Finding the Source of Stress and Trauma

How You Can Pinpoint the Causes of Stress in Your Life and Eliminate Them.

stress, trauma, Somatic Experiencing

photo by Betty Miller

Quite often, we think stress comes from what is going on around us. But more often than not, current feelings of stress are the same feelings we experienced in events that happened long ago, events that may not have been significant enough to have remained in our memories. The reactions we had to them in the past can remain active in the present, whether we realize it or not.

Recently, I had a client, a retired nurse, get confrontational with me. Now it isn’t unusual for people who are releasing trauma to get angry and act aggressively. Normally I have no difficulty with this. But for some reason—perhaps because she was particularly nasty, or maybe it was the way her nostrils flared—whatever the reason, she pissed me off.

Even though I finished our session in a calm manner, I continued to feel shaky and perturbed for days later. Finally, after a week of continually thinking back on it and getting upset, I realized that something from the past was skulking around inside me and trying to make itself known.

Ever since I was a child, I have felt anxious whenever I’m around someone I consider to be an authority. When a teacher spoke harshly to me, I cringed. Whenever a professor criticized a speech or paper I had written, I would coil up inside myself to hide. In fact, I dropped many classes throughout my college years due to criticisms. (Interestingly, written criticisms didn’t bother me—only ones delivered orally.) Even now, at 60 years old, whenever I’m in a workshop and a trainer strolls by to watch me practice a technique, I shiver inside with dread and fear.

Although I’ve explored these feelings over the years, my ongoing reaction to this client told me that something was still going on. I needed a session of Somatic Experiencing for myself. So I turned to Terri, a friend of mine, who is also a SE Practitioner.

During my session, I immediately started to get sleepy as I talked about the encounter with the client. I began to drift away and feel lightheaded as nausea pushed my stomach around. Soon, I slipped into a sleep-like state. After several minutes of this, a memory surfaced. When I was 10 years old, I had my wisdom teeth extracted and remembered being woken up by a nurse standing over me, her huge face right above mine as I came out of the anesthesia, screaming at me, “Larry wake up!  Wake up now!” She had yanked me out of a dreamy state and scared the hell out of me.

As I sat in the chair and remembered this, I became aware of an urge to turn my head to the side, as if away from her. As I followed the movement and let my head turn, another urge arose–to push away with my hands. So I slowly allowed my hands to make that movement and push away as if I were pushing her away. Immediately, my body collapsed into a profound relaxation.

I rested there for a few minutes and then slowly became more alert. I raised my head and looked at Terri sitting across from me. But I was still spacey and only vaguely aware of her. Suddenly, another wave of sleepiness overtook me, and I nodded off. In the sleep state another memory emerged. I’m a child lying in a hospital bed as an angry nurse stands over me and shakes me, angrily yelling at me to “Stop it!”

This again brought on an urge to turn away, which I allowed my body to do. It too was followed by an urge to push her away, which I did, miming the act I had wanted to perform as a child but couldn’t.

And once again, I collapsed into a profound relaxation and sense of peace. After about five minutes, my energy gathered itself together and I sat up straight, feeling stronger, fully composed, and aware of the room and Terri, who smiled back at me.

What it All Meant:

During my early childhood, I had had several hospitalizations. While I lay in a vulnerable state, these nurses had acted in a way that had much more impact on me than I would have expected. Both of them aroused terror in me by their actions, which had then evoked the urge to get away from them, which I couldn’t. Finally, the urge to protect myself by pushing them away had kicked in. The two incidents had produced first fear and then the reactions of flight and fight—the hallmarks of trauma.

So throughout my life, whenever I encountered someone who had authority over me, like my teachers, or someone like my client, who acted like the nurses, my body rallied those same old feelings from the past and sent emotional signals to my brain to protect myself the way I had wanted to in those original experiences.


By completing the movements I had never been able to complete as a child—the need to turn away and then push away—I was able to finally release the feelings that took over whenever someone in authority watched me work.


Weeks later, I had the opportunity to test the results. I was at a training helping assist other therapists to learn how to treat traumas. Suddenly, I felt the trainer approach and stand behind me, watching what I was doing.  What happened? Nothing. No fear: no stress. I did my job and felt just fine.


Finally, I knew, those nurses had been laid to rest.



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