Becoming Our Own Protective Container
Payam Ghassemlou Ph.D.
As human beings, we need a sense of safety. We can’t thrive without it. Given the current sociopolitical circumstances in America, many of us don’t feel safe. As a gay man, it doesn’t make me feel secure when I witness the dismantling of our LGBTQ+ rights by homophobic politicians. Since the mental health of the individual and sociopolitical factors are deeply intertwined, no wonder we are seeing more anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and suicide than ever before.
At times like this we need to learn to become our own protective container. A vessel in which to settle ourselves and access our sense of safety. Luckily, we all have a protective container, which is our body. Our body has amazing protective and healing potentials. We just need to learn how to access it. A settled body can be a resource to contain us during turbulent times. By learning how to work with touch, breath, movement, gesture, form, and their accompanying sensations, we can tap into our somatic resources. We can also notice and work with images and meanings that emerge when working with our body-based resources. Working with these resources not only help us to ground ourselves but also to manage stress and feel empowered. They can also lead to a physically felt experience of self and well-being. For example, noticing and following our breath with the intention to connect with our physical body is one way to access our somatic resources. Awareness of breath is the most accessible way to the present moment, and one of the fundamental teaching of many spiritual paths. Witnessing the journey of the out-breath and the return of the breath back into our body can be a grounding experience. I often notice, when I mindfully pay attention to the space in between the out-breath and in-breath, I am more grounded and present in my body. Being grounded and present in my body help me respond more effectively to challenging situations. It is the opposite of being impulsive and reactionary.
As more research on utilizing somatic therapy is showing positive results with self-regulation and healing, we are entering an era of somatic technology. An era of turning to our somatic resources as a starting point for healing. Many of us associate technology with complicated devices outside of ourselves. In fact, somatic technology can be a set of practices and methods that rely on our natural bodily resources and is accessible to everyone. Such technology is based on our own somatic wisdom and awareness in the service of healing and growth.
Somatic technology that works with bodily resources might help humanity to evolve. We were not always human beings. We evolved from sea creatures to something else. Then some million years after that, we became human beings. The journey continues, and we evolve again. Perhaps, working with somatic resources within ourselves, and learning to settle ourselves in our body is how we are contributing to this journey of human evolution. Perhaps, each time we settle ourselves in our body, we are designing ourselves in a new way.
I have gained more respect for the body as I am learning more about its amazing functions. For example, our body comes with already built in autonomic nervous system (ANS) that provides many vital functions. The ANS is the part of the nervous system that governs the fight, flight, or freeze instinct and is responsible for many unconscious bodily functions such as breathing, digesting food, and regulating the heart rate. It also plays an important role of supplying information from our organs to our brain. In addition, the ANS plays an enormous role in helping us experience safety. Once regulated, our ANS can help our body settle and make it easier to tap into our power and resist toxic stuff like discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, class, and more. It is also easier to handle many other stressful situations that can overwhelm us. When I experience prejudice based on my gayness or my status as an immigrant in the United States, I notice how my body gets activated. Noticing and working with my body’s activation and willingness to ask for support from other empathic people is a starting point to take back my power in such circumstances. Having somatic tools to deal with activation helps to regulate my nervous system and become my own protective container.
For some of us, the biggest challenge on having a “body-inclusive approach” toward becoming our own container is the difficulty experiencing a sense of safety in our bodies. Since our ANS is shaped by our life experience, having a history of unresolved trauma or dealing with a current overwhelming situation can negatively influence our ANS’s ability to help us feel safe. Stephen Porges’, Bessel van der Kolk’s, and Peter Levine’s research and writings have significantly reworked my understanding of how the nervous system responds to threat and trauma. We now know the ANS can become dysregulated due to the thwarted responses of fight, flight, or freeze in the aftermath of trauma. Relying on neuroception, a term coined by Porges, the ANS helps our body to differentiate between safety, danger, and a life threat. Neuroception is automatic. It does not go through thinking. Everything from sound to smell to temperature in our environment, people’s tone of voice, and eye contact can influence our neuroception. Neuroception is like a “guardian angel” that helps us take immediate action in the face of danger or threat. Its goal is to keep us safe and alive. When neuroception does not function properly due to unhealed traumas, it can make us feel unsafe even where there is no real threat.
We can’t become our own protective container without knowing how to claim our body from our unhealed traumas. Trauma is not only about the bad things that happen to us but also what we keep inside as a reaction to those things. According to Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, trauma is more about “what we hold inside in the absence of an empathic witness.” Resmaa Menakem, the author of My Grandmother’s Hands states, “Our bodies exist in the present. To our thinking brain, there is past, present, and future, but to a traumatized body there is only now. That now is the home of intense survival energy.” Such intense survival energy, left undone, can keep our body in a stressful state of trauma response. Therefore, much of the healing from our traumas need to happen through the body. In particular, the nervous system needs to be regulated. As Peter Levine stated, “Trauma is not in the event, but in the nervous system.”
Jungian psychology talks about the shadow, the dark side of the personality that sometimes the conscious mind is avoiding. Even though the shadow can also be a positive aspect of us, not dealing with it can cause anguish. Incorporating this concept here, we can say our body has a shadow too. From a somatic perspective, the shadow can be the incomplete bodily responses that have been trapped in the body and not been dealt with. In other words, our nervous system is designed to help our body get mobilized and deal with threatening situations. When our body is ready to respond to a threat and there is not enough time or resources for our body to complete its natural protective responses, what ended up happening is our body gets stuck with intense survival energy. When our body does not release this survival energy, it stays trapped in our nervous system and dysregulates it. Not addressing the body’s shadow, our bodily responses that are trapped, can lead to many physical and emotional problems including nightmares, “too many accidents,” and number of medical problems with no logical explanation. Many somatic therapists, in particular, trained Somatic Experiencing Practitioners (SEPs), can offer techniques to help people with the release of a trapped trauma response and the regulation of the nervous system. It is important to use a body inclusive approach to healing with the guidance of trained professionals who have formal training in somatic modality.
In her book, Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Deb Dana discusses Stephen Porges’s theory and makes Polyvagal Theory more accessible for clinicians who wish to apply it to their clinical practice. She explains how the ANS responds to sensations in the body and signals from the environment through three pathways of response: “ventral vagus, sympathetic nervous system, and dorsal vagus.” These pathways can impact our participation in life, and how we cope with many situations including sociopolitical factors.
When it comes to healing our body from trauma and regulating our nervous system, we have an ally called the ventral vagus. Accessing the health, growth, and restoration resources of the ventral vagus system, we can support our personal growth. Deb Dana discusses how being firmly grounded in our ventral vagus pathway can help our body to feel safe and our social engagement system to come online. When the body feels safe and our social engagement system is not overwhelmed with distressing sensations, it is easier to connect with people, nature, our pets, ourselves, our spiritual path, and the present moment. As explained earlier, the quality of our breathing can influence our ANS and support ventral vagus activity. For example, slow conscious breathing can increase the parasympathetic tone. That is why the awareness of breath is an important practice to regulate the ANS. Also, since the nervous system becomes what it senses, by meditating on pleasant sensations of warmth, tenderness and aliveness, we can recruit ventral vagus activity, and shape the nervous system not only toward safety and security, but also love. We can become a container for love when we embody our pleasant sensations as we notice a loving experience.
Our sympathetic system (“stress response” or “fight or flight response”) gets activated in response to danger. Many of us who don’t feel safe in America are often in a state of sympathetic activation. Ongoing sympathetic activation can be dangerous for our body due to increased production of the stress hormone cortisol. Learning to turn our body into a vessel of protection through regulating our ANS, we can be more effective in pushing back against dark forces in America. Such dark forces are trying to strip our civil liberties. We need more than ever to settle in our protective container and connect to our sense of aliveness.
As mentioned earlier, there is a dark side to our nervous system. The physiology behind it involves the dorsal vagus working in partnership with fear. Dorsal vagus is another nervous system pathway that when it works in partnership with the ventral vagus can help us among many things, to pray, meditate, sleep, relax, and make love. When dorsal vagus is activated with intense fear, it can throw the body into a freeze state. It is difficult to become one’s own container and fight oppression when the body remains in dorsal vagus shut down mode. This is one reason why healing from trauma can contribute to our effort to protect our democracy.
The world in its current state needs more love. The body can become the container for this love. Just like a watermelon has a protective shell to house its sweetness, our body is home to the sweetness of our soul. Inayat Khan described the body as “a garment of the soul.” This garment needs our help to settle as our soul journey continues. Our body can help deepen our relationship to our soul when we focus on love and kindness during meditation.
With one nervous system at a time, we can learn to release the effect of our unresolved trauma which often blocks our movement toward wholeness and redeem our aliveness. Increased somatic awareness can help people not stay frozen in oppressive political circumstances and march toward liberation. As Nietzsche stated, “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” This wisdom is real because “the body never lies.”
© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California. www.DrPayam.com