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InnerWork Autonomic Healing Activation (AHA)
Autonomic Healing Activation (AHA) is a type of somatic-therapy. Soma is the Greek word for the body. Somatic therapy deals with the body while psychotherapy deals with the mind. Therapy simply refers to something that relieves or heals. AHA is a way to trigger the natural and gradual removal of stress from the body by the Autonomic Nervous System (the brain stem) in a process called homeostasis. Homeostasis, the primary function of the brain stem, is the tendency in your nervous system to maintain or restore stable function by continually adjusting to changing conditions that you experience as “stress.” Stress can overwhelm homeostasis to the point that your ANS cannot remove the stress from your body!
The reason it is called Autonomic Healing Activation is that the Autonomic Nervous System in your brain is responsible for homeostasis. The healing is what you experience when the homeostasis is complete. Activation is what takes place during the session. It is like turning on the switch in your nervous system so that the natural process of homeostasis takes place with the result that the stress and trauma that has been trapped in your body is removed.
Stress is trapped in your body. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score – Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, talks about the tripartite brain. To make a very complex subject as simple as possible, think of the brain as having three basic parts. The most primitive part of the brain is the brain stem. This is often referred to as the reptilian stem because it is the part of the nervous system that we have in common with reptiles. This is the part of the brain that Autonomic Healing Activation involves. The brain stem contains the Autonomic Nervous System; the same part of the brain that keeps your lungs breathing, your heart circulating blood, your eyes blinking and a host of other functions that keep you alive. This is also where the flight or fight reaction takes place. An important part of the Autonomic Nervous System is the Enteric Nervous System or “gut brain.” Brain cells are called neurons. What most people do not know is that there are 500 million brain cells in their gut! That is equivalent to the brain in a dog or an octopus processing information in your gut! That’s why we talk about “gut feelings” and “gut reactions.”
Stress produces neurogenic activity – involuntary sensations, movements and emotions which you may try to address with maladaptive coping behaviors. Maladaptive coping behaviors are the things you do that help you feel good but are not actually healthy for you. Stress can be caused by many things including relationships, accidents, injuries, illness, traumatic incidents like abuse or neglect or some other form of victimization and the list goes on and on. You may experience the neurogenic activity as emotional distress, unhealthy urges, aches and pains, illness, irritating nervous habits, to name a few of the possibilities. Stress trapped in the nervous system is why many people suffer from a multitude of physical, emotional and psychological ills. Stress has been compromising your well-being mentally, physically and socially! When the Autonomic Nervous System is triggered during AHA the brain stem creates involuntary sensations and movements that remove stress from the body. Some of the involuntary sensations and movements are ones you have experienced before like itching, twitching, muscles contracting and releasing, nausea, dizziness and changes in body temperature. Some will be like nothing you have ever experienced – a part of your body moving involuntarily, “energy” (nerve activity) flowing through your body, or a lack of awareness of yourself in time and space (proprioception). You may find some of the neurogenic activity may be completely beyond description. Even the medical doctors and nurses I have done AHA with are sometimes at a loss for how to describe some of the sensations and refer to it as “energy”, “light”, “waves” or “a sensation.”
There is no way to predict how long your AHA session will take to complete the removal of stress because it is the Autonomic Nervous System that controls the process. For most children/adolescents AHA is around 2 - 3 hours; adults AHA sessions average 3.5 hours with some on lasting 2 hours and others lasting 5 or more. AHA is a gradual and natural activity in which your brain removes the stress that has become trapped in your body and leaves you reactive to stress triggers. AHA is a one time intervention. Prior to your session you will complete a Stress History Form that will be emailed to you. If you do not have an email account, we can “snail mail” it to you as well. When you arrive for your Autonomic Healing Activation session we will not be reviewing or talking about your Stress History. We will go over that at the end to confirm that you are no longer triggered by recalling the experiences. As a client recently expressed it, “I just went through my list of traumas in my head and all I feel is serenity.”
Think of your body like a computer with a virus, malware and the dreaded registry errors (whatever those are!). You can take your computer to an expert who runs software that restores your computer to optimal functioning. AHA is like running the built-in software in your brain stem to remove stress that has accumulated in your body and restore maximum efficiency of functioning. It is very important to remember that all of the sensations and movements, comfortable or uncomfortable, are removing stress from your body during the somatic stress removal session. Triggering the ANS to produce the involuntary movements and sensations is like riding in a driver-less vehicle that has been in development with continuous updates over thousands and thousands of years. You as the occupant will input your destination – no more stress in my body – and the computer (the ANS) in the driver-less car (your body) will take you there. The “switch” to turn on the computer is moving your stomach – the Enteric Nervous System or “gut brain” in a particular way I will show you. Your ANS, the autopilot, will take it from there! Your job as the occupant of the driver-less vehicle is to stay alert and aware. I will help you with that. Because the involuntary activity may be internal, you will help me to keep track of the progress of your journey of stress removal by telling me what I cannot see. This will also help you stay observant and alert.
In the Four Phases of Autonomic Healing Activation (AHA) we will first briefly Assess Body Awareness; in other words, how you think about your body. We will next Activate the Homeostasis function in your Autonomic Nervous System. That is the part that takes the longest. Most of your session will involve you consciously observing your body and describing the involuntary sensations and movements. This will be much like you how you could describe the experience of the doctor checking your reflexes when your knee or elbow is struck with the little rubber hammer. You could describe the sensation in your joint and your body moving involuntarily. The involuntary sensations and movement during AHA are generated by the Autonomic Nervous System. Instead of it being triggered from the outside you will be triggering it from the inside. We will then Assess Homeostasis Completion and Review (your) Stress History.
After the session, you will know how to keep your reactivity to stress at a low level. I or one of the staff will be available to follow-up with you after the session to support your integration of AHA as a daily stress management tool!
InnerWork Somatic Psychotherapy - Autonomic Healing Activation - Post Script (AHA-PS).
Above the brain stem is the limbic system. The limbic system is often referred to as the mammalian brain because it is the part of the nervous system that we have in common with other mammals. The limbic system is the emotional brain where memories, learning and the assessment of sensory information happen. Everything that your brain is taking in through your senses is being assessed before you are even consciously aware of it. If your limbic system becomes aware of something that was once a threat to your well-being, the information stored in your body treats it as if it is a threat now and causes your Autonomic Nervous System to react. You may even develop an Acute Stress Response where everything seems like a threat and your nervous system and body over react. The problem with stress is that it triggers the limbic system to respond to “perceived threats” that may not actually be a threat but have enough in common with something that was a threat that we react to it below the level of conscious awareness. I have treated many veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One vet heard a car backfire and dove for the floor because it sounded to his limbic system like a gun shot. Another vet reacted to the color yellow because it was what he saw when a rocket hit the bunker he was sheltering in. A car backfiring and the color yellow are not actually threats to well-being but because of the prior traumatic experience trapped in the nervous system, they are perceived to be threats by the emotional brain (Limbic System) which triggered the Autonomic Nervous System in the brain stem to go on high alert!
The third part of the brain is the prefrontal lobe located behind your forehead. You can think of the prefrontal lobe as the problem-solving part of the brain. Because of the stress generated by perceptions that are not actually rational, the problem-solving part of the brain becomes the problem creating part of the brain because we attempt to “feel good” and deal with stress by thinking our way through it. At best, “thinking” (consciously using the prefrontal cortex) helps us cope with the symptoms of trapped stress. However, because stress and trauma distorts our thinking we have what I call Seemingly Rational Perceptions which under stress become more exaggerated and pronounced and generate unhealthy emotions. When we act on those emotions our behaviors are detrimental to ourselves and others. In InnerWork Psychotherapy you will discover there is an observable and consistent pattern to the SRP’s that you can then choose consciously to make Actually Rational Perceptions that generate healthy emotions and beneficial perceptions!
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact Tom with a call (970-302-3379) or email (email@example.com). If you would like to schedule your session, please contact Ivy Roush, IWPS Administrator/Research Coordinator at 720-583-9003.