Jan Winhall and Catherine Torpey discuss crossings between philosophy, Focusing, and Imago Therapy. We hope […]
You may be reading this because you are curious about fresh ways of understanding trauma and addiction.
There is in fact a better way to understand trauma and addiction. A way that honours the wisdom of the body while integrating the latest findings in neuroscience.
A way that creates a new social movement of liberation away from being shamed and pathologized just for responding in ways that have not been appropriately understood.
A way where we can respectfully understand addiction and treat trauma responses with deep embodied listening.
What Polyvagal Theory Teaches Us About Addiction
Addictions as Survival Behaviours: the body's Adaptive way to survive when we cannot thrive.
Polyvagal theory, a new way of understanding the autonomic nervous system, teaches us that the body responds to unsafe environments by shifting into flight/ fight, fawn/freeze neurophysiological states to help us survive when we have no way to escape. Forty years ago feminist therapists understood dissociative states and self harm as the bodies way of coping but we didn’t have a sophisticated biological explanation that polyvagal theory provides. Today we do.
Now through the lens of Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory, it makes sense that self harming behaviours, often leading to addiction, act as propellors of state change. When we are stressed our body shifts into flight/fight. Alcohol, drugs, binge eating and sex, and more, shift our neurophysiological state into freeze to numb us. This brings physical and emotional relief. Freeze or Dissociative states help to protect us from intolerable feelings. We need to appreciate the resource that they provide. If we stay numb for too long the body may crave high risk behaviours to trigger adrenaline, and shift us back to flight/flight. These are gallant attempts to cope when our nervous system detects danger and does not let us relax and connect with others.
The Felt Sense Polyvagal Model of Emotion Regulation
I have created this model as a new and better way to understand trauma and addiction
My work is also influenced by Eugene Gendlin, who coined the term “Felt Sense” based on a contemplative practice called Focusing. Focusing is a six-step process that helps us find our implicit embodied knowing about an issue in our life. A knowing that is at first vague. Turning attention inwards and listening with compassion allows a felt sense, a whole sense of the situation, to form.
The Felt Sense and experiencing Felt Shifts
Thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and memories are different aspects of experience that create a pathway into the Felt Sense. In asking questions about these aspects we help the client to deepen their embodied knowing of the issue. As the felt sense forms we pause and stay with the fullness of experiencing. Sometimes a Felt Shift, a physical release happens as the client integrates a new knowing. This shift is the bodies’ knowing and pointing in the direction of growth and healing. The client feels a relief, a settling. Focusing is a natural process that happens all the time. Gendlin found that clients who were doing well in therapy were connected to their bodies. They had access to a Felt Sense. However, because we live in such a disembodied culture, many clients needed help to connect, so Gendlin created the steps.
A New Way of Seeing and Working with Addiction
The Felt Sense Polyvagal Model provides a new way of seeing and working with addiction. The autonomic nervous system becomes our map as we orient to the continuum from chaos to rigidity. The visual model reveals the way in which trauma, and its subsequent emotional dysregulation, relates to addiction, and addiction to trauma. The link between the two is revealed in the propelling action that is depicted in the model, the swinging from chaos to rigidity. We see the true limitations in the current medical model as it lacks the interactional quality of experiencing in its discrete diagnostic categories. Treatment typically focuses on trauma or addiction, missing the underlying systemic precursors to both.
Trauma In Addiction
While we are focusing on treating addiction it’s clear that we cannot limit our discussion to addiction. We have seen how addiction and trauma are bi-directionally linked. When we understand that addictions function as neurophysiological state regulators in light of traumatic experiences, it follows that they need to be addressed and treated together. And, regardless of whether you believe that trauma underlies all addiction, the state of addiction is a traumatizing experience in itself. Trauma is present either as a precursor and/or a consequence of addiction.
Polyvagal theory teaches us that we are not safe until all of us are safe, feel a sense of belonging, and have dignity in our lives. Because we coregulate each other, we are designed to live in community. We thrive when we are taking good care of the most vulnerable folks in our culture. Addiction is created and prolonged by states of vulnerability.
At a time like this, with a global pandemic upon us, we need more than ever to learn the lessons of a Polyvagal informed society. We need to learn from folks suffering from addiction. They tell us where we are failing as a culture, and what we must do to bring safety to each and every one of us. If we all need to go home and practice social distancing, then we better make sure that all of us have a safe home to go to. Otherwise, none of us are going to be safe.
In our disconnected state, we, as a culture, can’t know how to feel into the problem or the solution. We cling to our top down explanations of demon drugs to avoid feeling into the embodied cultural trauma of our times. Like the addicted soul, we delude ourselves. We have lost our way. But only in our heads. The body knows the answer.
A Call To Action
In addition, I’ve brought an anti-oppressive lens to the understanding of the root causes of addiction. It is from this lens that we have seen the profound impact that oppression has on the development and increasing incidence of addictive behaviors. Experiences of oppression lead to trauma, and trauma is the underbelly of addiction. Consequently, marginalized groups are much more vulnerable. Staci Haines, author of The Politics of Trauma, (2019) puts it so well when she says that trauma robs us of safety, belonging and dignity. Without these basic needs being met, we seek out quick and dirty ways of soothing to help us survive.
My objective is to provide a teaching/clinical model of addiction that offers a radical paradigm shift, challenging our current pathologizing approach. I have integrated new neurobiological findings in brain research, supported by an alternative learning model of addiction, as well as subsequent clinical approaches that address embodied trauma therapies.
My goal is for therapists to understand addiction using a sophisticated theoretical framework and treatment strategies that challenge old, disembodied approaches. The model is adaptable to any school of psychotherapy or healing practice.
Addiction is a political problem, and I invite you to join me in standing up and speaking up to make a difference!
Your Options To Learn More
Integrative Focusing Therapy training
with Jan Winhall
2-year online program, with 10 modules per year, starting Fall 2021.
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Focusing is a contemplative practice that facilitates a state of integration between mind, emotion and body awareness.