One of the principles of trauma recovery that Peter Levine formulated was that ‘they come out the way they went in.’ What he means is – if they went from ‘calm and connect’ (ventral vagal nervous system), to ‘fight or flight’ (sympathetic arousal), and possibly to ‘freeze or dissociate’ (dorsal vagal), they need to go back through those physiological states to release the trauma energy stored in the body. I realized that, for Diva, since she went all the way to dissociation when she was traumatized, she would have to go through sympathetic arousal as the trauma energy was released (deactivation, as shown on the right side of the bell curve).
I think this is what I have seen when I have been riding her lately. I have been asking for ‘contact,’ as I explained in a previous blog entry. But asking her to walk off with contact has resulted in head tossing and trying to run away. Was this what she tried to do with her previous owners – run away from the contact, from the pressure of the bit in her mouth when she became afraid of some new experience? But she couldn’t, so she went into a ‘functional freeze’ or dissociation? (I want to be clear, though, that it is a natural response for the rider to grab the reins and pull back when a horse startles or runs away. It takes a very experienced, balanced, and aware rider to successfully bring a horse back from a spook without pulling back on the reins too much.)
I wondered if she was coming more and more out of the functional freeze state as she begins to connect to me and trust me. However, Levine’s principle of ‘they come out the way they went in’ means we don’t get to go straight from freeze to ventral vagal connection. The sympathetic arousal is going to show up somewhere and must be worked through. Is this what the head tossing is about?
On a recent ride, I had a thought that perhaps she could learn that, when she starts to get aroused, she could stop, not run away. Once stopped, I hoped that she could perhaps let go of the trauma energy a bit at a time – what in SE is called titration. After a good, calm lunging session, I got up in the saddle and she moved away from the mounting block with her usual tension. It took a while before I could get her to stop and settle, which was an indication of how much sympathetic arousal she had. But as soon as she stopped, I petted her and told her she was a good girl. I settled myself in the saddle and just sat there, calmly breathing. I was co-regulating her nervous system with my own. Her ears were totally trained on me, so I know she was not dissociated. She was trying to figure out what was happening. I began ‘heart breathing’, an Eponaquest technique used to calm oneself and connect to another. Her ears were going forward and back, and she began gently blowing out, a sign of relaxation. I could feel the tension start to dissipate in her back as she relaxed. Then she began to chew the bit, which releases saliva, another sign of relaxation (I’m sure everyone has had a time when their mouth went dry in a moment of fear or anxiety. That is a sign of sympathetic arousal.) How long did we stand there? I don’t know. Five minutes, ten minutes? Time lost its chronicity as we stood calmly, our nervous systems interacting. Occasionally, there was a twitch that went through Diva’s body. Was this trauma energy releasing? Perhaps. It didn’t seem to bother her though.
I didn’t want to lose this moment so decided that we would stay connected like this, me in the saddle and her calmly accepting that and a bit of contact on the reins, until she decided it was time to move. And when she did, she just walked off calmly as if she did this every day, no tension in her back. It only lasted about six strides before she started to build tension again, but I stopped her again and allowed her to settle. Then I got off and called it a day. In ‘therapy’ terms, she had a lot to process and integrate from her experience. I didn’t want to push it.
Trauma recovery is not a short and sweet story, however. Since that day, the head tossing has actually gotten bigger. We can see this in a recent video. I had decided, for my own safety, to ride her as she is connected to the lunge line (held by my husband who is also trying to video!). Because I know that the sympathetic arousal energy must be discharged, I am doing my best to allow her head tossing to come to completion and then give her the opportunity to find relaxation for herself. You can see that in the stretching down of her neck and the chewing. You can even see saliva on her lips, which is a sign of ventral vagal engagement. (Previously, I could complete a training session, take off the bridle and the bit would be absolutely dry, indicating no saliva production.) I am also doing my best to keep a soft contact to the bit with the reins, following her motion as she stretches down. I don’t want her to learn that she can escape the contact by stretching down and hiding. Stretching – good. Hiding from the bit – not good. Ultimately, what we would strive for is for her to ‘carry the bit forward,’ allowing for true connection - from the bit, through the reins, to my hands. For this to be achieved, I need to have a very nuanced feel of the contact and she needs to be able to trust that I won’t pull back suddenly on the reins.
How does this apply to humans? Again, human and equine nervous systems are very similar. Humans who have dissociated because of trauma or who live in a ‘functional freeze’ must deactivate the stored trauma energy from the initial fight or flight response. This must be done slowly, in a titrated manner - like when you turn the lid so-o-o slowly on a shaken pop bottle to prevent the contents from spilling over. We don’t want a re-living of the trauma response, we just want a little bit of that trauma energy released at a time.
This can only be successful if we have first established the conditions of safety, connection and trust. And that takes however long it takes. For Diva, it has been a year to get to where we actually address the stored trauma energy. It will be a unique journey for each person and for each horse.