Getting to Know Sarah
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and polyvagal certified coach. I work with inner child healing and attachment work to help people heal their trauma.
An interesting fact about you?
I love scuba diving. It’s one of my favourite things to do!
Sarah’s Mental Health Story
Are there any turning points in your life where you didn’t feel the best with your mental health?
For me, it was a really difficult experience from the time I entered the world until my mid-20s. I had an unsafe home; there were neglect and sexual abuse that was long-standing. When I went to college, I deeply went into a shutdown place which is what I did in my early childhood too.
That is called our dorsal vagal complex – our state of shutdown. When we are there, at the light end, it’s apathy and not really caring; at the deep end, it’s disassociation with our body. And I spent a majority of my life not in my body.
I remember I was sitting in a therapist office and the therapist said to me: how did you get here today? I didn’t know. I had no idea how I had walked into his office, looking into the mirror not knowing who that person was, or sitting in a chair not knowing the difference between me and it, and not wanting to be there. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be alive, but because the perpetual pain of trauma that was stored in my body felt too much to be with.
Better Me, Better Life
What support systems do you have?
Receiving support was one of the hardest things for me. I’d have experiences where I let friends close and push them away. I also went through seeing lots of different therapists, some were good and some not so good, until I landed in finding somatic work.
Somatic work is so imperative in healing trauma. When it started happening to me, things began to shift, and I’ve been on about 13-year experience in my healing journey. I do want folks to know it doesn’t mean you have to sit in a therapist office for 13 years, but instead, healing is individuated to each of us.
I took breaks at certain points. And now I continue to receive and give somatic support. I work with a practitioner of my own and I’m mentored by a couple of people. I have friends, colleagues who I’ve done training with and have become my family in a lot of ways, and my two dogs!
How can we build a strong support network?
Within us, there are many young parts, not just the adult parts of us. If those young parts have yet to be addressed and get the healing they deserve, what happens is they are still navigating the world and what happened back then as if it’s happening now. I say that because if you’re saying to yourself: I have a couple of friends but why do I still feel so unsafe or unconnected? That can be a part of it.
The other thing is it also depends on our primary attachment style, which is a direct result of how our primary childhood caregiver related to us. If they weren’t able to attune with and create safety for us, what happens is we create this adaptive attachment style. If my caregiver was dangerous and neglectful, I may be avoidant in my attachment style, and so it might be hard for me to reach out for support.
If you have a really hard time asking for support, that may be why. Or, if you feel like you can’t do it on your own and you need someone else all the time, that may be indicative of a more anxious predominant attachment style.
I just want people to know it makes sense. If it’s really hard to get support, it means it either wasn’t safe or unavailable in the past. Because that was sure my experience.
What are some steps to take to seek help, if we don’t know how to ask for help or are afraid to do so?
What I’d invite you to do is first, and most importantly, come into safety. That means having relative safety in your life – in where you live in, with the people you have relations to. Then, get support from someone whom your nervous system registers as safe. What it means is even if someone checks all the boxes, but when you sit down with them you don’t feel entirely safe, like not feeling heard or understood, that might be an indicator that it’s not the right person for you to do your work with.
Safety in the therapeutic alliance is so imperative. What I’d also invite you to do is when you’re in a state of ventral vagal complex (the state of presence and safety), ask yourself: what is it that I want in this moment? What is it that I need? In that moment it might be I’m thirsty. Great, but what informs you of that? Get out of cognition and go into an embodied experience of what tells me that I’m thirsty?
Then, get in touch with the deep emotions that you feel, maybe loneliness. Ask yourself in the same way what do I want? It might be connection. And that’s not being informed by cognition, it’s an embodied experience of knowing what’s happening inside you which informs your needs, limits, and desires. And part of healing is coming back to that embodied experience.
Let’s say I’m in a relationship and starting to get angry, that’s a cue of unmet needs. I’d invite you to think about: what are the things I feel angry about in the relationship? Can I get in touch with what’s underneath it? Is it the unmet need of wanting your partner to ask you how your day was or wanting to be validated in your experience?
So, begin by getting curious and come into contact with your needs, limits, desires and then what informs you internally about those things.
Sarah’s Wellbeing Recipe
What does mental health wellness mean or look like to you?
Mental health wellness is being in the embodied experience of myself, being able to be present in the here and now where I feel safe to connect with myself and the world around me. The goal of all healing is for that to happen.
What is your daily self-care routine? Any practice you’d recommend?
For me, every morning I listen to a guided meditation, even if I have 5 minutes or half an hour to sit down. I’d always try to bring in connection with another person whether that’s saying hello to someone or face-timing with a friend.
Try to get support or things that can help your body to come back to the here and now. Things like animals, being in nature, doing yoga, watching kids play, meditation, or watching a tv show where you connect with the characters – all of these are so helpful in coming back here and now.
Each time we come close to regulation – meaning we’re here and now and I feel safe – that’s called a neural exercise. The more we do that, the more we reshape our nervous system, which means I spend less time in active self-protective places where anxiety frustration live or shutdown state where depression and disassociation live.
How does Somatic Healing help with our mental wellness?
Although cognitive healing (e.g. CBT, DBT, traditional talk therapy) can be very beneficial, where it becomes problematic is that they alone will not be able to free us from our trauma that’s stuck in our body.
Here’s why. Trauma is not a cognitive experience, it’s an embodied experience that lies in our autonomic nervous system. It isn’t about the event but the overwhelmed stimulation in my body as a result of the event. The thing is, you can’t talk yourself out of that because your autonomic nervous system doesn’t understand the cognitive language. If you ever said to yourself: just calm down, don’t be afraid, that doesn’t work, it often makes you feel more activated. That’s because our autonomic nervous system doesn’t understand the verbal cues. What it does understand is the felt sense.
So, somatic intervention can support us in gently processing through that overwhelming energy in our system. Instead of being engulfed by it, what we want to do is: can I stay present to just a little bit of that experience so that it can leave my body for good, until I no longer have that lived trauma inside of me anymore.
Here’s what that’d look like. Let’s say I was sexually abused as a child. And in my adult relationships, anytime I want to be sexually intimate with my partner, I freeze, panic, and go into shutdown. That’s all happening because trauma is lived in the here and now, and so the protective part of us is saying: that’s dangerous, something bad is going to happen.
When we do somatic healing, what can happen is I get to a place where I go to have a sexual experience with my partner and I no longer have activation about it, I can actually just be present in my body and enjoy that. And all of that happens in an embodied way.
To All of You Who Are Reading
Any final words of wisdom to our readers who are struggling with unhealed trauma?
The most important thing of healing is to know it makes sense, and you are completely unbroken. The truth is there’s absolutely nothing wrong with each of us. Everything we’re doing is for a specific reason. The activation or shutdown that we feel is to keep us safe and alive, even though it can cause so much pain at the same time.
If we’re able to actively safe protect like that for decades at times, we most certainly can take tolerable steps, and one step at a time, toward coming into safety and healing. That’s possible for all of us.
Here’s where you can find Sarah:
Check out her programs and courses here: https://home.sarahbaldwincoaching.com/