Talking to the Lizard Brain

Last month, I talked about how old trauma replays in the body like a broken record. So today, let’s look at how we can use body sensing to tune in to this “recording” and let it play through in a new way, rewiring and releasing the trauma.

Let’s start with our lizard brain…

The most primitive part of our brain—the reptilian brain—is the brain stem. It controls our fight-or-flight responses. And it operates below the level of cognitive thought.

So, let’s say you’re out hiking. You come around a bend and see what looks like a snake on the trail. And, wham, your body jumps out of the way before your thinking brain can process that it’s just a stick.

The lizard took over.

Now, when we’re traumatized…

We’ve got all of this fight-or-flight energy stuck in our body, especially in the central nervous system. We’re locked in fight-or-flight, which means we’re operating mainly in the brain stem. To transform this, we’ve got to speak brain stem.

The neocortex understands words. The limbic brain speaks emotions. But the brain stem? It speaks sensations.

So, for instance…

Let’s say you’re in a session and notice an electrical buzz along your arms and chest. As you stay with that sensation, it starts to transform. Soon it turns to heat. You might get some flash images of an old car accident. And you start to sweat and tremble. You’re discharging old shock energy.

Or perhaps you feel a sprung tension in your legs, like they’re poised to take off running. As you stay with that tension, it slowly grows and you feel the urge to move. On the table, your legs begin a slow running motion that builds. They’re running away now—an action they didn’t get to complete before.

Body sensing is an effective way to transform trauma

When we access sensations, we are talking to the lizard brain. This lets us engage directly with the trauma, but in a way that slows it down and helps it transform.

We can discharge the pent-up energy. And we can rewire nervous system patterns that keep signaling our muscles to do things like run or block. In other words, we can reintegrate all of the nonverbal trauma patterns held in our tissues.

Most importantly, we can transform trauma in a way that’s slow, that avoids emotional flooding, and that’s grounded in a sense of what feels safe and OK in the moment.

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