Dr. Peter Levine was the first person to truly understand the stress response and its impact on humans. His exploration of predator-prey relationships in the animal kingdom gave rise to his recognition that humans share similar responses to threats.
In the 1970’s, Levine asked the question, “Why do animals in the wild who are routinely threatened, rarely become traumatized?” His study found that animals were able to release (or shake off) the enormous amount of survival energy they must mobilise to get them through routine threats to their lives, and there was something that modern humans were doing to interrupt that.
The media tells us that if we eat a healthy diet, exercise and get enough rest, we should be able to shake off stress. But Levine tells us this is not enough. There needs to be a process for releasing traumatic stress, which is why he developed the Somatic Experiencing (SE) method, which is highly effective in dealing with thwarted or interrupted self-protective efforts that get “stuck” in our nervous system.
Psychotherapist and SE practitioner, Dr. Kathy Kain has taken Levine’s work a step further. Her research goes deeper into stress chemistry and physiology of the human stress system, particularly the kidneys and adrenals.
The kidneys sit in our midback and an adrenal gland sits above each. The adrenal gland pumps out our major stress chemicals: adrenalin and cortisol. The interesting thing about these stress chemicals is that we need them to live. They are essential for giving us energy as well as keeping us alive in stressful or dangerous situations.
However, when subjected to constant threat (or perceived threat) our bodies go into arousal response and begin to secrete these chemicals. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the problem lies with how we deal with this after the fact.
If we look to the animal world again, think for a moment that an impala has a near miss with a cheetah. While it survives the encounter, imagine for a moment that it returns to its family and spends the rest of its life not only talking about the event over and over, but suffering anxiety, sleep disturbances, memory issues, uncontrolled emotional responses (like anger or fear), and eventually social exclusion. Animals don’t get trapped into these loops. The encounter happens, they get away and shake it off, and then go on with life.
When humans experience stress, it tends to get trapped in a fight-flight-freeze pattern of nervous system activity. Attachment research reveals that “good enough” parenting in childhood assists with the reduction of stress. This is done through co-regulation.
It is easy to see that if this co-regulation does not happen because safety is missing (for example, parents are not physically/emotionally available, violence or abuse, mental illness/substance use, illness or hospitalization), children might never develop this healthy soothing and comforting system. As they grow up, they learn to operate between high activation and complete shutdown, never having a chance to find the middle ground. The hallmark of early trauma is living between these two polarities.
In the absence of co-regulation and if the child does not learn self-regulation, a child’s physiology stops doing its job. The adrenal glands, which are important in helping stress hormones physically wash out of our system, become sluggish leaving those that remain in the body to become toxic. This can lead to a myriad of physical symptoms and health concerns. Dr. Gabor Mate talks about this in depth in his book, When the Body Says No (2003).
“Discharges [of stress chemicals] constitute the flight-or-fight reactions that help us survice immediate danger. These biological reactions are adaptive in the emergencies for which nature designed them. But the same stress responses, tirggered chronically and without resolution, produce harm and even permanent damage. Chronically high cortisol levels destroy tissue. Chronically elevated adrenalin levels raise the blood pressure and damage the heart.”Dr. Gabor Mate
Nervous system expert and SE practitioner, Irene Lyon, tells us when we change the body’s functioning, then, the mind will follow (think about how you feel after recovering from an illness; often the depressed state is replaced with optimism and happiness).
She insists that healing the adrenals is not something that we work on as an aside. Rather, it needs to be integrated into our whole-body awareness. Learn how to tune into the gut, to the heart, to the lungs. Consider how you can get ahead of a threat response and bring the stress chemistry down. She says: “When we can stop our system from scaring itself into a stress response, we start to pump up the stress system. Think about it. If tender loving care goes into a desert landscape, in time, a garden may flourish.”
- Listen to your body: Overriding a body need (like going to the toilet or having a drink of water) to complete a task does not help us. “We need to follow our bodily impulses,” Lyon says.
- Foster healthy connection: Go to church, join a group, hang out with friends. Lyon tells us that our social engagement system is directly linked to the heart. “When we are born, our social engagement system is not on. It does not come wired into us. So, we must build it through healthy interactions between mother and child. And this directly calms the heart down and produces less of the stress chemical.”
- Get outside: Go for a walk or simply enjoy lunch or coffee outside and expose yourself to the sun for 20 minutes; our skin absorbs UV rays, which promotes vitamin D and serotonin production.
- Move your body: Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins. People who feel too fatigued often find when their nervous system physiologically heals, they can do more.
- Cuddle your loved ones: Inter-personal touch raises oxytocin and reduces cardiovascular stress and improves the immune system. Touch into the kidney/adrenal areas can be particularly beneficial because when they are held safely, the body starts to relax, stopping the flow of cortisol and telling the brain that it is possible to rest. (Small bean bags – heated – can be placed under each kidney while reclining or lying down. A hot water bottle may also work.)
- Kick back and smell the roses: Studies have shown that sweet aromas (pine, vanilla, lavender), dark chocolate, and spicy foods can lead the brain to release endorphins. Keep scented oils and a stash of chocolate handy for a quick endorphin boost.
Note, society tells us to rethink what we eat. Lyon says, “you can eat cleanly, but this is less effective than other approaches. In fact, for some people it creates more stress.”
Want to learn more?
Peter Levine: Nature’s lesson in healing trauma.