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  • Writer's pictureKaren Law

Understanding why you've found 2020 so challenging!

For a large part of 2020 I was unable to offer professional massage treatments to my clients due to government restrictions because of Covid-19. Now, there are a number of misconceptions people hold about massage. Perhaps you think massage is for soothing sore, tense muscles? Or maybe you think it can be a nice bit of pampering, a luxury? I KNOW it is so much more than that and should be part of regular self care.

And society, as a rule, seems to think of mental health is separate from physical health and stigma that has long surrounded poor mental health....

I would like to share with you what I have been learning about the way human beings react to stress and trauma. In this blog post I will try to explain the science behind the work that I do. I have done the extensive reading and learning to build up my toolbox which means you can benefit from me distilling the knowledge into more readily understandable chunks.

person's hands with a mug and a laptop

My hope is that if you understand the science which supports my work you will be more inclined to seek me out to support you on your own journey to healing. This is a fairly long read so settle down with a cuppa in a comfy seat.


When we face uncertainty, anxiety and stress our brains will automatically go into survival mode. Any threat to the system has a response from the Autonomic Nervous System. This is such an automatic response that we react even before we’ve had time to think cognitively. Can we fight the threat? If not, can we run away from it? If neither is an option would the threat pass by if we play dead? As mammals this is an automatic safety mechanism. However, in our modern world the threat doesn’t come from predators like it does on the plains of Africa, for example.

If I were an antelope and caught by a lion it is clear that I’d not had a chance to outrun the predator. I was not able to fight. So I froze. This is for two reasons. If I am about to be killed freezing means that I am somewhat numbed from the inevitable. However it also means that if the lion is distracted by hyenas trying to steal the lion’s meal I have a chance to escape while the lion is busy chasing the hyenas off. So adrenaline starts back up and off I run.

4 panels of books all relating to neuroscience
just some of the reading I've done

Our bodies are designed to spend most of the time in equilibrium, feeling safe, eating and sleeping, growing and staying healthy. When I talk about our bodies I don’t mean just the physical muscles and skeleton. I also mean the brain, mind, spirit, soul... I mean everything about us that makes us unique individuals. Our brain is part of our body, not separate from it. And our mind is the way our brain has developed to think and react according to our unique set of experiences.

In our modern societies we are spending a lot of time in stress through work, relationships, health concerns, politics, pandemics.... Our bodies are living with more threat than calm equilibrium. It’s the wrong way round. I’m sure you can recognise what will happen if we don’t allow a mechanism time to recover after being overworked?

The antelope on the Savannah doesn’t walk around feeling traumatised because it was hunted by a lion. It escaped, it took time to allow the energy created by adrenaline to release and then it went back to grazing, sleeping and being watchful for further threat. The chase it experienced lasted just a few minutes out of that day. The rest of the time was spent doing whatever it is that antelope do. It doesn’t overthink what just happened or avoid the natural ways it’s body reacts.

lioness walking along a dirt track through dry grass

As humans we don’t always give our bodies the time to process anything that caused stress, anxiety and uncertainty. We tend to stop ourselves from shaking or trembling, as it is seen as a negative thing. We often don’t have a safe place to talk about our experience with someone who will not judge or try to ‘fix’ it.

Many of us are unable to come back to equilibrium because the stress is ongoing. Something highlighted during 2020 for sure!! Those who experience a traumatic event may not have a chance to process what happened in a place where they feel safe and heard. Whether it’s a chronic situation or an acute event the body is not getting a chance to come back to equilibrium. The autonomic nervous system is overworked. It’s now always on the lookout for danger. From smells, sounds, sights etc it remembers and associates with an acute event to just not getting a chance to switch the alarm bell off in chronic stress.

A giant Supercomputer!

The amygdala is the part of the brain that is that alarm bell. When stressed or traumatised it is either going off at the slightest trigger or it can’t be turned off at all, it would seem. Have you ever tried thinking when an alarm has been triggered by mistake? Making sense and acting reasonably becomes quite hard with that sound overwhelming the senses. We need to reset the alarm and stop it reacting incorrectly.

Our subconscious mind is part of the autonomic nervous system. It’s all part of the way our bodies work without our need to consciously instruct it. We don’t tell our heart to pump. We don’t even think about how to walk once we have learned how to do so. If you drive can you recall what it was like when you were learning? Every manoeuvre required undivided attention at first. But now you drive so automatically that if you drive a new vehicle with the gear stick in a different position you will keep reaching for it where it was in the previous vehicle. It takes time and repetition to get used to the new layout. But the brain is adaptable so you learn the new layout. And we simply carry on with our lives, with our subconscious mind working 100% of the time as a giant supercomputer. We use our cognitive brain to think about tasks about 5% of the time, more like your small basic home computer.

3D 'wire model' type drawing of head and shoulders with motherboard background, light and waves

It becomes very hard to make lasting change if we just access the 5%. This is why will power isn’t always enough. You may be considering a New Years Resolution to change a habit. Habits are within the subconscious mind though so you might now understand why it’s not always easy to make that change you wished for. It needs more than just will power. It needs resolve, time, repetition, support. The subconscious mind has been programmed to believe that it needs the habit to keep safe.

People often self medicate the pain of stress and trauma

Many people discover substances which provide temporary feelings of safety, warmth and calm. They might then require these substances regularly to maintain those nice feelings. These range from legal things like coffee and alcohol to comfort food. They might be more of an internal substance created by hormones released through self harm such as nail biting or cutting. Or they may be more harmful substances like prescription or illegal drugs. This is why stopping the consumption of any of these just through will power is incredibly hard. Our subconscious is used to feeling safe when we consume whatever it is that each of us has found helps us. Stopping it means our subconscious feels unsafe again and we need that fix.

Whether you struggle to stop the sweets and sticky buns or whether you are addicted to medications or the rush from gambling, say, it is because your brain is trying to feel safe.

Gabor Maté says that not everyone who has experienced trauma will go on to become addicted but that everyone who is addicted has been traumatised. And we tend to think of addicts as those people whose addiction harms others. But addiction is also when we can’t reduce the number of coffees in our day. Or stop that nail biting habit. Or shop compulsively. And much, much more.

Stress, anxiety and uncertainty leads us to find coping mechanisms to feel better. It is exacerbated if we experienced adversity in childhood. Stress and trauma in adulthood is likely to trigger negative coping patterns and beliefs set in childhood. Our brains have the most intense programming during the first 7 years of life, continuing to develop and grow until our mid twenties. Throughout the rest of adult life neuroplasticity means that it will continue to evolve. It can still be affected adversely BUT it can also heal.

The Trauma Bucket

This means that we can reset that alarm bell that is going off to signal danger. We might be able to stop it temporarily with the habit we find works for us, but it keeps going off again and sometimes we end up trying other ways to stop it. This is why many people find that addictive behaviours increase and need stronger substances to ‘work’. The mechanism is the same though whether we are dealing with a coffee or shopping habit or taking hard drugs. This is why the War on Drugs doesn’t work. It’s a war on damaged people. They need to feel safe again. They need a way to reset their alarm.

Trauma is something that is not simply a shocking event. Trauma is also the day to day effects on the mind/body from stress. So don’t think that because you didn’t experience something horrendous that you can’t be reacting to trauma. We all have capacity to deal with life and you could think of a bucket or container as holding that capacity. Notice a tap at the bottom of this container. If it is working well the container can be drained. All experiences go into this container. If we did not open the tap to drain it the container will become full and it might not take much for it to overflow. Each time we drain the container we provide space. We create resilience. It means that we can calm down easily after a stressful situation or we might have enough strength to deal with a significant issue. However, if our container is full and the tap isn’t working we don’t have any resilience and will react quickly to even the smallest stress which we might previously have shrugged off.

Keeping the tap open can be fairly simple. It’s largely down to self care for most of us. Good sleep hygiene, eating well, staying hydrated should be obvious. But safe, appropriate human interaction is vital. That involves face to face contact, often with touch. From handshakes and hugs through to hair cuts and professional massages as human beings we are designed to have an element of touch in society.

You matter

bright baby room, with cot and soft toys

However many people have not been primed to accept touch. Birth and parenting practices since the industrial revolution really did not understand the need for secure attachment. Over medicalised birth, gadgets, modern work and living conditions and clever marketing have all led to many parents being isolated and stressed, causing unintended neglect of the biological requirements of young babies and children.

Still other people have been harmed by very inappropriate touch. It is therefore very important that everyone is mindful to be respectful and seek permission to touch others. As a massage therapist I recognise the research that shows how important touch is to us but I am also very aware of how some people are justifiably wary of touch. So you might now understand why I've been adding alternative qualifications to my tool box. I really want to be able to help you transform your life. During 2020 we have faced an unprecedented new challenge to our lives which has affected the very way human beings are designed to interact with each other. And as we head into 2021 is doesn't look like it will get any easier in the near future. How do you think you're going to cope?

So no matter what level of trauma you have experienced over the course of your life get in touch to discuss your needs. I have built up a toolbox, all based on the latest neuroscience, which forms a rounded package of therapies to be chosen according to your individual circumstances. Together we can work on the issues you've been dealing with across your life and help you move on from 2020! If you require therapy outwith my skillset I will signpost you to someone more suitably qualified. Your safety is my utmost priority.

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