Releasing Micro-Traumas in Group Therapy

Having facilitated women’s trauma groups for a while, I have noticed the effect of listening in silence as participants share their stories. The norm in group therapy is to stay silent while others talk. Our female socialization is to further stay quiet, resolute, stoic. Women are socialized to be relational, so we quickly figure out the group rules, implicit and explicit. I recognize this is culturally determined and not all women stay silent, but largely this is my observation.  As a whole, humans are herd animals; we study the pack and quickly learn to adhere to group norms.

In the support groups I facilitate, often there is limited cross talk during check-ins and extended shares. We listen, we might nod, we might say ‘yea’ but mostly we remain silent.  I am concerned about the effects this silence has on the body and mind.  I have begun to label the effect on the body as somatic micro-traumas. 

What is the effect of listening in silence?   The body cannot process all that is arising in group effectively and still be present.  For example, someone might share about their father, or car accident or sexual assault, and of course, we have a reaction.  Our mirror neurons are firing. If we care about the person, our empathy is also firing.  Our previous traumas get reactivated, re-stimulated, triggered.  We might start to dissociate or space out.  We might get a sudden belly ache or headache or leg cramp.  The body is reacting, as it does, which is normal.   We usually call these triggers.   The fancy term is ‘affective dysregulation.’  When we are triggered, we are outside the ‘optimal zone of arousal’ and we fall into hypoarousal or we rev up into hyperarousal.  This means we either space out or become hyper vigilant.   Our bodies then hold a lot of this tension which is experienced as micro-traumas or assaults on the nervous system.     

If we ‘suffer in silence’ as the pre-feminist adage goes, I think we do a disservice to the body and to our ability to be present. We also thwart our healing, further our isolation and don't let others know our reaction and the impact they have on us.  This reinforces the original trauma, where it is common to not show our reaction, vulnerability and wounding.  

Specifically, I have begun to support participants to notice their micro-traumas and move them through their bodies as they are occurring.  How to do this?  

Having been a student and teacher of yoga for a while, I have begun to incorporate yogic and somatic techniques into the beginning and end of each trauma group session.  We breathe, we meditate, we do a body scan, we try the 9 Gamut in EFT,  we listening to the Tibetan singing bowl for auditory attunement or we try other mind body techniques.  These practices are offered as a way of gaining awareness and presence in the here and now as well as a way of clearing out what came before in our day and offering ourselves fully to the group process. 

It dawned on me that in my own yoga and exercise classes and throughout my day, I have been using these techniques as a reset.   I reset my mind and focus.  I reset my body for better alignment.   Although at times, perhaps socially unacceptable, I do it anyway and don’t worry what others may think.  

In my groups, I encourage participants to incorporate these practices as their own mini resets.  To release and move through their body whatever is arising.  To do this even when another is sharing.   This is not easy.  The socialization is like a magnet pulling us back to old patterns learned in classroom settings and work meetings.  We worry that we might distract the participant who is sharing from her experience and from deepening into her own awareness of what is arising.  We worry we will be disruptive.  

To not reset is actually a disservice to yourself and the group.  To reset from these micro-traumas is to help us come back to ourselves and the group.  It helps us bring more aliveness and more presence to what is happening in group.  Can we toggle back and forth between our own inner experience and that of the women sharing?  Can we titrate our experience better and not be flooded?  Can we ease into the experience with breath?  With compassion?  With mindfulness?  Can we create our group culture, family milieu or work place environment to normalize these mini-resets?  To breathe and make sounds?

In the next blog, I will give examples of some of these techniques.  Until then, just try a 1:2 ratio breath.  Inhale to a count of 4 and double the exhale to a count of 8.  If you don’t enjoy counting your breath, just lengthen the exhalation.  Whenever we exhale for a longer count, we move our nervous system away from the fight, flight, freeze patterns of the sympathetic nervous system and toward the rest and digest,  relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system.  Try it.   Enjoy the presence.  Relax into the relaxation.