We instinctively approach a frightened animal with slow, gentle movements and a soft voice. We show that we mean no harm, and give the animal time to decide if and how to approach us.
Traumatized humans need the same gentle approach.
Illusion of urgency
Trauma leaves behind an agitated nervous system and a body on high alert. Everything feels intensely urgent, including healing from PTSD. It has to happen now, by any means necessary!
Practitioners often share this urgency, applying strong treatments and pushing through clients’ resistance. The client’s nervous system, already braced for danger, naturally interprets this approach as an invasive threat.
Pathway to calmness
Gentleness gives an agitated nervous system a pathway to calmness, offering a spacious reminder that safety still exists. A traumatic event is too fast, overwhelming, out of control. Trauma treatment needs to be slow enough to return control to the client. Treatment that overwhelms the client “for their own good” is re-traumatizing.
Moving slowly can be the only way to get there. Pushing more quickly creates a demand to appear healed, using up reserves of energy instead of replenishing them. The sense of emergency continues, along with surrender to external demands.
Patience for the process
Intensity of treatment is sometimes driven by a desire for visible progress. Gentleness requires patience and trust in the process. Similarly, when one sits quietly near a frightened animal, not much is happening on the surface, but nervous systems are communicating and observing each other attentively.
Survivors are already off-balance, coping with a transformed, threatening world. Honor survival skills rather than treating them as pathology. From inside, the trauma-reaction closet appears life-saving. Prying open the door and forcibly extracting someone is neither respectful nor healing. With patience, the door will open.
Contained with awareness
Gentle practitioners work to remain grounded, calm, and aware. Self-awareness allows emotions and reactions to be set aside, creating a clear container for the client’s process. Client-awareness allows just the right amount of emotional and physical pressure to make contact without pushing. Gentle practitioners hold space, providing a steady point of reference that offers an anchor in the present.
Trauma ruptures boundaries, whether physical boundaries in an assault, or emotional boundaries of expected safety in a natural disaster. During healing, clear boundaries provide a sense of safety and refuge. Both brain and body need to know what to expect. Practitioners cannot demand trust, only offer trustworthy behavior in a peaceful, reliable environment.
Clients do their best to express their needs while searching for practitioners.
- “I need help, not fixing.”
- “I’m injured, not broken.”
- “I want to feel better and I need to be accepted as I am right now.”
Acceptance allows change
When we make room for feelings of agitation and lack of safety, the nervous system can connect with the present rather than being stuck in past trauma. When we demand change, we push the feelings farther away, out of contact.
Paradoxically, the only leverage for future change is in present acceptance. We cannot simply order the nervous system to be calmer. If we stop barking orders at it to be different, it might calm of its own accord. One of the best doorways to change is, “You can be that way as long as you need to.”
Robyn Posin’s book Go Only As Fast As Your Slowest Part Feels Safe To Go shares her discoveries about slowness and healing.
Photo by Vladimir Agafonkin, Creative Commons License.