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Primal Therapy and Understanding Our Trauma

What does it mean to “understand” the traumatic experience(s) we once suffered? 


During a trauma there is little or no conscious processing.  Rather, we execute survival reactions in a purely mechanistic way, in our attempt to survive….


Then, if the experience is not processed within 6 hours of occurrence, all of those energetically connected reactions consolidate into a long-term fear memory...the imprint.  Thereafter, environmental stimuli may trigger this memory, forcing the execution of the survival reaction …this time, out of context.  In this way, classical and operant conditioning generate the various manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder.


The nervous system protects consciousness (high-level processing) by preventing it from receiving the brain signals that make up the survival reaction. The mechanistic impulse to protect consciousness creates an energetic neurological blockage.  This blockage separates us from our environment.  Our behavior becomes erratic.   In PTSD the neo-cortex literally does not know what the brain stem and limbic structures are doing. 

To remove the blockage the nervous system’s impulse to block those trauma signals from consciousness must be defeated.


When we work with someone, we “set the table” for traumatic memory emergence by offering ways of working with the disembodying memory signals, as they present themselves.  In order for this to happen we must stay with these signals (our feelings).  The techniques serve to help us do just that.  By doing so, we bring them into working memory.   Working memory capacity is very small.  Therefore, only bits and pieces of the reactions can be held at any one time.   Holding these signals in working memory allows them to get cortically processed.


The willful practice of staying with a feeling “is the central and crucial mechanism in all feeling-oriented regressive psychotherapy”.    Paul Vereshack


Again, the reactions we are attending to are just pieces of the constellation of survival reactions that originally occurred.  In subsequent sessions, we access and process more and more of that constellation.  As additional “pieces of the puzzle” get processed, the energy of our present act-outs/ins weakens proportionally. 


Now, it is Joseph Ledoux’s hypothesis that an emotion is experienced whenever these survival reaction signals reach consciousness.  New emotional reactions that emerge out of our work on the first level of consciousness …the sensorimotor level… is evidence that those survival reaction have begun high-level sensory processing.



The important 3-2-1-2-3 procedure in primal therapy:


In each session, we begin by talking about the presenting problem.  Then we look for an emotional reaction to what is being talked about…a change in affect.  An emotional reaction that presents itself “on the way down” is information that has already been processed, by LeDoux’s definition.  Then we pay attention to body signals that present themselves.   When they are discovered we say “that’s your feeling, stay with it”.  The goal is to keep these feelings in our awareness ….to “feel the feeling” as long as possible.  This is no easy feat and may very well be the hardest part of emotional processing.  This is where we do battle with our ego.  It wants us out of the feeling and tries every trick in the book to make it happen.   If we battle successfully, the feelings begin to intensify. We might begin expressing our emerging survival reactions with sounds, simple words, and/or movements.  As we stay with these reactions, we might express or report an emotion.  This is a sign that new trauma information is reaching consciousness.  This process eventually completes its cycle.  Then, we speak once again.  New insights emerge.  With this, another aspect of the trauma has been processed.


It is important for us to understand the nature of these insights.  Although they indicate our having had a primal and, therefore, represent a coming to understand more about our trauma, this understanding will most likely not be accompanied by imagery.  Or, if there is imagery, it will be disjointed “flashbulb” imagery of thing that happened during the trauma. Their might be imagery associated with memories that were formed before or after the trauma.  But little or nothing having to do with the trauma itself.


Why will there be little or no traumatic imagery?  Simply because cortical processes get shut down during crises…our blood supply gets pulled away from the momentarily superfluous neo-cortex and shunted to the critical, survival related areas of the brain.  The nervous system borrows support from all of its high-level functions in order to assemble the survival reactions required for self defense.   Additionally, high levels of stress related cortisol interfere with higher thought processes even to the point of shrinking the hypothalamus.


Therefore, the understanding that emerges from a primal has more to do with the relaxation we experience and the subsequent incremental decrease in energy of our present act-outs/ins.   This kind of "proprioceptive" understanding leads to our becoming real once again.  Remember…the real self is the self that is responding accurately to real time events, rather than to emerging survival reactions. 


So, we cannot expect to “see” our traumatic past, as is shown in the movies.  Rather, the most that we can do is to willfully experience our survival reactions in the present moment of self-awareness.  Our reactions then benefit from high road processing, one aspect of which is the shutting down of the (now) inappropriate reaction.   And that is sufficient for emotional healing to occur. Because the neo-cortex likes to fill in the blanks, the stories we make up about what happened to us can only be likely stories. The truth of the traumatic event is carried in the imprint,


To understand our trauma is to relax into the present moment, responding appropriately to what’s happening there.




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