Content warning for discussion of trauma and sexual assault.
Trauma is a term we’re all becoming more familiar with, but what do we really mean when we talk about trauma? And are there experiences in our lives that may not be considered traumatic, that still get in the way of our feeling of safety and wholeness in the world?
To dive into the relationships between experience, emotion, and the nervous system, we interviewed Kimberly Ann Johnson, Sexological Bodyworker, Somatic Experiencing practitioner, and yoga instructor, who has devoted her life and work to discovering the answers when it comes to this complex issue.
Through her courses, work with clients, and her books The Fourth Trimester and her newest release, Call of the Wild, Kimberly seeks to change the world by helping women hear what their bodies are really telling them – and in doing so, access their own instinctual ability to heal and thrive. We were thrilled to sit down with her for a wide-ranging chat about the nervous system, trauma, and somatic approaches to healing.
Kimberly Ann Johnson
Foria: What were some of your inspirations for writing Call of the Wild?
Kimberly Johnson: My main inspiration is my daughter. She's 13. I want her to live in a different world, that I also want to belong to. And so I figured I better get started, since she's 13. I thought if I got to it before she was a teenager, maybe I could lay the foundation.
[Also] the Me Too movement, the second tier of it that started in 2017, hearing so many women express their “me too” experiences. I was not surprised because I already worked in sexual health. But then I had a lot of men calling me too, telling me about their experiences and asking me if what they had done was wrong, and what they could do to repair.
Then I saw a lot of women telling their stories, and as a nervous system specialist coach, I just knew [that] it's getting showered all over social media where there’s so much exposure, and it needs a place to get metabolized. And because I'd worked with so many women helping them repair their birth trauma, sexual traumas, gynecological surgeries, I know what the process is to help them.
I was like, “Okay, I'm gonna have to do this on a larger scale,” which led me to teach the classes and then led me to write the book. But on the bigger scale, in my own life journey, my first big-T trauma was being sexually assaulted in college. And that's when my world got flipped upside down. Nothing that made sense to me anymore. And I did what a lot of people do; I went on a big trip to try to understand if I could take care of myself, even in situations that seemed dangerous, and [understand] my own relationship to male authority, and deconstructing that relationship in a lot of different areas of my life.
There’s been a lot of public conversation about trauma in recent years. It’s an interesting question, because people mean different things when they say “trauma”. What’s your definition of trauma?
Trauma is an incomplete physiological process in the nervous system. It's leftover stress responses that haven't had a chance to make their full cycle. So it's not an event. You can't say “this thing is traumatic.” I know it is becoming colloquial as well, where people say “I'm so traumatized by this or by that,” and they might be. But it's never really defined by the thing that happened. It's defined by how our own system is able to metabolize that thing that happened. And it's not always totally predictable, because our mind doesn't get to decide how our body responds to something.
So I was in a car accident the other day. And there's never great timing for a car accident, but it felt like terrible timing, because I was just about to have my book launch, and it was basically the busiest week of my life. And I watched myself as I got out of my car, already trying to make meaning of it, and already going “Oh, is this my nervous system?” And “I can't handle the amount that's going on.” And other people said to me, “Oh, I guess the universe is sending you a sign to slow down.” And I was like “Yeah, or I just got in a car accident.” And even though I know a lot about trauma, and I help people heal from trauma, it still took me quite some time to let my own system recalibrate.
I knew how to do it, but I was also noticing “oh, I already want to make meaning out of this, and I'm in the middle of it. And actually my own system hasn’t metabolized this yet.” And I called a friend of mine, and he said “well, I can come.” And I really wanted him to, but I felt like “well, why should I need someone to come take care of me?” But that's actually what I wanted. So I said, “Yeah, please do.” And then he came, and then the police came, and I cried when I was talking to the police. And I'd rather not be crying talking to the police, but that's what my body was doing.
And then I kept putting my hand on my solar plexus and my guts, and I felt kind of sick to my stomach. But I'm like, “why do I keep doing this?” And then another friend came – I happen to have lots of friends who are bodyworkers – and said, “Oh, yeah, that's the seatbelt. That happens with a lot of people, when your body's remembering the impact of the seatbelt, and your stomach and your liver are trying to find their right organization again.”
And then I was able to just lay down for a while and just let all of myself catch up. And in my mind, it's like “I was just in a fenderbender, no big deal. You're good, move on.” But my body had a different pace that it needed to go through the whole cycle with.
Can you expand a little bit on the idea of “making meaning”?
Definitely. As a species, we're constantly trying to make meaning out of things. [For] a lot of my clients it’s very frustrating, because they actually have a really good sense of the core pieces of their narrative, of what the role of their mom and dad was in how they constructed their personality, or in what behavioral patterns they have, but they're not able to change them. And they're living in that meaning-making cycle all the time. It’s not a meaning that's emergent from sensory input. It's a meaning that's emergent-based on what our brain and mind are putting together in a sequence.
Part of the goal of talk therapy is to have a cohesive personal narrative. Definitely, as a species, that's what we do. Since the beginning of whenever we could talk, we were telling stories and passing on information through archetypes and storytelling. But this compulsion to make meaning out of things can really rob us of our felt sense, and present-moment experience.
And there's a difference between a mind that constructs meaning, and meaning that's emergent out of an experience. I have so many clients that are very insightful, and they get insights all the time, but their life in the material plane isn't changing. It isn't reflecting what those insights might be. They're still having the same kinds of relationships, or they're still not making enough money, or they're still frustrated with physical symptoms and syndromes.
The kind of work I do is, it's not so straightforward as to just do affirmations and list your life goals and get more willpower. There's a belief, and a reliance, that our bio-intelligence is much more powerful than our brain.
What would you tell someone who feels themselves stuck in a loop of constructing narratives around their experiences? How can they more readily tap into their physical experience in the body?
I think first, it’s a matter of noticing. A lot of people know their thoughts are driving them crazy, and they've come to realize that even their good thoughts, or all their creative ideas, aren't really helping them feel like they have more energy or an overall sense of more purpose or more access to pleasure.
There's a lot of different ways you can come into the language of sensation. And you can do that either by external sensory input, like playing around with different kinds of sensations, whether that's textures or visuals or music. And you can also try checking your own internal sensation. Sometimes if you've had a lot of trauma and the site of trauma has been your body, your body doesn't feel like a safe place to be. Sometimes it's a hard place to start without some support.
And if you feel like you spend a lot of time dissociated or outside of your body, then you might want to start with something that's more skin-layer. So really kind of contacting your own contour, because your skin is your external layer between you – what you call you – and the world. So sometimes to come back all the way in is too far, but we can come back to the superficial layer.
I'm a big fan of vaginal steaming, [but even if you don’t have a vulva], we all have perineums. So people of all genders can steam. If you've had negative experiences with your genitals, which most people have, you can have something that's warm, that smells good, and that has a healing feeling. So just coming back into something that feels good.
I really love breathing. I actually co-founded a breath collective called Our Breath Collective, and there's about 200 of us that breathe together every day for 12 minutes. Longer breathwork sessions are often 60 minute, 75 minute sessions. If someone's just coming home to their body, I would recommend smaller increments.
I also love ice bathing, because it's a pretty strong somatic experience that, for me, just erases my front brain. I always joke like, “I need a frontal lobotomy, my mind's driving me crazy.” Once you go in the ice, you just forget everything. And then you're focus gets immediately redirected to your body. Those are some ideas.
The other thing I think is really important is as we talk to one another, we realize how much of our attention is in our own system and how much of it is with someone else, because our tendency is to leave our own system and be overly engaged in the other person’s system. And then we don't know what's originating from us and what's originating out there in the world.
So a system that's highly activated in sympathetic response under threat is only going to seek out information to confirm its state. It's only going to find bad news, it's only going to find people who are wrong and people who are doing bad things, like confirmation that the world is not a safe place.
In polyvagal theory, we say that story follows state. So our state, which is our nervous system state – how safe or how threatened we feel – is going to determine the story that we're telling, the words that we say, our narrative about something. So that's where that meaning thing comes in, again, is like, how can we trust the meaning if we're in a dysregulated state? We really can't.
And we know this, because we have people in our lives who are exaggerating this, you have people in your life that always have bad news to tell you. And that's telling you about their own internal state, because that's the only information that they retrieve, because the world is filled with all different kinds of information. And that's the information that their system seeks out.
It sounds like this can be an issue especially for women and people who are socialized as women, because we're trained to excessively identify with the people around us, as opposed to actually being conscious and cognizant of where we are a lot of the time.
Definitely. So one thing that's really different about my book is bringing estrogen into this conversation. Estrogen is a bonding hormone, it's a hormone that females have, so that we ensure the survival of the species, so that we care about the health of a group, and so that our young have attunement, and are regulated through our facial expressions and through the fine muscles of our face. And so on.
The flip side of that is that we're hyper-attuned to how other people feel, and how a group feels. And so we tend to either fawn, which is to be super-nice and try to appease people, in order that we don't feel threatened, because a disconnect can feel like a survival threat. Or we camouflage and we don't say what we really think. And we just behave like everyone in our social group, whether that's our relationship, or family or religion, or where we live, so that we don't stand out, because if we were gonna stand out, then again, we might get hurt.
So that's mostly what my work is about, how I help [people] who identify as women specifically, but I think it really applies to anyone who's in a place of less structural power, and how we come back into our own system. Every single person, no matter what your identity is, has much more power than we think we do available to us in our system. Of course, relative to the structure of power, that's not the case. And we have different levels of safety based on all of our identifying characteristics.
My hope is that when we activate more power within ourselves, then we can use it for good, then we're not in collapse. In the same breath, I don't like the word “responsibility”, because that goes to the meme of “pull up your bootstraps”. [But] who else has responsibility for our nervous system? It's our nervous system, it's our body. And as a culture, we can take collective responsibility. And hopefully, that's what we're starting to do so that people who have less power that we have things in place so that we all feel safe.
Does everyone experience trauma? And how do you know if you have trauma to work through?
This is a really big question. The best way that I know to explain it is that there's different kinds of traumas. So I would say that as a human being, a human animal, that almost everyone has experienced some kind of trauma.
But it also depends on how we define it. And to me, trauma is a part of being human. Healing is also a part of being human. Especially because we, as a species, are living so out of tune with the natural world at this point, we've created a culture that's really disconnected from the earth from the natural cycles of even seasons of the year, simple things like how we eat, how we manage our menstrual cycles, how we manage fertility, all of those things have been very sterilized and manicured in a way.
So it's hard to be an undomesticated animal in a domesticated world. I consider our original essence, some people might call it your soul, your blueprints, and you come into the world with your original blueprint. And then we go through life, and we have experiences that stick that aren't metabolized, we have the ones that just glom on, and they shape us as we go forward. In some circumstances, those are traumas.
We're not ever trying to get rid of those imprints, because those are the things that make you who you are, they make me who I am. Maybe some of those imprints even came with us from our ancestry. But we want to be able to loosen the charge that they have, the grip they have on us, so that they're not dimming the expression of that blueprint, so that they're not muting our ability to have full access to our life force.
You talk about how we use our executive function so much that we lose touch with our biological urges. Why is this important and foundational to your work?
Our culture has so many reasons for us to override what our body's telling us. It can be as simple as [needing to] get up from the computer and go to the bathroom, and we don't do it. We sit and keep working and keep working until we're desperate. And an animal doesn't have to sit around and think about when it's hungry. It doesn't have to do anything special to make itself poop. It sleeps when it's tired, it wakes up and finds food.
But as humans, we're having a really hard time with these basic functions. We're having a hard time birthing, we're having a hard time with fertility. And these are all just our biological, physiological survival functions. But somehow we believe so much in technology, and we believe this neocortical functioning can outsmart our body and how our body works.
So I'm starting to think that maybe I’m a relic of the past, as someone who wants to be a homo sapien, and actually thinks that there are advantages. In order for us to really tend to our nervous systems, we have to slow down. We'd have to create more of a communal culture, because it's not viable for us to live by ourselves and fulfill all these functions alone.
It's the body that's always telling the truth. It's the body that's slowing us down. It's the body that's coming in knocking at our door, saying “hey, listen, listen, listen.”
Because trauma is such a varied personal experience, we highly encourage anyone who is interested to work with trained somatic therapists and practitioners.
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