An Interview with Anthony Twig Wheeler of “Liberation is Possible”
Today I’m interviewing Anthony Twig Wheeler. Twig aims to be one more participant in the effort to renew, regain, rediscover and revitalize the human spirit, while protecting and promoting the prospect for well-being. Twig serves both the general public and helping professionals by:
∙ Translating the science about stress and trauma into ideas everyone can understand.
We talk here about the consequences of becoming sedentary agriculturalists, traumatic stress and dysregulation, Somatic Experiencing, the importance of titration, and Twig’s own story of finding his way to feeling better.
The following resources were mentioned in the interview:
- Peter Levine – Somatic Experiencing | Waking the Tiger
- Chellis Glendinning – My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization | Off the Map | When Technology Wounds
- Jean Liedloff – The Continuum Concept
- Stephen Porges – Polyvagal Theory
Ryan: Well, welcome, Twig. Thanks for being with me and talking a little bit about your work.
Twig: Real pleasure, Ryan.
Ryan: Well, I wanted to start, instead of me providing an introduction about you, maybe you could self-describe. I just wanted to ask who you are and what you’re involved in these days.
Twig: Sure. This is not always the easiest conversation for me. I think I’m one of those people that is just less prone to talking about themselves. But then what I do is often a little confusing even for myself. My background now, for the last fifteen years, has been heavily involved with the Somatic Experiencing trauma modality. And I came to that work in the early 2000’s, more as a social activist and environmental activist looking into things that are stopping society from changing on our own behalf. And I was also a body worker, which is how I got into that training.
I was particularly interested in that training because of its insights into how the mammalian and human nervous systems work and how that can influence or challenge the prospect of change, like changing our beliefs or our attitudes or even our feeling states. And my primary work these days is either working with practitioners of that work – therapists, clinicians – or educating other therapists and clinicians about the work so that they might get involved. And I have my own personal desires and direction of sharing that information with the general public whenever I can and however I can. So I fashion myself as a communications person and a cultural animator, a person to stimulate the culture to consider options that we haven’t held yet.
Ryan: Okay. And so you did touch on this just a bit in your response, but if we could trace back how it is that you gravitated towards getting more involved in this kind of work. I know that you’ve shared on your podcast, and in other talks that you’ve done, some of the discouragement that you experienced when you were younger around what you saw out there in our culture and where we were heading. And I imagine that’s been a part of it, but what’s really mobilizing your interest in this in the first place?
Twig: Yeah. For some reason since I’ve been young, I’ve been overly concerned or heavily concerned about the world, the state of affairs in the world and its impact on people and animals and the biosphere. The biosphere element came into my awareness in my teens. But earlier to that, I somehow had a sensitivity to the hurts of the world. I think it was only much later that I realized that I had undergone a lot of hurts myself. And so I felt the connection there.
In any case, I was working for a long time as a highly dedicated front lines activist in the Pacific Northwest in my twenties and really driven by both an anger and concern about things as well as an unrecognized complex post-traumatic stress disorder that I held in my own body, my own organism. And around my late twenties, I started to – I would say – unravel or fall apart. My nervous system started to give out. My social circle had – I really reduced my contact with people. I was becoming very estranged and very tense. I was not easy to be around. I was one of those angry people. And also I was still trying to figure out what would help us allay major concerns – global warming, deforestation, racial and social inequity. And so along my journey, along my search, I was really doing a lot of work on the origins of civilization, on the origins of sedentary culture, sedentary societies, and its impact on the planet. And that led me into a number of critiques of how things are and the way things are and why they are this way – social critiques, racial critiques, economic critiques, class …
And somewhere along the way, having a general interest in naturalist things, I started to realize that the species involved in all of those issues – economics, race and such – is involved as well – the actual organism of the human species. And so I started to wonder if we didn’t all have some nervous system or psychological predisposition at play that was reinforcing the challenges of the world. And that led me to massage school, actually, where I thought: “oh, that’s where I’ll go learn about the nervous system and maybe also go get some personal relief and help myself.”
At massage school, I learned about Peter Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger, which I still consider – while it’s an easy enough read – I consider it a very important work and it definitely changed my world. The night that I read that book, I realized that he had found a central answer of the question that I was looking for of why we can’t change individually and collectively, why we have such a problem with that. And a short time later, I was in the Somatic Experiencing training. And a short time after that, I was a researcher of that work and an advocate for it. I went back to school so that I could do all of the background science work and study of that, and so that I could to make sure that I wasn’t getting involved in a cult as I thought of it. And I also received the work personally, which to that point I hadn’t realized how much of that I would need. And I discovered just how unsettled I was as I came into contact with what it means to be traumatized, what it means to have accumulated stress in the nervous system and how it plays out in our behavior.
Ryan: Right. In a way, your own participation in that stuckness you were describing and feeling a sense of despair around – you started to realize your own personal challenges in that way as well.
Twig: Which until then I hadn’t really been all too cognizant of. I was very clear at what was wrong with everybody else. I was very clear what was wrong with society. I was very clear about my righteous indignation and far too clear about how right I and my little affinity group were about how the world should change. Yes. And all of that was helpfully put into my face by Chellis Glendinning who wrote My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. She also wrote Off the Map and When Technology Wounds. She was an author of the feminist neo-Luddite movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s, very influential for the ecopsychology field and such. And I was aware of her work when I came into contact with that I might have an issue as well. I went to go see her in New Mexico for some therapy work. And she helped me to see that I wasn’t going to actually do much good for the world as long as I was quite so chaotic and unsettled in myself.
Ryan: Right, so your focus started turning more and more towards your own organism and how to start there.
Twig: It really did help that, yes. It mattered. It did that. I did that. I went on a “healing journey,” as they say. As reluctant as I was at first for that, I finally stepped up to it. I engaged in my own self-care, which until then I had belittled with anybody else who had mentioned that that was of importance. I spent a lot of money on therapy. I diminished and then eventually altogether stopped taking in information from the world, particularly from the radical press and the critique that I had been involved with, so as to settle new information from always coming in and causing me more sense of threat. I could just read the paper and explode into the historical analysis of what it all meant and that was not serving me. For a time, I stopped all of that – for several years. So I attended training to become a therapist as well as received exquisite therapy for several years before I reengaged the world.
Ryan: So you’re speaking a bit to maybe some of the ways that we, in the Somatic Experiencing community, think about different ways of processing, different ways of knowing, different ways of experiencing, in that – intellectually, on an analysis level, you felt very aligned with all of that. But on some other level, your system was really not tolerating that information.
Twig: Really not tolerating it, yes. And you can be, I have been, completely dissociated to its ramifications in the personhood. Like I knew I was upset and I knew I was indignant. And I knew I cared and I knew I wanted things to be different. But I didn’t realize that I was in such tension, that my difficulty of going to the bathroom was a comment about how wrapped up and wound up my nervous system was, that my digestion and elimination, that my sleep patterns, that my drug use, that my constant attraction to dangerous situations, whether that be encounters with the police or avoidance of encounters with the police or any of these things, like just a constant attraction to danger was more of what I would describe now as a reenactment of earlier themes that I’ve had from my abusive childhood.
Ryan: So, there are so many trauma modalities out there. And as you mentioned, there’s a lot of different routes one could take professionally, for instance, to explore the impact of everything that you’ve named. What was it about Peter Levine’s work and SE in particular that you felt was so important to hear and that had such a strong influence?
Twig: Centrally, Peter’s appreciation and recognition of the nature of wild animals. Like one of my critiques of humans and modernism is that we have lost track of our connection to our ancestral past, and the very real fact that our ancestors didn’t live as troubled as we do today, that hunter-gatherer peoples lived lives of equality and fierce egalitarianism, and self-resiliency and capacity and interconnectedness, but within the ability to meet the daily needs and the daily round in a very pro-social, reciprocal fashion. It wasn’t a matter of cowering all the time. It was living at ease in the world, this beautiful planet. And so I’ve had that awareness. That was with me for a long time.
I’ve been a practitioner of ancestral living skills since I was in my early twenties. So I knew how to live in the woods, as it were, without all of the things that you purchase at the store. But the sense of settling never really – I mean, I would settle, but it wouldn’t be in the same way that I understand settling now. So I had this general appreciation of humans as animals and an insistence that we needed to recover that. So when I came across Peter’s work, which is fundamentally based on recognizing the similarity between our nervous system and the nervous system of our ancestors, as well as the nervous system of other wild animals around us. And he was able to name out stress dynamics and traumatic stress patterns. And he did that just very simply in Waking the Tiger. And he’s gone on to do it at other times as well.
But just to say that wild animals, even though they may be routinely threatened where they might almost die at the jaws of death, in a predator-prey encounter as an example, if that encounter doesn’t end in their death and they’re able to get away, there are mechanisms or patterns of the nervous system of all mammals that are waiting. They’re at play. They’re waiting for the opportunity to complete that stress response, that danger reaction, that survival reaction to the threat, and more or less move through that danger without “being traumatized”, without then having a lingering feeling, cognitive or not, that the danger is persisting. In fact, it can be quite the opposite where animals that go through extreme dangers on the backside of successfully getting away from those dangers, they feel more capable and more resilient for having gone through the challenge. And that wasn’t at all what happened to me. I went through challenges and felt like I was still burdened by them all the time. And so Peter’s recognition that we are animals and that our mammalian heritage gives us a path out of traumatic stress is why I focus so deeply in his direction.
Ryan: Right. And yet the paradox is that many of us human beings don’t seem to feel like we have access to that capacity that Peter Levine’s describing as being observable in other animals, in other species. And it’s why so many people come to us for support.
Twig: That’s true.
Ryan: So why is that the case? Why is it that humans are somehow struggling so much more so to draw on and access those same capacities or mechanisms?
Twig: It’s a very good question. It is the primary question of what I went back to – the way you do – you go to university and you claim a question that you’re going to try to answer. And that’s was the central theme of “my research”, my work. And that was to try to name out some origin of what is the causality or what is the origin story of traumatic stress in the human species? Given the general proposal in Somatic Experiencing that we share, like other mammals, mechanisms inherent to our biology that say that when a dangerous thing happens, if we survive that danger, we should be able to get through the reactivity to that danger that would tell our nervous system that the danger is still happening. Or by getting through, it would say that that’s something that we encountered in the past, but have moved on from. And I’ll say that it turns out it’s a big question, and it’s not an easy question to answer.
I will say that hunter-gatherers don’t suffer the same inhibitions or these same kinds of fixities that most hunter-gatherer societies – when you look into their stories that we say of them and colonizers encountering hunter-gatherer groups around the world, or that we’re able to see to this day of people that are living outside of a acculturation from civilized societies – that there are simply different patterns between agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in how we raise our children and what we assume for socialization. In terms of socializing hunter-gatherer people where the ecological task of members of the group will be to act autonomously.
When you go off to hunt, you have to make decisions in the moment of yourself. You have to respond spontaneously and organically to an unfolding situation that takes place with “the others”, the other animals and such. When you are working in a farming group, agriculturalists, there are set times that things have to take place and patterns of group behavior that need to happen wherein socialization starts to train people toward obedience. And this isn’t my theory. This is my application of that awareness applied to the notion of traumatic stress. But that delineation, that hunter-gatherers socialize their children toward autonomy as compared to agriculturalists and sedentary people socialize their children toward obedience – that’s standard information in the ethnographic literature. The consequence of that is pretty deep.
One of the major things about resolving traumatic stress in the nervous system is the freedom of behavior for the body to feel its unsettled self. And that’s not necessarily easy for the body to let itself feel its unsettled self, but there is a sequence that in feeling that unsettled self on the backside of a disruption – suppose we have an altercation, a near car accident, a kerfuffle with somebody, and afterwards we feel a little nauseous and a little shaky and a little, maybe a lot, ill-at-ease – there is a process of the body wherein, if that feeling state is allowed to happen within the context of sufficient safety, that the nervous system will pick up on certain cues that it’s starting to settle. Whereas if the allowance for that is repressed or frustrated or told not to allow that to happen, or we take a drink of alcohol to suppress the discomfort of it, the completion process of that deactivation cycle is inhibited and not able to complete. And then it frustrates and lingers in the nervous system.
And so I’m going to come back to your original question, “what’s going on?” I hate to say it, but we are all – so many of us – brought up in a 10,000 year process of telling each other what to do and when to feel and when not to feel and how to behave and when to move and when not to move. And our forebearers, our ancestors, didn’t have that. They were much more permissive about what one another felt and their signals of safety were much more concise to their particular environment. Small groups of people who had known each other since forever, and were going to be the people that they knew, everybody more or less of the same band living together. There’s a safety signal there that – within the allowance of letting their organisms, their bodies, feel themselves without inhibition to that – is much more likely to let the stress response move through.
There is a second thing I should say: as humans collected in larger groups, which had really not happened until the advent of agriculture or food accumulation, which was able to happen in just a few places in the world before agriculture – the Salish Sea up in the Pacific Northwest being one of those and along the coast of Peru being another, the Ural mountains, where they were able to freeze food in the mountains – these three places, once agriculture got going, allowed for food accumulation which allowed for larger groups of people. And as we come into larger groups of people, we end up with all kinds of emergent properties between us that didn’t exist before. One of them is reciprocity and tracking group reciprocity.
In smaller groups, we can track who’s good to one another and who’s not. And we can shame somebody who’s not helping out. And we can be reciprocal more easily. As we get into larger groups, we start having rules. We start having regulations to maintain the social peace and social cohesion. And as our groups get larger, we start having larger scale problems. We start having large scale famines. We start having large scale wars. We start having siege events where we surround towns and keep everybody inside starving until they acquiesce to the threat. These larger events start to take place after the advent of agriculture. And so more people at one time start becoming threatened which makes it harder to provide the safety signals for people within our group who feel threatened.
Ryan: And it becomes more necessary to introduce some of these structures that call on the more obedient side of us.
Twig: Exactly. To maintain the social peace in a group of hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands, we end up with rules and regulations that if we all follow them well enough, then it’s reasonable between us perhaps. Perhaps at a nervous system level, it’s still detrimental. But as soon as there’s friction in there, we see that now we’ll have to have arbitrators and all kinds of rules to set things straight again.
Ryan: Right, and so this leads to what we call trauma or traumatic stress, because we develop these habits of inhibition or repression in ways that the organism isn’t really meant to respond to stressors with?
Twig: It’s a really interesting dynamic. And somebody listening would hear, “oh, now I should just let myself always feel whatever I feel.” And part of the challenge of this is to realize that the nervous system, particularly the aspect of the nervous system that we’re talking about here, which is the autonomic nervous system, the part of our body, the part of our being that controls involuntary autonomic, automatic functions – like our heart rate, our breath rate, the tension in our musculature when we’re not actively doing something, the skin, like our connectivity, like sweat – things of an involuntary nature that we don’t tell our body what to do, but are doing for us. That system is responsible for our stress response or our threat response. And its learning or its conditioning takes place from before birth, but certainly right after birth, it’s really learning: what’s the impact of being aroused? What’s the impact of being strained? What’s the impact of being in danger? And hunter-gatherer foraging peoples have a very distinct pattern of attending to their young wherein those stress response calls are settled out. It’s not that children never are stressed or never in danger. It’s that their caregivers – infants in those cultures are often held “in arms.” What we think of from Jean Liedloff as the “in-arms” phase. And that can be read very nicely in a book called The Continuum Concept. And the “in-arms” phase is seen around the world as holding infants, and as infants get aroused, there’s a caregiver, very close who is actually holding the infant and is able to settle that infant by attending to their needs.
So the pattern of the stress response becoming aroused and then settling becomes inherent to how that individual’s nervous system is working. And agricultural people have a much harder time with this. They often have their infants and children separated or put down. They’re not held “in-arms.” They’re often – particularly now at least – we can say that they’re encouraged to cry to sleep, as an example, which is essentially conditioning the nervous system to not settle after arousal, but to arouse, arouse, arouse. Get so aroused that the body then collapses. And these are two different patterns of training the nervous system to handle the stress response.
One: to handle it, to respond. I cry, my caregiver responds, my need gets met. I settle. That positions in the nervous system a notion that my behavior can work on my behalf in order to get me back to settling. … compared to conditioning for excessive arousal or not being consoled and not getting one’s needs met: the arousal rises until the nervous system shuts off the arousal by putting us into a more immobilized shutdown state. And that has lingering consequences throughout history and particularly for many of us in today’s world.
It’s something that not just Somatic Experiencing, but a few other folks, particularly the Polyvagal Theory, which heavily influences Somatic Experiencing, which helps to lay out the autonomic nervous system dynamics of the body. We’ve been trying to be keen on this for the last twenty years, to name out that that collapse to sleep is not a sign of settling, as much as it’s a sign of impending dysregulation.
Ryan: Right. Well, there’s so much here. I think it might be important for listeners if we can break down the autonomic nervous system a little bit more, maybe talk about some of the separate branches and also what, as you said, Polyvagal Theory may have contributed to our understanding of the autonomic nervous system and particularly the parasympathetic.
Twig: That’s very important. And it’s a nice thing. We’re in a point in history where we get to know something about what’s going on inside of our organisms that our ancestors, recent or deep past, didn’t have access to. At some point in the past, it wasn’t necessary to have access to this information because more or less our social patterns and our lifestyle patterns were reinforcing healthier patterns for this system to organize itself by. And it was much more unconscious and involuntary, in the same way that it’s involuntary for deer in the field an impala in the field and bears in the field. Like their nervous systems are working in the same way. Now, at least in my opinion, it’s very important that we all understand that there are things going on inside of us, and that there are delineations of how our body works inside that fundamentally influence our behavior. And that our behavior isn’t just something that we do, it’s also something that’s heavily influenced by how our nervous system perceives our particular state at this moment and how it’s been conditioned to work in the past based on our previous experiences.
So some of that delineation can be made out by saying that there are parts of our body that we don’t consciously direct or control, but work on our behalf. And they’ve been working since before we were born and as we were born and when we’re asleep and they’re going to work right up until we die. And they’re controlling all of the involuntary functions of our body – heart rate, breath rate, etc. So then controlling those different organs and behavioral elements of the organs, like our heart rate and such, is the autonomic nervous system. And the autonomic nervous system – we could translate that for our daily life as the automatic nervous system – is controlling whether or not things get turned up or whether or not things get turned down, so that our heart rate can go faster so that we can mobilize and blood is now moving through our bodies quicker. And there are goods and groceries like vitamins and minerals and all kinds of juices and stuff moving through our blood to feed our muscles and tissues and such, as well as stuff eliminating it, like excrement.
The metabolic use products of our bodies being moved out of our system – and this reciprocal relationship of moving things out of the body and taking things back in and eliminating them from the body – is central to how we mobilize and also how we end up resting and restoring. So some parts of us turn up and some parts of us turn down. Or better said, all of our body will turn up or turn down depending on what it’s being told to do based on our autonomic nervous system. And then we can get into one more delineation: that there are, in the autonomic nervous system that is turning things up or turning things down, there are distinctions of parts of our body that are being innervated or directed to turn up or turn down based on different parts of the nervous system.
And this gets into just a little mapping: as mammals, and we know this most graciously because of the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges …we know that mammals have a distinct branch – several different distinct branches of this system. And I’m going to name them slightly differently than we’ve all been taught in school. One of these branches is responsible for our digestion and elimination, in terms of everything to do with our belly. One of these branches has everything to do with our movements and our capacity to move around in the world. And that affects our arms and our legs, primarily – muscles of movement and mobilization. And then there’s another part of our body that controls our expressivity and engagement with the world and with one another in the social world. And we consider that the social engagement system – that has everything to do with our face, our mouth, our head and neck.
And all three of these have a relationship with our visceral elements in terms of our heart rate, our breath rate, our gut tension and such. But each of those three different subsystems have direct parts of our body that they control and either help it or complicate it – one way or the other. These different parts of our body work differently depending on how safe or how dangerous we perceive ourselves to be at any one moment.
If our nervous system considers us to feel safe enough, like the environment and our internal state feels safe enough, we will have freedom of movement in our head, neck and face. We will have free expression in our face. Our voice will work well. We’ll be able to speak. We’ll be able to signal to one another with the emotionality in our face. We’ll be able to turn our head with ease. However, if we start to feel threatened, our face will move into more stereotypical gestures that express fight or flight behaviors like seeing fear on our face or seeing anger on our face. And as that fear response comes up, as we start to feel more fear and our face becomes constrained in its free behavior, we will feel more energy or effortful-ness or readiness in our arms and our legs as the – and I’ll name that the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system – takes over and our body prepares to fight or flee. At that time, our heart rate will rise. Our breath will be ready for a lot more breathing for fighting or fleeing behaviors. And then if we were to be, say, running for our life or fighting for our life or feeling that we were in such a situation that we needed to but that we couldn’t get away, so that now the situation is not just dangerous, but it’s somehow life-threatening or our nervous system perceives life threat, the third part of the autonomic nervous system will take over.
In normal life, it’s responsible for digestion and elimination. It controls our belly and such. But in an extreme life threat, this branch of the autonomic nervous system, technically called the dorsal vagal system – it’s a branch of the parasympathetic system – it will shut down the body and we will collapse, dissociate, freeze and immobilize. The opossum is known for doing this upon threat. The opossum plays dead. And if somebody were to point a gun at me, I wouldn’t turn and run, nor would I push toward them and fight back. I would stop. And I would freeze and immobilize, and that would be directed by this system saying, don’t move. And that’s essentially the system that takes over when the infant is crying, crying, crying, and then drops down into sleep. It’s not exactly sleep in the sense of letting down as much as the sense of shutting down.
Those three subsystems, they have direct parts of our body that they control and they work differently based on how much threat we perceive. If we feel safe enough, the belly moves well, the face moves well, the hands and the arms and legs can move with coordination. As we get more strained or more in danger, the belly stops working so much, the face stops working so much in the arms and legs get charged for action, self-protection. If we get into too much threat, that self-protection – the body feels weakened – and we feel more like fainting and collapsing. And just to name that, the process moves in reverse too. As we feel safer, again, the movement will go exactly the other way. If I was feeling shut down and I’m not in as much danger, I’ll move into feeling more fight and flight behaviors. As I feel like I’m not in as much danger and I don’t need to fight or flee, I’ll come back into prosocial engagement where my face, head, and neck will move more freely and even my digestion will move more freely.
Ryan: So you’re describing a very predictable biological sequence that, once we have this map a little bit more internalized, it can help us orient a little bit more towards the factors that help us move in and out of these states.
Twig: Absolutely. And when not to make a decision. And when to respect that somebody else shouldn’t be pressed to make a decision. And of course, this person’s leg is bouncing up and down and they’re feverishly looking toward all the exits, the window and the door, their nervous system is expressing fight/flight behaviors. And so their thinking is going to be colored by the sense of danger in the nervous system, which won’t to allow for freer thinking and it won’t allow for prosocial engagement, and that shouldn’t necessarily be asked for right now. And that would go the other way with somebody – or a little bit further along that sequence – somebody in freeze, immobilizing, not making eye contact, only able to look at the floor, feeling very heavy, feeling faint, feeling unable to do things, bless them, their nervous system is expressing the sense of overwhelm already, and immediate additional requests on them is very likely to add to that sense of overwhelm. They’re already withdrawing from the world. And so having this map really helps us to realize what we should expect of ourselves and what we can ask of others while these states are dominant or taking place.
Ryan: Right. And this sequence – this is one of Stephen Porges and Polyvagal Theory’s contributions – is directly connected to how these structures evolved within us. And so there’s a hierarchy that he describes that happens because of that history.
Twig: Exactly. Very much like the rules of gravity, like in the sense that somebody came along and noticed that when you throw something in the air, it falls to the ground. Everybody before already picked up rocks and threw them and didn’t expect them to stay in the air. They already knew that they were going to come to the ground. But a couple of folks, one in particular at first – Newton, comes along and says, “hey, look, there is a thing, gravity, and that’s what accounts for this.” We have for millions of years, and then for tens of thousands of years as modern humans, have been moving through these, or not so much moving through these stress response cycles. And they have a pattern. The system gets aroused and it moves through fight and flight. If the danger is stronger than that, it requires freezing and immobilizing. If the danger passes and I haven’t died, I’ll come out of freeze into fight and flight. If I’m able to get back to sufficient safety, I’ll come out of fight and flight and come into social engagement, a more settled, nervous system state where my face and head and neck are able to work and I’m able to engage spontaneously with other folks. And that pattern, it’s now describable and we now describe it and we have language for it, but it’s based on biological patterns that evolved over the last 300 plus million years.
Ryan: So I imagine some people might be wondering – so we’re talking about animals in the wild. We’re talking about the threat response. We’re talking about periods in history that very much do not resemble the circumstances that we’re in now. What would somebody expect in an office environment, for instance, just sitting on a couch across from a SE therapist, in terms of actually being able to work with some of these threat responses, being able to heal those feelings of being disconnected or dissociated. How is it that we could actually sit across from one another and work at that level?
Twig: That’s wonderful. Because it’s really the truth. It’s like, “wow, maybe it’s pointless or we’re lost. It’s all so wayward that nothing can be done about it or I’m so screwed up.” That’s how I felt. I was dictated to go to therapy by my spouse at the time and only went after she left me. Because when I went, I was like, “this isn’t going to help and I’m just here because she told me to come.” And so she, understandably I should say, it was like, “okay, I am done with you.” Because she was not responsible to be my therapist or to hold my distress anymore. And upon her departure, I walked back into the therapy room and was like, “okay, what can you do for me? Because I need that now and recognize that I can’t do it alone.” And I didn’t know what the prospect was. I thought maybe it would be like psychoanalysis where I would just talk about my problems, which were very dissociated from me personally. And I don’t know. I guess I really didn’t think it would be possible to change.
And so I think that’s one of the most remarkable things about what Peter Levine found and what Somatic Experiencing has offered. Other modalities land on some of these things for different reasons. But Somatic Experiencing has done a very important thing of recognizing: what are the cues of the body? What are the signals of the body that suggest that the nervous system is working more along the pattern that our biology has organized for us over the last millions of years? And what are the signs and signals that the body is reinforcing a dysregulated or discordant signal? And part of the problem of being trapped by these nervous system signals of dysregulation is that they are discomforting and therefore they are attractive. There’s this dynamic in the living world wherein if there’s a signal of danger in the environment like a sound, we are going to stop what we are doing, involuntarily stop what we are doing and look in the direction of that danger, that potential danger. And that’s important. If that sound was dangerous to us and we ignored it, it could do as harm.
So mammals – animals in general, mammals in particular – have this pattern of: novelty? Orient to it! Make sure that this isn’t a threat that’s going to take you out. Danger is inherently attractive. And one of the consequences of having this dysregulation in the nervous system is that as the body feels extra tension from, say, being in an incomplete fight response where the body is feeling the anger and need to fight and that is now a lingering signal from past events that didn’t get to settle out – that’s attractive to us. So we feel the sense of upset and we pay attention to that and we end up reinforcing it. It becomes the spot of bother. And we do that with body pains and body aches and all kinds of things. And Somatic Experiencing is appreciative of this.
We recognize that people who have suffered trauma, who’ve been through hard things that are continuing with the experience of it, we are naturally attracted to these signals of pain and dysregulation – thoughts, memories, flashbacks, etc. And Somatic Experiencing recognizes those and also looks for how can we help the nervous system to recognize signals of greater self-regulation, greater sense of signals of safety and settling, signals of being able to do something in response to the desire to fight or flee or freeze which are often available for – they’re out of people’s common awareness, but possible for SE practitioners to notice and call our attention to. And so something that I’m coming to saying is that when sitting with an informed Somatic Experiencing practitioner, they can help us recognize which part of our nervous systems are trying to work on our behalf, and which parts are reproducing or repeating the same discordant or discomforting signal, which even though it might be attractive, is not necessarily helpful in cultivating a change signal.
Ryan: It’s not that we don’t have that capacity to do that on our own when we’re in between sessions or moving about our daily life, but having somebody who’s skilled in being able to recognize those cues is a really important part of building self-awareness around that and coming back into a more regulated state.
Twig: It’s very important to have this outside observer of our behavior to notice the things that aren’t as attractive to us, because we’re attracted to the danger signals, we’re attracted to the things that are bothering us. And surprisingly to me, but there are other parts of our body and other parts of our nervous system that are actively trying to give us some sense of settling or some sense of something else. And a deft guidance through relating to all of that can help the nervous system say, “Oh, it’s not only that I’m running. It’s also that there’s this other thing that can happen too. Or that I can run and on the backside of feeling the sense of running, there is another feeling.” And having appropriate attention brought to those other feelings can help the nervous system help the brain say, “Oh, wow, this little loop I’ve been in of repeating this danger signal isn’t the only option.
I should say that there’s another major element here, and that is that we are a social species. Now we live in an individualist culture in America and such, but we are a social species in the most fundamental sense of it. Like our nervous system signals of safety have been arranged and codified and informed by small band living in a social group as other primates have. So like other primates – chimpanzees and orangutans and rhesus monkeys and such – we have always, prehistorically speaking, always lived in small bands of members of our group. And it is within the context of members of our group that we pick up on safety cues from the nervous systems of other members of our group. So that if I’m feeling the distress of the fight and flight response inside my own organism, and it’s calling my attention, but somebody else around me is not expressing that same fight or flight response, their nervous system is able to signal to mine that they’re not in the same danger that I feel I’m in. If they were, then they would have fight and flight in their voice and in their face too. And we should be fighting or fleeing together. But instead, if this is just that I am upset and the group around me is holding the signals of safety in their face, in their voice, in their body language, then it gives over the message to my nervous system that I’m not in danger.
And that is hard to get by oneself. There are little tricks to do it with, but it’s a – I did this and so I can really lean into this – it’s a mistake in the modern world. Everybody wants to do it by themselves and get the book and hide in their room and heal themselves from trauma. And I just would lean into – as a member of a social species where our safety signals come from the cues from others, the value of being in a room or on a walk with a person or a group of people that are signaling a different signal than the danger that we feel, that’s almost a prerequisite, if not a necessary condition. It’s definitely a helpful condition at the beginning where we’ve spent time – years, perhaps – attracted to our own distress. To then go from, “I’m attracted to my own distress and now I’m going to figure out how to calm my system on my own.” Very, very unlikely and very challenging to do. Whereas somebody else adding that guidance of what to pay attention to, as well as signaling over sufficient safety in themselves – a very potent combination to say, “look, your biology is simply waiting for these signals. And once you get them, you’re going to start to feel better.”
Ryan: Right. It’s not just the practitioner saying, notice that place in your body where you feel some comfort or ease; it’s also them transmitting their own sense of comfort, their own sense of ease, their own perception of safety.
Twig: Exactly. Yes, precisely. Yes. That transmission comes across in the encounter in a way that by ourselves, if we don’t get that, then the nervous system is like, “yeah, but all I notice is the thing that is uncomfortable inside.”
Ryan: Right. Maybe we’ve already addressed this within the last hour, but if we could tighten it up a little bit: why the focus on the body? Why is this a somatic intervention? Of course, because we’re working directly with the nervous system, but what is special about somebody who’s been struggling with a traumatic experience to be able to come into a relationship with their felt sense and their physical sensations, as opposed to some other way of working?
Twig: Yes. And important too because we recognize that when in a dangerous situation and our body goes into those fight, flight and freeze responses, we end up with discrete feelings of discomfort, like a tighter chest as the muscles – and a faster heart rate – as the muscles tighten and as the body prepares for fleeing or fighting and a sense of anger and aggression related to the emotions that go along and feed the fight response, or a feeling of fear that goes along with feeding the flight response. And asking a person to feel their body when what they are going to feel are signals and feeling states related to those dangerous experiences, that’s not appropriate and it’s not what we do. We don’t just ask people, “just feel your body and whatever you feel is the thing.” What we appreciate is that some of these signals reinforce the sense that I feel like I’m in danger which would then reinforce the sense that I need to get out of here. I need to flee or I need to fight with this, I need to stop this or whatnot.
So one thing Somatic Experiencing does is it looks for how to attend to those sensory – this is a fancy phrase, but – the sensorimotor signals, the sensation and motoric actions of the body, that those impressions inside are directed by and cultivated. We look for a way to contact those in a way that will feel safe enough and not so threatening – typically phrased in a term called titration – meaning that we’re trained to do a small amount of this, an appropriate amount of this contact with these feelings at any one moment so that it’s not overly threatening and doesn’t reinforce or retraumatize the person. So that’s one aspect about our methodology.
And then a second thing of why we attend to the felt sense experience, in terms of sensation, is that to communicate with the autonomic nervous system, we champion noticing and paying attention to the felt experience of the body through the lens or channel of sensation, as compared to talking about a sensation or a feeling state or an event through the cognitive capacity, which is a different part of the brain. So for me to make this communication verbally, and for you to do the recognition what I’m saying and to analyze it and put it into all your different understanding categories and everything, we’re using the neocortex as we do this complex thinking-communication process.
But when we talk about survival responses, we’re talking about patterns of the mammalian body that predate – by millennia – predate the neocortex where animals on this planet, animals that look very much like the ones we know and/or their predecessors that just have slightly longer legs or slightly bigger bodies or smaller bodies or whatever, the pattern of the nervous system reaches back at least sixty million years for mammals, and neocortex business is lasting, at a minimum 50,000 years old in the way that we think of it, 100,000 years at the very outset of that, so it’s a newer system to think in the way that we do. And it’s the more appropriate older system to feel in response to these survival reactions that our biology, our evolution has us set up for.
So Peter Levine has often said, and he says it in Waking the Tiger, that sensation is the language of the reptilian brain or sensation is the communication channel through which the autonomic nervous system recognizes its sensorimotor cues. Its tension patterns, its pace of the heart rate or pace of the breath, its tension in the body – all of that is recognized by the brain through sensation. And so there’s a big reason why we use the sensation channel.
Ryan: We wouldn’t be able to touch some of those patterns just by noticing some of the emotions that are coming up in the room, or our thoughts.
Twig: And by degree, all of those would be a valuable, all of those would be a part of the integration process. And at a basic – my nervous system feels like I’m ready to jump out of my skin and run out of this room – while there’s a thought related to that, while there is in fact important emotion related to that, the sensorimotor cues of – the feeling of my body having this impulse to move out of this room – is more of a brainstem – it’s a funny thing to call it a lower brain function, because it’s literally working on our behalf all the time and it’s central for our survival and sense of wellbeing in the world to be able to get away from something that might be dangerous – and yet, it’s an older system, it’s a more nuanced or quieter system and it doesn’t speak in the same language. It speaks in the language of the body.
Ryan: Right. And I just wanted to say, I appreciate that clarification around the importance of titration. I think for anyone that’s been traumatized or is just feeling completely distressed within their body, the last thing that they want to do when they sit down with somebody is: “feel that, feel that more, spend a little bit more time there.” And it’s really important to name that in the context of SE, that there is this appreciation of doing that in very bite-sized pieces and within the context of safety and comfort. And also having spent time building up a sense of resource, that, “okay, when I do encounter that, I’ll have some places I can go, some resources I can draw on. A little bit more confidence that I can move through that.”
Twig: You make a central point there that becoming cognizant or aware that to contact my body won’t mean that I will also feel everything else that I have felt that has always felt to me like I want to never feel that again. And this can take a little bit of adeptness from the practitioner and the client relationship to try to find the working relationship where “we’re going to contact some of these feelings but certainly not all of them and not all of them at once, and even that which we contact, we’re going to be in relationship to it in a small enough bite-sized enough way that makes it so that we start to appreciate that it will be okay to make that contact over and over again in small amounts so that we can process that which is overwhelming all at once. We can process it over time, as compared to being threatened by it by trying to pay attention to it all at once.”
And as we get the awareness – I think clearly about an anxiety attack or the sense of impending anxiety that’s just going to go on and go on – one of the primary reflections on that is: once it starts, it feels like it’s never going to turn off. And that’s really hard because it’s like, “now I’m on guard to make sure that it doesn’t start because if it does start, it feels like it’s not going to turn off. And if it does start now, I’m in a real panic because I’ve seen in the past that it doesn’t feel like it’s going to turn off.”
And one of Somatic Experiencing tricks of the trade is to come into relationship with that feeling at a small enough level where we recognize some part of it starting but then we help to more or less get the body to notice that it doesn’t continue to rise and stay on to where we can start to get a little bit of a feeling of like maybe at the lowest amounts of this, even if it starts, it doesn’t mean it’s going to turn on and stay on. And getting a hold of that awareness that “to turn on means that it stays on” isn’t the only option, but “sometimes it can turn on a little bit and then I can get out of it.” That starts to liberate the feeling of like, “I’m just trapped by this all the time.” And that can grow then to where it’s like, “wow, it comes up and it really doesn’t stay on. It comes up and it changes somehow.” And that’s a little bit further down the road, but it’s where we’re headed.
Ryan: It gives the person a sense of having more flexibility rather than having to be stuck all the way on or all the way off.
Twig: Exactly. So we just started to find some of the – even if it’s a very minute part of the range in between on and off, we start to find that range of variation and variability that then allows us to talk to the nervous system, say, “look, we’re looking for your adaptability again, rather than the predisposition that indicates that once it turns on, it has to stay on. Instead, that it adapts. It turns on and it turns down or turns up more and then turns off, etc.”
Ryan: Well, Twig, we are coming up on the end of our time. We’ve only scratched the surface and it’s tempting to want to continue on for a few more hours, but let’s begin to wrap up here. Anything else you want to add to what you’ve shared with us so far?
Twig: I think so. Because we did something that I don’t always get into these days and that’s my personal story. And then we’ve gone in and talked about the prospects of Somatic Experiencing and why it is and where it comes from, at least a taste of that. So here, I’ll name myself, from maybe about sixteen or seventeen years – so it’s about seventeen years since my complex post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. And it’s about fourteen years since I was like, “Oh wow, I’m going to feel better.” And then it’s about ten years since I was like, “Oh, wow, I guess I’ll go on and do other things in the world without this always being the central focus of my day.” And now it’s about five years after I’m like, “Oh wow. I can still get caught by things when they happen, but even when that happens, I have so many tools and experience of my own feeling states changing.” That even when something really bad happens now, and it still does, and it will, I’m like, “wow, this feeling is going to move through. And so I can be in the terror of this, as it were, knowing that it’s not going to be the last of me.”
And I never believed that any of that was possible. That’s what I want to say. That when I was told to go to therapy by my ex-partner, when I had essentially a broken social network of almost nobody who I could call on to hold space for me anymore, because everybody was burned by my discomfort of being around – I really felt alone. I don’t think I ever got to alien. I don’t think I ever felt like I didn’t belong here. I felt cheated by the world. I felt cheated by history. I was aware that my ancestors didn’t feel this way and that here I was pushed against the rocks. I was mad. I was dangerously mad. I was dangerous to the world. I was dangerous to myself. And I don’t feel any of that anymore. And it’s not just because I got just the right help, although that helped, it’s that there was help for me to find.
It wasn’t that I got like just the perfect therapist. It was that there was a rationale about what was going on for me. And that when I got into that, I was like, “wow, I can lean on different parts of this information. I read books, I listened to stories. I went to classes, I did workshops, that’s true. And I did a lot of therapy, it’s true. But I didn’t even know before all of that that was possible. And once I found out it was possible, I said, okay, I’ll give this a try. And it really mattered. I would say for anybody listening, who’s like, “wow, but yeah, it wouldn’t work for me.” I’m like, “yeah, some part of it would cause you’re a mammal and you’re a homosapien and your nervous system is growing up inside of this society and you would do well, just like I would and just like others would, to get involved in an environment that signals sufficient safety and that helps you to direct your attention to elements of your experience that don’t just reinforce the danger signals. Doesn’t mean you only pay attention to positive things, but definitely that you don’t only pay attention to negative things.” And with that, I’ve seen around the world in my travels and enjoyment with people, that people really do feel different even in the modern context with those safety signals available to them. And I just want for more folks to have that. So thanks, Ryan.
Ryan: I loved what you said about earlier about it being like the law of gravity. There’s just something about it that’s innate to our biology and physiology. And if we can learn to somehow tune in with that, not only does it provide us with more meaning around this journey that we’re all on, but it can also just help us feel a lot better.
Twig: A lot better. It’s very enriching. It’s worth it to feel better. We’ll actually be more helpful at helping the world if we feel better, not just enraged. Although there’s plenty of reason for the being enraged, but we will help more if we can also settle.
Ryan: Well, I’ve said this to you off-camera: you’re definitely an example of someone who’s doing that. You’re making a big contribution to the general public in terms of their understanding of trauma and stress and also practitioners who are trying to figure out how to be better in that role in service of those people. And I’m so happy that you’ve been able to do that work successfully over the years and that you’re providing all the inspiration that you are.
Twig: Thank you, Ryan. And I couldn’t have done it without other folks also leading the charge. So here we are more or less, we could say, we’re all in it together.