Demystifying 4 myths about trauma and the nervous system with an Applied Neurology Practitioner
Did you know that a trauma-informed approach to healing can truly make or break a safe recovery process, at the level of the nervous system?
If you’ve been following Soltara for some time, you probably already know how much we care about the integration process, which is the aftercare to any ayahuasca ceremony or retreat. All too often, integration isn’t given as much weight as the ceremony itself or the full attention it deserves within the overall arc of healing, whether that follows a plant medicine journey or any psychedelic or non-psychedelic experience where profound transformations occur physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Given just how quickly ayahuasca tourism is spreading to the Global North and Western World, the topic of high-quality integration becomes even more important when we talk about healing trauma safely, responsibly and sustainably (as in – not making changes too much, too soon, too fast).
In our quest to dive deeper into this topic, we hosted a conversation with Elisabeth Kristof from Brain Based Wellness to shed light on her incredible work in Applied Neurology. At Brain Based Wellness, Elisabeth combines applied neurology, movement training and somatic practices to help people master their nervous system for achieving health and vitality. Her virtual classes help anyone on the healing path create resilience, manage stress, resolve trauma and repattern behavior. She’s also launching an upcoming Neuro-Somatic Intelligence Coaching Program for practitioners, therapists, coaches and healers ready to understand and speak the language of the nervous system!
One thing became very clear during this conversation. Unfortunately, the language of the nervous system is highly underdeveloped in our overly intellectualized society, which tends to skew towards things like goal-setting, mindset coaching and top-down behavior change at the level of the mind. The very good news is that our nervous system is highly responsive and can be trained, just like our muscles and mind (think neuroplasticity). The question of how we can better train our nervous system for a healthier life and demystify the most commonly held ideas of how this all works became the central focus of our talk. Let’s dive in.
What exactly is applied neurology and how do we interface with this modality on the healing path?
Applied neurology is a newer modality for creating lasting (and almost instantaneous) change in the nervous system. While it’s only 20 years old thanks to innovations in brain technology and neuroplasticity, it is arguably one of the most powerful, accessible and personalized ways to heal trauma and move out of unhealthy behaviors, patterns and flashbacks. Not to mention, it can be a great practice for autoimmune and cancer prevention. But we digress!
The nervous system is a highly intelligent operating system inside all bodies. You’ve likely interacted with your nervous system the last time you felt a huge adrenaline rush or reacted to an outside threat with a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. We’ll get into that more below, but what’s most important to remember about your nervous system right now is that it’s highly plastic or “neuroplastic.” The brain and nervous system connection (in which the brain acts like the central computer and the nervous system relays information from the brain to different parts of the body) is in constant flux throughout life, no matter how old you are. The best part about neuroplasticity is that we have agency over how our nervous system responds to life’s demands, threats and outside challenges. We can quite literally feed it new stimulus to help heal the deficits of our unique system. Think: moving out of protective outputs or coping mechanisms like pain, migraines, fatigue or anxiety and INTO safety, connection, less pain, greater range in motion of the joints, and overall strength and regulation.
Take it from Elisabeth’s own personal experience. Like many of us, she ranked high on her ACE score (the “Adverse Childhood Experience” score was highly popularized by Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk) from earlier traumas that led her down the path of binge eating, unhealthy relationship patterns, workaholism and years of recreational drugs and alcohol. No matter how hard she worked, she simply couldn’t break the toxic loops. Things took a massive turn after being introduced to Applied Neurology, which she used in conjunction with other modalities like ayahuasca. For the first time, it became possible for her to relax and rest, and move out of the protective outputs like binging and working herself to the bone. This level of transformation is available to all bodies everywhere, especially for people integrating powerful experiences from plant medicines or other psychedelics, which we’ll dive into below.
The takeaway here is this. We have everything we need to improve the health of our nervous system, no matter where we fall on the healing spectrum or ACE score. All we need are the right tools!
Common misperceptions about trauma and the nervous system
If plant medicine or psychedelic therapies are part of your toolkit, you’ve likely heard the saying, “It’s like 10 years of therapy in a single night.” While we know there aren’t quick fixes or magic pills for healing, there is some layer of truth to this sentiment. Where integrating the “10 years of lessons” in daily life becomes thorny is when people fail to apply nervous system fluency in their next steps. Unsurprisingly, without the language of the nervous system and trauma, we may be doing more harm than good.
Let’s bust some commonly held myths.
Myth: Trauma is an event that happens to us.
Trauma is not the actual event itself, but rather the physiological response inside you in response to real or perceived threat. This might be one of the most important things we can highlight again and again. Why? Simply put, nervous dysregulation, or the under-reacting or over-reacting to unresolved events from our past in a disproportionate way, eventually leads to a diseased state. While we all probably wish we lived in a world where doctors asked us about our childhood experiences, we just don’t…yet. As a result, so many of us are unconsciously holding metaphorical landmines just waiting to explode into fight, flight, freeze or fawn (think: over people pleasing to ensure we stay safe and emotionally connected). Research shows that 67% of the entire population scored for at least one ACE (adverse childhood experience). And that doesn’t even account for the brown and black bodies living in systemic oppression, which only fuels the fire of stress. A lot of people score high in traumas that we could absolutely work to mend if we had nervous system literacy.
Elisabeth says it all right here:
“Trauma-informed IS nervous system-informed. That’s where trauma comes out and lives – in the nervous system”
Myth: High stress states will eventually pass on their own.
While that would be a whole lot easier, our nervous systems are not wired to course correct without the right inputs. To weather high states of stress, we have to literally teach our body that it’s safe. The last thing we want to do is ignore the signals or even worse, push through them with will power alone, which could even lead to re-traumatization. Elisabeth is no stranger to this experience either. Following a plant medicine ceremony, she received the download to start expressing herself more, leading to a whole cascade of behavior change that eventually backfired. Who knew that going on podcast after podcast would result in threat signals like worsening eczema, joints swelling, and increasing disassociation from the body?
Clearly, dysregulation is harmful over time at a physiological level and can truncate the average lifespan by 20 years. Not to mention, the long list of poor health outcomes that come with a dysregulated nervous system include things like glucose toxicity, inflammation, immune system imbalances, heart disease, mental health collapse, autoimmune disease, and the inability to fight off cancerous cells to name just a few. To course correct these unhealthy states, we’d all benefit by providing our system with new stimulus so the nervous system can re-regulate itself. How? Keep reading.
Myth: Behavior change at the level of the mind is all we need to integrate peak experiences.
Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While goal setting and mindset coaching are inherently great tools, they are not complete modalities from a trauma-informed perspective. The reason being, our mind can oftentimes push us beyond what the nervous system can handle. This can be dangerous if we’re not aware of what’s happening physiologically. Let’s take Elisabeth’s experience as a prime example. After ayahuasca gave her the insight that she hadn’t been expressing herself to the highest potential, she almost immediately went into behavior change mode, as we usually do following any profound transformation. The result was painful, as you can recall from the eczema and joint inflammation that signaled, “not safe to go there yet.” While the idea of this sounds amazing, we have to keep in mind that change is threatening to the survival (not cognitive) brain. Our brains are literally designed to follow the pattern of least resistance and energy. Full stop. So how can mindset change become the safe, responsible and beneficial experience we know it can be?
Thanks to the incredible field of Applied Neurology and practitioners like Elisabeth, we have new tools to rewire our nervous system for resilience and health. Things like mindset coaching, goal setting and top-down strategies can work hand in hand with these tools for optimal results, without costing you energy or time.
Myth: All nervous systems are wired the same.
In reality, no two nervous systems are alike! We need to personalize the tools of applied neurology based on the unique traumas, deficits and needs of every body. Blanket statements like “if you want to feel amazing, take an ice bath,” are not nervous-system friendly. What works for one may cause the other nausea, dizziness or dissociation. The good news is, when we internalize that reality, we can focus on how to work with what we’ve got and treat our bodies to the safety, support and all around strength it deserves.
Now, let’s cue in applied neurology’s superstar, “neuro drills,” which train different inputs to the nervous system. It’s like taking your nervous system to the gym, but even easier and more accessible than you think. You can do them at home, and before AND after therapy. If you’re about to give a presentation, walk into an important meeting or do something that feels scary or new, make neural drills your best friend because they might just change your life. Some of the benefits include better information from your surroundings, a clearer map of where your body is in space, less threat, more room in the bucket to handle the stress of behavior change, stronger relationships, and increased resilience.
For some great neuro drills to try out, you can become a member on The Maloca and revisit Elisabeth’s workshop (“Somatic Sovereignty: Creating Healthy Boundaries at the Level of the Nervous System”) for a step-by-step tutorial.
Throughout the healing process, it will be beneficial to create change at the level of the mind AND body. Whether you’ve been on the healing path for decades or just getting started, we hope you feel even more empowered to learn the language of your body and nervous system. These are the truest clues for how to train up, listen, grow and expand into the healthiest and happiest version of you.
“The body holds answers to questions that the mind doesn’t even know how to ask. All you have to do is listen.” – Erica Hornthal
If you’re a coach, practitioner, therapist, healer or all-around seeker curious to explore this topic further, consider checking out Elisabeth’s exciting new Neuro-Somatic Intelligence Coaching Program.