Featured Team Members: Maura Nolan, LPC, LCMHC, NCC
In this blog, Clinical Therapist Maura Nolan, LPC, LCMHC, NCC explains what post-traumatic somatic growth therapy is as well as how she uses it in a wilderness setting to help students connect to their bodies, regulate their nervous systems, and build a well of resilience.
Post-traumatic somatic growth therapy (PTG) includes both developing qualities within us that lead to expansion—such as stretching the capacity to feel good—as well as focusing on regulating our nervous system. It focuses on:
All of this is done by first tapping into the sensations and emotions that we’re feeling in our body and then releasing them.
Emotions and trauma get stored in the body. We might ignore emotions or forget traumatic memories, but our bodies remember. For example, when we experience an emotion, it is often accompanied with a sensation in the body. When I feel nervous, I might feel a twisting in my stomach. When I feel anxious, I might feel my throat tighten and my chest start to thump. If we are not connected to our bodies, these reactions can often overwhelm our ability to cope.
At Open Sky, I work with many students who are not connected to their bodies. In these students, I often see patterns of substance use and avoiding emotions, behaviors that can often lead to an accumulation of emotions in the body and getting stuck in overwhelm and dysfunction. This is reversible but takes time.
Therefore, a lot of the work I do focuses on giving students the language and tools to label and identify where they’re noticing sensations—both positive and uncomfortable—in their bodies. Our negativity bias is often so high that we pay more attention to negative things than positive ones. I use somatic therapy to help students build a well of resilience and find more balance between the positive and negative. My goal is to help them both tolerate difficult sensations and relish in pleasant ones.
Post-traumatic somatic growth therapy is excellent for treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a variety of other mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, OCD, and symptoms of personality disorders. Because PTG is rooted in neurobiology and focuses on regulating the nervous system, I think it can help anyone who is trying to build resilience and better manage their stress response. It can help us make better decisions as well as repair and stay in connection.
Some of the benefits I’ve noticed with my own clients in practicing PTG include decreased chronic pain and stress, reduced negative affect, improved concentration and focus, stronger sense of self, and more feelings of hope, confidence, and resilience.
For an individual to be able to do trauma work and go to the places that feel more difficult or painful, we first must help them build a well of tolerance or resilience. As a clinician, I will utilize the following exercises to help with that goal.
Orienting is a practice I’ll use to help a person cultivate joy and build positive emotions. I’ll often begin a session with a student by having them look around, notice something that brings them joy, and describe it to me. Then I’ll have them bring it to their body.
For example, I might prompt them, “Looking at this beautiful ponderosa tree, what are you noticing within yourself? Where are you experiencing that feeling?” Then I’ll work with the student to help them expand that sensation in their body and encourage them to take it in. In that moment, I’m helping their nervous system deactivate and return to a state where they feel calm and comfortable.
Most people are familiar with the concept of triggers, which are certain stimuli that cause the nervous system to go on high alert. Glimmers are the opposite of triggers: they are moments that bring us joy or happiness and spark feelings of ease, safety, and connection.
When I’m in session with a student, I’ll have them start cultivating a list of glimmers. Sometimes students can be resistant to this practice, but the more they try to track beautiful and calming things around them, the more beautiful and calming things they see. The more aware of our glimmers we are, the more we can step into them and cultivate and accumulate positive emotions.
Multiple sensations can exist in the body at once. For example, someone might be feeling calm in one moment but then have an anxious thought that starts to make their heart race. Something I’ll do to help students through these moments is called pendulation. I’ll have the student notice their uncomfortable or negative feelings and then guide them back into the calm sensation they were previously experiencing.
Pendulating between an uncomfortable sensation and a positive sensation teaches students that even in a moment when they are feeling discomfort, they can still access positive sensations in the body. They can lean into those feelings and help deactivate their nervous system.
Post-traumatic somatic growth therapy is also great for identifying and healing negative core beliefs, which are beliefs around our worth, value, safety, and connection. Some examples of negative core beliefs include, “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t do anything right.” Oftentimes when I’m talking to a client, I’ll hear these negative core beliefs come up. If someone is struggling with social connection, they might say something like, “I have to do everything alone. I can’t go to my teammates.”
I will then reflect what I’m hearing and say a statement that challenges the negative core belief they’re struggling with. For example, “You don’t have to do this alone. You can ask for support.” Then, after saying that, I’ll ask, “What are you feeling in your body?” Sometimes their reaction can be jarring. Other times students really soak it in. I’ll then have them say those statements aloud— “I don’t have to do things alone” —and really tune into how that feels in their body. The idea is if they can embody that, they are more inclined to try something new or different moving forward.
With trauma being stored in our bodies, there are certain sensations or body movements we might make to try to release that trauma. There might also be bodily sensations we were doing in that traumatic event that we haven’t fully completed and are therefore stuck in our nervous system. During sessions with students, I’ll employ something called motor planning, or watching what bodily movements are happening with a student and getting really curious about them.
For example, when students are feeling angry or protective, they might put their hand out in front of them. I’ll ask what they think that movement is about. Are they trying to protect themselves? Is putting their arm out something they want to do to other people? If they are open to it, I’ll then have them slowly push their arm back and forth and notice what sensations come up as they do that. Oftentimes, they’ll feel a sense of relief. I’ll then have the student practice that motor movement as homework throughout the week. There are countless examples of physical movements students can experiment with. It’s all about figuring out what movements feel good with their system and what might be helpful for release.
Wilderness provides an environment with very low stimuli and no technology. Students eat and sleep well and have very few distractions. As they learn coping skills like emotional regulation and distress tolerance, they naturally build their resilience and a well of resources they can draw upon to get back to a regulated state. They practice these things daily and build a foundation of skills to empower them to dive more deeply into their therapeutic work. As a clinician practicing in wilderness, I don’t have to spend as much time simply helping a person get their nervous system back to a green zone, which can sometimes be the entire focus of a session in other environments. Wilderness provides the nervous system a baseline like no other and primes a person to be able to step into post-traumatic somatic growth therapy even further.