Material on this page excerpted, summarized and adapted from the Somatic Experiencing Training Manual (2007)
When intense, chronic stress, trauma or overwhelming stimulation leads to activation of the entire nervous system and body as a whole, a range of physical symptoms and health syndromes can occur. The framework of Somatic Experiencing distinguishes two categories in particular that may describe familiar traits.
Global High Intensity Activation (GHIA)
This often occurs when your entire organism is facing near death states and moving towards end-stage survival responses, especially for babies in the womb and in early infancy/toddlerhood. At this developmental stage, fight or flight are not possible and there are no effective methods for self-soothing and managing high activation. The body’s last resort for self-defense is freeze or shut down, and to try to contain the activation through charged tension in the organs/gut, skin, eyes and spinal column.
The types of trauma that fall in this category include pre- and peri-natal trauma (including foetal distress in the womb, during birth or in early infancy, including early attachment trauma), electrocution, high fever (to the point of delirium and distorted perceptions), surgery (especially with ether or in infancy), suffocation, near drowning, or choking. Common symptoms include:
- Intense and pervasive emotional and physical dysregulation
- Tendency to be hyper-aroused (system is fully “on” all the time) or hypo-aroused (fully “off” all the time), with little mid-range
- Limited resiliency with regards to stress
- Tendency to dissociate or split between altered states of consciousness
- Attachment and bonding difficulties
- “Energy storms”: symptoms escalate dramatically out of nowhere, even without obvious triggers
- Feeling flooded with intense energy that feels intolerable
- Difficulty with containment
- Strong psychosomatic symptoms (especially related to the gut or breathing)
- Extreme fears or shame
- Extreme sensitivities to the environment, sounds, smells and other external stimuli (that are perceived as intrusive and overwhelming)
- May have debilitating physical symptoms, such as migraines, pain syndromes or metabolic issues
- Symptoms and responses may be changeable, confused and confusing
The nervous system switches different body systems on and off or modulates their function, depending on internal or environmental demands or stressors (see Chronic Stress page). We rev up in response to stress or threat and settle following these experiences. When our thresholds of what we can handle are altered as a result of intense trauma, our internal systems begin to go awry. Our physiological systems may turn on or off at the wrong time or stop working with other systems they are in relation with. Systems begin working simultaneously or at cross-purposes with one another, like having the gas and the brakes on at the same time.
When activation from traumatic experiences isn’t discharged, the unresolved activation is bound in clusters or patterns of symptoms, as the body is making heroic efforts to stabilize in some way.
According to the Somatic Experiencing: Healing Trauma Manual (2007, p. A1.17), a syndrome is a group of symptoms that collectively indicate a disease, psychological disorder or other abnormal condition. Examples of common syndromes with possible nervous system-mediated dynamics linked to stress or trauma include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Autoimmune disorders
- Pain syndromes
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Spastic colon
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
Syndromes may be evidence of dysregulation, disorganization and incoherence in the systems of the body. Symptoms of these syndromes can happen both in relation to large triggers but also smaller stimuli that shouldn’t normally cause dysregulation (such as light, noise, feeling irritated, relaxing a little bit, “positive” experiences and so on). Pain may seem to float around the body, and there may be a loss of continuity of the felt sense or behaviour. In some cases, syndromes regroup when a symptom is medicated, and medications appear ineffective.
Somatic Experiencing offers techniques and a body-oriented approach to working with these categories of dysregulation and disorganization, in order to build capacity and resiliency to help the system slowly mobilize and discharge bound survival energy in a contained and incremental way so as not to destabilize things further.