January 12, 2020 by Dr. Vanissar Tarakali
The unraveling of our biosphere is having an enormous impact on us both physically and psychologically. It is so big that, in my practice as a somatic educator and trauma coach, I have come to speak of the impact as climate trauma.
Climate trauma is not just about a flood or wildfire or superstorm. As with oppression traumas, climate trauma is an accumulation of relentless micro-assaults that threatens our sense of safety and belonging. Our distress is compounded when others dismiss our concerns.
Climate trauma evokes, subtly or starkly, our personal and communal trauma histories:
- How we have personally met loss, unease, rupture, dislocation and harm before;
- The genetic or narrative trauma memories of our ancestors;
- The neurobiological strategies of fight, flight, freeze, appease/fawn or dissociate/hibernate we have used to survive trauma;
- The resistance and resilience strategies we have inherited from our communities of identity or blood.
These histories reverberate as we gaze into (or avert our gaze from) the chasm of ecological and social collapse.
We also have relationships with the land or Spirit.
All of these dimensions are present in the room when I see clients and we begin to work with climate trauma somatically.
Somatic Work for Climate Trauma
Somatics means “of the body.” It works directly with the body to transform the obstacles that undermine creative responses to the climate crisis.
My purpose is to support folks to find their resilience and turn their visions for climate justice, climate adaptation and mutual aid community into reality.
Climate Trauma Issues
My clients come to me with climate-related issues related to: fear of loss, suffering and death; parenting dilemmas; climate activism; the quest for safety and belonging, and emotional overwhelm or shutdown.
Together we come up with some “Takeaways,” concrete goals or aspirations to guide the work. I review the Takeaways before each somatic session.
Principles of Somatics for Climate Resilience
I bring the following principles to my in-person and video coaching:
Bring a Sacred Attitude
Somatic means “relating to the body.” Though we may disavow it, our human bodies are animal bodies nested within the natural world. The natural world is sacred, worthy of our esteem and collaboration.
Approaching the body with this respect and friendliness is key to somatic work.
Meet People Where They Are
Since I hold somatic work to be sacred, I commit to stay in relationship with my own climate grief and fear. Being able to tolerate my difficult feelings means I don’t need to protect myself from my client’s difficult feelings. I can let them be as they are, wherever they are. From there we can collaborate to support their goals.
Practice Cycles of Contraction and Unwinding
Much of our universe engages in rhythmic cycles of contraction and expansion. Think stars, fractals, flowers, giving birth.
Animal bodies in particular–both human and otherwise – have taught me that resilience is inherent to this natural cycle of contraction and expansion. Prey animals enact this several times a day.
Non-raptor birds and other prey animals will tense up, hide or run when they sense danger, and then relax and return to playing or eating. This dance of physical contraction and relaxation is natural and easeful for prey animals. Their recovery from fight-or-flight is swift.
Somatic trauma healing work taps into this natural resilience. We notice when we get triggered or thrown off balance, observe our bodies’ sensations and contractions, and find out what allows us to recover. We repeat these steps until resilience becomes an embodied skill.
Give the Body A Direct Experience
My aim is to convince my client’s body as soon as possible that unwinding is within reach.
I do my best to give my client a bodily experience of shifting from scared, shut down or helpless to reflective, creative and hopeful.
What unfolds is similar to this parable:
“A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk. “Monk,” he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at this mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain, “Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you anything. You’re dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my site, I can’t stand you.”
The samurai was furious. He shook, got all red in the face, was speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword and raised it above him, preparing to slay the monk.
“That’s hell,” said the monk softly.
The samurai was overwhelmed. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching to show him hell! He slowly put down his sword, filled with gratitude, and suddenly peaceful.
“And that’s heaven,” said the monk softly. ~Zen”
Of course I do not try to provoke a state of rage, terror or shame in my clients. Nor would I need to; they often arrive to sessions already entrenched in their private hells. Intimately familiar with my own hell, I am not repelled by theirs. I metaphorically walk beside them, holding their hand. Together we guide their soma from hell to freedom.
What a Typical Somatic Coaching Session Looks Like
During a somatic coaching session, we go through some or all of the following steps:
My client may need to vent their distress about a recent ecological betrayal or harm. Perhaps an eliminated wildlife protection, a terrifying evacuation story, the loss of a local species.
Although I am not a talk therapist, that download is key for trauma healing. Feeling seen or listened to, being believed is all part of co-regulation, where one person’s mirroring soothes another’s fight or flight response.
At some point I invite them into a somatic practice to regulate their psychobiology (to restore safety to the body). Afterwards, I ask them to notice any small impacts: are they a little more relaxed? Is there some softness in their jaws, shoulders, eyes or gut? No practice works for every body; if they do not respond to a particular practice, there are many others to try.
Somatic practices employ the language of sensation, which influences our lizard brain or brain stem. I ask them to identify and name their sensations, such as movement/stillness, imagery, fullness/ emptiness, temperatures, textures, etc.
I want clients to discover what practices work for their particular body. I ask, “Is what we are doing so far a Yes, No or Maybe for your body? How do you know? How/where is your body telling you it’s a yes or no?
I remind them that, as is true for all consent, their body is allowed to change its mind about a practice at any time.
Containment practices give our bodies a feeling of being held, the reassuring sense of having coordinates, or beginning and end. You can practice containment with or without props.
Containment with props can look like wrapping yourself in a blanket, or lying down with a sandbag on your chest.
One way to contain ourselves without props is to squeeze one or more of our bones, paying close attention to the sensations of sturdiness and stability.
Containment uses the language of sensation – the language that our lizard brain speaks – to send reassurance to the brain stem.
Blending means affirming the body’s current state, including sensations, position, posture, energy – all of it. We have had distrust of bodies mirrored back to us since childhood, so blending is a often a new behavior. It can seem radical, blasphemous, or liberating. Blending embodies the wisdom of ‘what we resist, persists.’
Blending can take the form of Drawing a Yes, physically supporting muscle contractions, or verbal affirmation.
Draw a Yes
Notice a comfortable or uncomfortable body sensation, and imagine drawing a circle around it of “yes.” When the next sensation arises in the same area, “draw a yes” around it. Repeat.
Support the Contraction
On the bodywork table I use my hands to manually cradle or squeeze a clenched area of my client’s body. I am communicating non-verbally to that body part, “I am with you. Here, let me hold that tension with you.”
Another way to blend is to thank or praise the body’s survival strategies. I ask my client to identify a habitually tense body part. I speak directly to that area, say, “I really appreciate your commitment” or “Wow, you work really hard! Thank you for your tremendous effort.”
Blending is an almost miraculous practice. Our bodies are so accustomed to being criticized or pushed to change. Being thanked and appreciated is healing and softening.
Educate: Reacting is Swift; Unwinding is Slow
Early on I explain to my clients the contrast between the swift activation of our fight or flight system – like a rocket shot into space –versus the long, slow release of that activation – like a parachute descending in a lazy spiral.
Contraction into fight, flight, freeze, appease or dissociate patterns is choiceless and automatic. In contrast, unwinding after trauma unfolds in gradual layers that can take hours, days or weeks.
The good news is that we can speed up the unwinding process with deliberate somatic interventions. Even inhaling deeply and exhaling with a sigh can initiate the cycle of unwinding.
During a coaching session we will try out two to four different somatic practices, each one building on the previous one, creating virtuous cycles of ever-deepening unwinding. When our body likes a practice, signs of unwinding appear: yawning, sighing, deep breaths, tears, giggling, burping, unprompted stretching, etc.
Closure and Homework
At the end of a session I ask my client to remember how they felt and thought an hour ago versus now. What seems possible?
We review how they got here and which practices were helpful. I point out how in under an hour, they have shifted their state and expanded their sense of options. I tell them, “This experience is in your body now, so you have the capacity to access it again.”
In these urgent times, I may see someone only once. If nothing else, I want them to take that sense of agency and possibility with them, into their families, into their climate action and adaptation, into community-building.
Finally, I ask my client to pick one or two practices for self-assigned homework, and I encourage them to practice, “what you practice is what you become.”
To heal climate trauma we must journey from rigidity to fluidity. Happily, the universal cycle of contraction and unwinding is already alive in our bodies, ready to help us recover from difficult or harmful events. Once fluidity is restored, we are moved and inspired to move towards others, connect with our purpose, meet life’s uncertainty with creativity and grace.
Dr Vanissar Tarakali (East West Psychology) is a somatic educator and trauma coach working over Zoom video and up and down the West Coast of North America. She has supported clients for ten years to transform trauma and vicarious trauma into creative agency. Along with her work with climate trauma she frequently assists with attachment trauma, abuse, neglect, accidents and disasters, as well as collective oppression traumas such as racism, sexism, trans/homophobia, ableism, islamophobia, anti-semitism, etc.