Have you ever felt that there was some stuck trauma in your body? A density or anxiety that seemed to elude your conscious mind but you felt that you physically carried around with you? Kimberly Johnson is a Somatic Experiencing™ Practitioner, educator, and author who has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Vogue, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Harper’s Bazaar and more. Kimberly believes that too many women are increasingly stuck in a cycle of trauma without the knowledge of how to heal themselves.
She argues that often unprocessed traumas — from “small t” traumas of getting ghosted, experiencing a fallout with a close friend, or swerving to avoid a car accident, to the “capital T” traumas of sexual assault, an upending natural disaster, or a life-threatening illness — manifest as record rates of anxiety and depression, as well as physical illnesses such as autoimmune diseases and digestive disorders.
While more popularized trauma healing advice generally focuses on sharing thoughts and feelings, Kimberly asserts the deeper issue is that women are living out of alignment with their bodies. The solution, she states, is to reconnect by focusing specifically on reconfiguring our nervous system.
We were lucky enough to sit down with her and ask her a few questions about trauma and the female nervous system.
What is the role of the nervous system physiologically — and also emotionally and mentally?
Our nervous system is like the master switchboard. Whatever physiological state you are in will drive the content of your thoughts. We usually think it’s the reverse — that we need to change our story, our thoughts, make affirmations and get more disciplined so that we can have better emotional or mental health. In many cases, if we start to understand what our nervous system is communicating to us, and to others, our mental and emotional health will follow.
Do male and female nervous systems operate in the same way?
As human beings, homo sapiens, no matter our sex, gender or race, we all have nervous systems. The nervous system is made up of nerve pathways that run through the body, and if you dissected a body, you would find these nerves. You could touch the nerves. If you saw or touched a nerve, you couldn’t tell the sex, gender or race of the person whose nerve it was BUT the way that the nervous system operates is affected by our sex, gender and race, because of the scripts that we are given by our cultures about what is acceptable for each. Families and cultures have unspoken or spoken rules for behavior. So if we are only allowed to express ourselves in certain ways, other choices start to be very difficult to access. Then when we reinforce the same pathways over and over, they become our habits, our default patterns.
Our social nervous system is operated by the nerves from our heart to our face, and developed evolutionarily for maternal bonding. The social nervous system disproportionately impacts females because of estrogen. Estrogen is a bonding hormone, that makes us highly attuned to how everyone feels, allowing us to exquisitely care for our babies. When we perceive threat in our social nervous systems, our physiology has two choices — fitting in or fawning.
In general, males are encouraged to default to a fight response, which has the emotional correlates of irritation, frustration, anger and rage. In general, females are encouraged to default to a flight or freeze response, which have the emotional correlates of worry, fear, and panic or confusion, disorientation and helplessness, respectively. And the more we use the response, the more likely that response will kick in again.
What are common stressors that put the nervous system into overdrive?
There are so many ways that our nervous system gets inundated. Remember that we are human animals with cycles and seasons. Our animal body, and nervous system, are most functional in nature, with cycles of rest and movement, both daily, weekly and seasonally. Screens make our eyes focus for long periods of time. Optimally, we would alternate between hard focus and open awareness. But most of us are, more than ever, tethered to our screens for work, entertainment, and connection right now.
Immobility can register as stress, which is what is happening now in the pandemic. Our movements are restricted. Rationally we understand this, but our bodies do not, so there is an exhausting ping-pong between what our mind knows and what our body wants. We are also interconnected with other nervous systems, so we feel the stress of those around us. What’s stressful or traumatic for one person is not for another, and it’s not always predictable.
The past 12 months have been intense. Can you explain the broader impacts of the pandemic on our individual and also collective nervous system?
We have been separated and facing what in trauma language we would categorize as an “inescapable attack.” But in this case the threat has been looming and invisible. Our personal experience always informs how we see the world. Many people have experienced indescribable loss and sudden change, as well as illness that is life-threatening. There have been migrations. At the same time, there was a massive awakening in the over-culture to the effects of racism — our public discourse and awareness shifted. There have been competing and extremely polarized narratives. And all this in the era of social media where we have an excess of information in an echo chamber. The pandemic exposed the tears in the collective fabric of power. It has changed the way we work, we love, and we structure our lives. We will need to figure out how to gather and be together again. This is work that will take many generations, not just because of the pandemic itself, but because of the underbelly that is now exposed and requires reckoning.
At this time, most people are needing more homogeneity for safety. People are needing spaces to gather, with identity as the qualifier, because mixed groups don’t feel safe for those with less structural power. It will take time to cycle up to a new level of social nervous organization where we share some language and behavior so that all people truly feel safe and it’s not just lip service and “woke” language.
What are some of the ways we can help regulate and balance our nervous system?
Look up from your screen frequently, and look out at the horizon or beyond. Be in nature. Find someone you can play with. Allow for unstructured time. Connect with other humans or animals or plants. Stand up for the things that are important to you while also making space for the humanness of others. Dancing and moving and breathing are all great practices.
The things I mentioned above are good for almost everyone but each person’s system is unique, so learn more about how you are wired. You may find things that you think should work — like meditation and yoga — might not be working for you. By doing this, you will be able to put the puzzle pieces of your own system together.
Kimberly Johnsons’ book Call of The Wild releases April 13th, 2021. The book details the way our nervous system deals with difficult events, before moving on to share practical physical exercises grounded in Kimberly’s work as a somatic practitioner and teaches women to read and react to the messages their bodies have been sending their minds, which have for too long gone ignored. It is available wherever books are sold — for more information on Kimberly and her work, visit her website.