in the body and their reaction patterns. My body-psychological approach will go and find the first traumatic event and deactivate the reaction that makes the body stay in alarm to reprogram a reaction where the person takes back their power over the situation. To re-calibrate your autonomic nervous system to a “normal” level.

  • Show your body that it can count on you to develop its sense of security: listen to its basic needs (drinking, eating, sleeping), feel its comfortable and uncomfortable emotions in the body and not in the head. I will give you more hints in Reconnecting with your body, in a following article my guest will give you tools to reconnect to your inner voice, your intuition and I will talk about Kundalini yoga also called the yoga of consciousness which is particularly interesting for its effect on the autonomic nervous system and the hormones.

  • Be aware of the situations that put your body under stress, try to describe precisely what the physical manifestations are and estimate in what level. Observe the actions that allow you to regulate yourself and others. Because this is unique for each person. In a following article I introduce you to a tool called the Poly-Vagal Theory Roadmaps.

  • Gradually increase your margin of resistance to stress either by developing more resilience to your stressors or by releasing the body from stored emotional traumas. In a following article you will discover the Wimhof cold therapy which allows you to develop more resilience to stress. In this video you can learn more about Breathwork, a breathing technique that helps you to empty your body of stored emotions. The second body-psychological approach that I practice during the day of the past allows you to get rid of the emotions that are stored in the body.

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