Our senses are our primary means of connecting to our environment and our first line of defense when threatened. In the aftermath of trauma, the story of a survivor’s experience reveals itself as sensory fragments. By training ourselves and our students to cultivate the use of all the senses, we are better prepared to respond to danger and also more resilient.
When we talk about helping people “trust their instincts” we are talking about the development of sensory literacy and energy awareness, the ability to recognize and respond to subtle body cues essential for survival. Physiological responses happen immediately. They are pre-verbal. In self-defense, we want to be able to interrupt uncomfortable or dangerous situations early. By practicing tools to build energetic and sensory awareness, we can do this more quickly and more effectively.
In the case of trauma, when we bring awareness to unconscious, non-verbal sensory cues and feeling states (images, sensations, emotions, etc.) and find language to describe them, we are helping the right and left hemispheres come back on-line. We are helping people make meaning of previously un-integrated experiences. This makes it easier to manage difficult sensations and emotions and to take effective action. For this reason, when we do boundary exercises, it is important to ask people to notice the physical cues that indicate boundaries are being breached and then describe them - “How do you know when someone is standing too close, or moving too fast?” - (i.e. - stomach clenching, body bracing, holding breath, changes in visual field, etc.). Becoming more conscious of body signals and learning to verbalize them helps to overcome some of the freeze response associated with trauma and strengthens the mind-body connection. Embodied awareness helps us make healthier choices in general because we can more easily recognize and move towards things that are life-affirming.
In “Why Cops Don’t Believe Rape Victims,” Rebecca Ruiz reports on recent studies in neurobiology and trauma to help us better understand the effects of traumas like sexual assault. The research highlights the fact that victim-survivors often have fragmented memories of sensory details, which often contributes to them being disbelieved. Victims have difficulty recalling important parts of traumatic experiences and providing a coherent, linear narrative precisely because they were victims of trauma, not because they are making things up.
Brain science can also help explain why somatic therapies – approaches that work with the senses – such as touch, taste, smell, and visceral reactions, can be more effective than cognitive therapies alone in helping people heal from trauma. With extreme stress, the pre-frontal cortex, particularly the speech and language centers, become impaired or shut down, while areas of the right side, which affect emotions and arousal, light up. When traumatic memories surface, rational thinking is essentially “hijacked” by the survival-oriented parts of the brain and nervous system, and is no longer as readily accessible. It becomes difficult to process information. If the two sides of the brain are not working together, the story will be chaotic and confused. A person may be flooded with sensations and emotions with no way to make sense of them. Or, the story may make logical sense but lack the emotional charge one would normally associate with painful events.
The symptoms described are also true of torture survivors. Asylum officers receive some specialized training in how to recognize symptoms of trauma and PTSD which might include fragmented memories, flat affect, and dissociative states. Well-trained officers are likely to elicit sensory memories to help substantiate a victim’s story. Police officers need to have this kind of training as well.
Diane Long has been teaching sex-positive self-defense for schools, shelters and social service agencies for over 20 years. A Somatic Experiencing™ Practitioner and Nationally Certified Massage Therapist (NCBTMB), she has worked as a French interpreter at The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis for 10 years. Diane currently serves on the Self-Defense Leadership Committee of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation (NWMAF).