Although integration is a primary goal of recovery from sexual abuse, it’s usually helpful to begin by identifying the parts that make up the experience of wholeness before trying to integrate. By first attending to parts, there are more opportunities to recognize when unconscious memories of sexual trauma are triggered, and thus more opportunities to reduce their impact. By understanding how different parts of ourselves defend against being hurt again, we can learn how to live more peacefully in ourselves and with others.
There are primarily two ways of working with parts of experience. One involves working with the personality system, such as parts of the personality that have become rigidly defensive. The other deals with with what Pat Ogden calls core organizers of experience that include cognitions, emotions, and the body.1 This week I explain the advantages of working with core organizers to increase safety and stability. In future posts, I discuss working with the personality system, along with how CG Jung’s notion of individuation is relevant to recovery from sexual trauma.
Why we fragment in response to trauma
Before looking closely at core organizers, I want to mention a few neurobiological changes that occur during overwhelming, if not life-threatening experiences like sexual trauma. It’s important to understand how natural it is to have experiences like flashbacks, amnesia, and uncontrollable emotions after sexual trauma. Otherwise, the tendency is to think of oneself as weak or crazy, which is the farthest from the truth.
When the body mobilizes in response to a perceived threat, some memories of what happened may fail to consolidate into retrievable, long-term memories.Yet enough may be remembered that you can tell the story of what happened, and discuss the trauma as something in your past. Still, fragments of unconscious body and emotion memories can lead you to feel as if the sexual trauma is happening all over again when you encounter stimuli that unconsciously remind you of the trauma. You know the abuse is in the past, but your body and emotions don’t. These unconscious memories have not integrated with the larger narrative because areas of the brain necessary for consolidating memories with a sense of the past were not functioning effectively at the time of the trauma.
During a traumatizing experience, attention narrows to focus on the threat, and the body constricts blood flow to parts of the body that are necessary for survival — for instance, large muscle groups that might help with defense or escape. At the same time, parts of the brain that might interfere with responding rapidly to threat are attenuated, including two regions that contribute to self awareness: the hippocampus, which is responsible for consolidating memories, including body and emotion memories; and regions of the prefrontal cortex, which contribute a sense of an observing “I” to memories and experiences.
Both of these regions are also necessary for constructing a sense of time. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for creating distinctions between past, present, and future. This area of the brain also makes possible goal-directed behaviors, and adapting plans and actions to culturally constructed notions of time.2 Thus, through the prefrontal cortex we avoid the timelessness of the unconscious in which trauma-related body and emotion memories reside.
The hippocampus, in conjunction with the prefrontal cortex, contributes to a sense of self as either someone something did happen to, thus enabling projecting a sense of self into the past, or as someone something can happen to, thus projecting a sense of self into an imagined future. The hippocampus also supports creating a sense of self as located in time and place, which is necessary for perceiving a traumatic experience as not part of the present moment (as well as for planning and accomplishing goals).
When the functions of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are attenuated by the need to mobilize for defense, memories of what happened during the abuse can fail to gain a sense of time and place as well as a sense of happening to oneself at a specific point in one’s life. They remain part of the unconscious sense of life as one timeless moment.
When stimuli then trigger unconscious body and emotion memories that were never consolidated by the hippocampus into retrievable long-term memories, memories can feel as if they are coming out of nowhere and as if the trauma is happening all over again. We can also experience these memories as if the they happened to, or belong to, someone else, and thus not identify with our own experiences of sexual trauma. (This happens, for example, when early life abuse is seen as happening to the child one was, and there is complete disavowal of one’s younger self and experiences.) Furthermore, when these unconscious memories are triggered, they can feel so overwhelming that they lead to attempts to control one’s body and emotions by abusing substances, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide attempts. Some dissociate all sensory awareness, which in extreme circumstances can lead to depersonalization.
The body naturally reacts to any stimuli as a threat if in the past that stimuli was associated with danger or harm. Hence, one of the primary goals of trauma treatment is to reduce the likelihood that when the brain and body encounter stimuli associated with a past threat, but in nonthreatening situations, we don’t mobilize for defense. This may sound simple, but often when there is unresolved trauma, we organize for defense automatically and without realizing it. You know this has happened when fairly innocuous incidences are responded to with intense emotions. You may even register that you are overacting; nevertheless, the intensity of your emotions make the threat feel real.
To make matters worse, the more often we react defensively to particular stimuli, the more likely we will react similarly in the future. Over time, our responses become conditioned and automatic. What originally started as a response to being triggered, over time begins to feel and look like aspects of our personality.
However, I would argue we never truly become our traumatic reactions, even if they have been conditioned through years of repetition. I believe everyone can recover a calmer, non-traumatized version of themselves and still retain the ability to defend themselves.
By habitually making time to observe emotions, body states, and cognitions — and working with them in ways that contribute to increased stability and safety — you can reduce states of overwhelm or shut down that occur when unconscious memories of sexual trauma are triggered. This ‘work’ takes time, especially if you are easily overwhelmed by emotions and body sensations, which please remember is quite normal, and so don’t judge yourself if this happens to you. Everyone must approach recovery according to their own body, mind, and temperament, finding their unique ways for creating inner safety, and at their own pace. But that’s part of the beauty of working with the core organizers. You get to determine what is best for you.
Furthermore, by mindfully focusing on only one core organizer at a time, we not only reduce the likelihood of overwhelm or shut down, we also contribute to meaningful change as we increase the time spent in present moment awareness with an “I” capable of observing what is happening. (You may recall from post 4 that present moment awareness is necessary for making lasting neurobiological change.)
Working with the core organizers
Stimuli, or information as it is sometimes called, is processed according to three levels of experience that are commonly depicted as hierarchical. At the top of the hierarchy is cognition, in the middle are emotions, and at the bottom are sensorimotor responses of the body. The three levels mimic the structure of the brain in which the neocortex that produces cognition is located in the upper region, the limbic system associated with emotions is in the middle, and the lower, subcortical regions of the brain receive sensorimotor information from the body. When we work with the core organizers, we partition our experiences according to these three primary ways for processing information.
Although cognition is at the top of the information hierarchy, the two lower layers process information more rapidly, thus organizing experiences well before we can think about what is happening. When working with trauma, we often focus on the lower layers — the body and the emotions — which is contrary to how most people view their experiences. Especially in the West there is a tendency to identify with thoughts, the ability to problem solve, and create (and meet) goals. We often aren’t skilled at identifying with body sensations and emotions, or using them as resources for improving well being. Instead, there is greater reliance on cognitions to control the other two layers, for instance suppressing feelings that if expressed might cause relationship problems, or ignoring body sensations like hunger until the designated lunch hour. Many cultures and families also prioritize expressing cognitions over emotional and bodily expression, and thus there aren’t always opportunities to get a good sense of how our bodies and emotions are processing information. Lack of awareness of life from the neck down is compounded by sexual trauma, which not only threatens feeling safe with one’s emotions and bodies, but can also cause us to blame, reject, or dissociate our emotions and bodies. Nevertheless, we all have the capacity to learn to identify what we are experiencing in our bodies as well as the emotions we are feeling.
Although the different ways of processing information are described as hierarchical, we simultaneously process information on all levels. Nevertheless, we may prefer processing information according to one level. For instance, some prefer to use cognitions to understand themselves and their environment, while others prefer getting a ‘feel’ for a situation. Still others need sensorimotor stimuli to fully understand themselves and the world around them. Studying the core organizers, and how you process information, can have the added benefit of regaining the joy of processing information according to your preferred method. This has been true of me. In response to sexual abuse, I felt overwhelmed by sensorimotor stimuli and dissociated both emotions and body sensations. I also became a fairly cerebral person (if you hadn’t noticed). Yet I often prefer processing information through sensorimotor channels, which I have regained comfort with through my recovery.
Ogden further divided the three ways of processing into five core organizers:
Cognition — thoughts, beliefs, and interpretations
Emotion — feeling, mood, motivation
Five-sense perception (sensorimotor) — smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing
Movement (sensorimotor) — small and large movements, voluntary and involuntary movements
Inner body sensation (sensorimotor) — tension, relaxation, warmth, coldness, tightness, etc., that provide feedback about inner states
In later posts, I discuss how the imaginal also functions as a core organizer. The imaginal includes fantasies, dreams, and images that symbolize emotions or body states, or can act as substitutes for these stimuli.
Our core organizers tend to adapt to present experiences according to how we adapted to past experiences. However, by studying how we organize experiences, we have an opportunity to begin organizing them differently. By observing the core organizers without judgment, including without getting caught in what they might mean, we begin to create space for new experiences to emerge. Furthermore, for those who become overwhelmed by emotions and sensorimotor states, paying attention to certain core organizers while avoiding others can be a way to gently approach inner experiences that have been too threatening to even acknowledge.
In the next several posts, I explore in more depth the different core organizers and how to work with each to increase inner safety and stability. This work can be extremely challenging if presently you are easily overwhelmed by inner experiences. If this sounds like you, give yourself permission to stop. Chose not to be aware of your inner states. You can also ground yourself by naming out loud objects in your environment. And remember the exercises in the Window of Tolerance Guide to further reduce any stress you might feel.
Some questions to ponder: Which of the three core organizers (cognitions, emotions, body states) are you most comfortable with? Which one are you least comfortable with? Are there certain emotions that trigger you? Which ones? Are there parts of your body that you are not comfortable with, including areas of chronic pain?
If you are comfortable with starting to explore your inner world, I encourage you to make a practice of observing your inner life during ‘empty time’ — moments between when you have to dedicate your attention to a task. Empty time happens when you are walking from one room in your home to another, going to your car or public transportation, taking out the trash, or folding clothes — times with minimal mental demand — time many of us fill with worry, fantasies, and self-criticism.
If it feels right, start exploring during empty time the following: Notice whether you are holding tension in your shoulders. If you are, then mindfully and slowly let go. Notice whether your shoulders are collapsed and if they are, slowly straighten your spine. Notice if your breathing is shallow. If it is, mindfully take regular breaths (although not deep breaths). Or, if it’s comfortable for you, try my personal favorite: notice the stimuli that your feet or hands are registering and focus just on those sensations.
Get in the habit of using empty time to gently honor the body that supports your survival by simply noticing.
1 Ogden, Pat. (2012). Level I: Training in affect dysregulation, survival defenses, and traumatic memory. Broomfield, CO: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.
2 Carlén, Marie. (2017). What constitutes the prefrontal cortex. Science, Vol. 358, Issue 6362, pp. 478 – 482.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).