Without the ability to self-regulate. Can there really be growth?

All experiences are stored in the body and no one can escape their nervous system. Our autonomic nervous system learns from experiences for better or for worse. Kathy Kain writes about this in her book Nurturing Resilience and if you have suffered from chronic/trauma stress you might find this a good resource. Begin to open the doors to discover how your body and your nervous system hold the truth of your experiences even without clear memories.

Self-regulation and triggers go hand in hand and through regulating the body and nervous system first you provide an all-important springboard from which to support healing and growth. Some therapies leave this step out and in doing so tend to cause unnecessary re-traumatization. This is such an unfortunate outcome for so many who are trying earnestly to move forward with their lives.

I myself experienced this and set out to ensure that it would not happen to others. We never want healing to be more traumatic or stressful than the original event. If this also happened to you. This short write-up might help you to understand why and provide you with insight to investigate the value of working to repair your nervous system. These may be considered basic skills however, they are vital to the safe passage of yourself and clients and vital to ensure steady growth while greatly reducing, relapsing. I consider these ‘skills for life’.

During this time of investigation for me, I decided to stop my private work as a craniosacral therapist. There were two reasons, my training fell short of providing me with these skills for both myself and my clients. I became concerned that I was not supporting my clients with enough skills to maintain stability between one session and the next. It was a hole in this practice and in so many other forms of therapy that needed to be filled, for recovery and an ability to heal and grow in a resourced way. I saw the need for this within the practice of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation also.

I researched and studied the work of Dr. Peter Levine and the real gem was revealed in the pioneering work of Dr. Stephen Porges and the PolyVagal Theory. If therapists, bodyworkers, yoga, and meditation teachers are serious about offering their work as a healing practice. It must encompass teaching resources to students and clients with tools to self-regulate. In doing so they learn them for themselves also. Inadvertently causing re-traumatization for clients is an avoidable circumstance, if you help them prepare for the journey. Students and clients need skills to support themselves outside of and between sessions. As I keep saying, ‘it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, how rich or poor you are or what your profession is. No one can escape their autonomic nervous system’.

As a therapist of any kind, it is so important to know your own nervous system so that you yourself can self-regulate especially when faced with sessions that may be triggering or cause heightened activation of your own nervous system. The importance of co-regulation is becoming more broadly understood. This is basically when one regulated nervous system can be soothed and calmed by that of another. What a beautiful natural gift to be able to give your children and students and clients. Attunement and healthy attachment as a baby were where we first learned to self-regulate from co-regulation. Our nervous system was calibrated by our caregivers and when we miss out on this we become more attuned to alarm. We may never have learned how to self-regulate so this alarm became the most familiar pathway that is why reactions and reactivity can come on quickly and resolve slowly.

If you’re like me, ‘an extra sensitive being’ you can pick up on these subtleties from a mile away, which is a great skill as a somatic healing practitioner and yoga teacher. However on the other side of this is, my abilities to self-regulate need to be well-practiced and finely tuned so that I can separate what is mine from what is everyone else’s. For example, if I’m sensing that a person feels fearful and senses danger, I need to make sure I don’t get carried away with that person’s triggered alarmed state, especially if in real-time, things are basically ok.

You cannot talk your way out of nervous system dysregulation, you can only feel your way out.

Our bodies are the maps, they are representative and bring to light all that is unconscious. The majority of our input signals fall below our conscious radar. We all have different storage areas within our body, these are like weak spots that are vulnerable to triggers. Discovering where these are located within an individual is a key to disarming the alarm bell that may be in a heightened state of arousal keeping you in automatic reactivity.

We have to go underneath the surface of the trigger-and-response and turn our attention to the autonomic nervous system.

Dr. Stephen Porges states: “We tend to think of triggers as words or scripts or contexts. I’d like therapists to think of them as triggers of physiological state”.

When we can learn the language of our body and nervous system as advocated by Deb Dana, from her book Poly Vagal exercises for Safety and Connection. We can begin to distinguish what we think from how we feel, sometimes we need to separate our thoughts from our bodily sensations. Especially if our sensations are taking over our ability to discern the truth. This can happen all too often, sometimes this can show up as an emotional flashback especially for people with CPTSD as described by Pete Walker in his book From Surviving to Thriving.

When we can restore a felt sense of safety first it becomes easier to drop into the body and feel the sensations without becoming overwhelmed by them. This increases the ability to keep the rational or frontal brain online and we can begin to recognize patterns of conditioned thinking, evaluation, and go to judgments. Curiosity is a great tool, however, we still need to catch those automatic assumptions that can so easily take over as a result of autonomic nervous system responses that bring with them a host of familiar sensations that keep firing. No matter how mentally strong you can be if this system is left dysregulated it will win over your well-intentioned efforts 90% of the time. Leaving you in hyperarousal, hypo arousal, or swinging between both.

Self-regulation is where we need the most support without it, it is so difficult to progress and grow. Restoring a personal sense of agency over your reactions is reliant on this before you can really begin to feel you have choices. Once you can self-regulate then your sense of ‘will/will power’ can be powerful and a sense of freedom can begin to feel real and tangible.

In all that I do, I include reflection, it is a tool that can help you make sense of it all and once the pieces start coming together again, that is the Ahh-ha moment. Through learning how to self-regulate, coming home to the present moment, and applying mindfulness becomes easier and more accessible. When these become more accessible, the ties and hooks of the past can begin to loosen and weaken. Fear, anxiety, and anger can be greatly reduced when uncertainty about the future comes knocking on your door.

Slow Down and internalize the experience of self-regulation when it happens. It is the most empowering feeling, the ‘yes I can’ reclaim my body and mind, steps in with a huge firm footing. It becomes about taking steps within your reach no matter how slippery the footing beneath may feel. Once you do it once, it is a success, and be sure to pause and really absorb and internalize that moment. When you succeed at self-regulation, that in ways becomes your new truth.

In learning to self-regulate you can also begin to tolerate stress and the waves of sensations that come in a moment of activation. It is in those moments of autonomic awareness, the ability to see choices and discern the truth of any given moment can begin to rise. When you repair the nervous system the brakes can be applied more easily, less activation, less automatic reactions, and thoughts and feelings and behaviors. You open the gateway to new pathways with new growth and new possibilities.

By building autonomic awareness you can become aware of the somatic markers that indicate to you that your nervous system is possibly firing from old neural pathways. Not only is our autonomic nervous system shaped by past experiences, but it can also rebuild itself from our moment-to-moment experiences and we can use this to our advantage.

I advocate always engaging regularly in authentic micro-moments of actually feeling safe and peaceful. These moments are so easily overlooked yet are vital in helping our brains to slowly but surely shift from feeling constantly under threat, hyper-vigilant, and defensive. As Deb Dana would say shifting from‘ protection to connection’. When you can begin to see and understand the origin of patterns associated with triggers, you can also more easily plan and resource yourself for those more difficult moments.

I have included examples of somatic markers associated with being triggered…

What shows up for you? How does it show up within your body?

Body: posture, sensations, facial expressions, autonomic nervous system activation, and stress responses, smells and body language, tightness, clenched hands…

Mind and emotions: automatic racing thoughts, judgments, and evaluations, negative and disinterested, defensiveness, anxiety, fear, sadness, anger. …

Wisdom: What you believe and value, limiting beliefs, inner critic and outer critic, faith…

Energy: hyper or hypo aroused/ feeling chaotic, scattered, unfocused and ungrounded, feeling blocked in certain areas of your body, feeling low and lethargic ….

Soul: lost contact with your deepest self, lack self-worth, feel overcome with guilt, fear, shame, anger, despair….

Roseanne Reilly
Advancing your ability to heal and repair your nervous system


Guest Post Disclaimer: Any and all information shared in this guest blog post is intended for educational and informational purposes only. Nothing in this blog post, nor any content on CPTSDfoundation.org, is a supplement for or supersedes the relationship and direction of your medical or mental health providers. Thoughts, ideas, or opinions expressed by the writer of this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of CPTSD Foundation. For more information, see our Privacy Policy and Full Disclaimer.

Share This