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Why Are Some People Flooded With Intense Sensations, Emotions, and Shut Down?

Deep survival impulses may play a key role. When I learned about Global High Intensity Activation (GHIA) from Somatic Experiencing (SE) trauma healing, it helped me tremendously with certain clients.

“GHIA… involves massive stimulation and arousal of the entire central nervous system…. the entire organism moves toward end-stage survival responses.”

People with GHIA can go from zero to 100 quickly with reactions like fear, anxiety, crying, and rage that take a long time to settle. The activation lodges in the torso, affecting our organs, lungs, heart, and digestion. Everything in the body clenches up and clamps down in an attempt to regulate. It can feel uncontrollable, endless, and inconsolable, leading to self-preservation shutdown/freeze.

What May Cause GHIA?

Traumas that can form GHIA include prenatal or maternal stress including anxiety/depression, drugs or toxins in the womb, being unwanted, prematurity, neglect, medical procedures, separation from mother as an infant.

An infant needs co-regulation from settled, responsive caregivers to act as the ventral vagal (soothing) system. This develops a parasympathetic (rest down) capacity to self-soothe. With GHIA, that capacity is lacking or not well-developed.

GHIA can also form when breathing is compromised from drowning, high fever, or sustained high stress such as growing up with racism, poverty, and war, plus any trauma that shocks the entire body like intense drug and near-death experiences. This blog focuses on GHIA related to womb or preverbal traumas.

Patterns and Reactions

GHIA can be a deep constant in the background, causing big reactions to life stressors. It can intensify unexpectedly in new relationships, with authority figures, during long meditations, and through life transitions such as getting married, having a baby, divorce, death of a loved one, a new job, moving, etc.

Some with GHIA avoid high arousal by keeping busy with work or excessive exercise. Others may be chronically collapsed or depressed. Still, others hold back arousal with high muscular tension and strong will, pushing through things without discerning when it’s too much, unable to accept limitations. It’s common to flip between two or three of these GHIA presentations.

Because of early and profound systemic dysregulation, some with GHIA are more prone to inflammation and autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, asthma, IBS, skin and digestive issues, migraines, ADHD, and OCD.

Insights from NARM

Since NARM (Neuro-Affective Relational Model™ for healing attachment, relational, and developmental trauma) is foundational in my work, I’d like to share some insights I see related to GHIA from the book Healing Developmental Trauma by my NARM teacher Laurence Heller, PhD, and Aline LaPierre, PsyD, my teacher in Neuro-Affective Touch.

An infant’s reaction to early developmental or shock trauma is one of overwhelmingly high arousal and terror. The vulnerable infant, who can neither fight nor flee, cannot discharge the high arousal caused by the uncontrollable threat and reacts with physiological constriction, contraction, core withdrawal, and immobility/freeze. This state of continual sympathetically dominant global high arousal remains in the nervous system into adulthood.

For adults, this may manifest as constant underlying nameless dread, fear of death, phobias, real or perceived deficiencies, or a persistent threat projecting onto the current environment. Managing external conditions to feel safe doesn’t work. Many cope by living in their heads or dissociating from their bodies.

In the NARM model, connection is the first developmental theme, including belonging in the world (right to exist) and a longing for connection. But a deep fear of it, resulting from feeling unloved, unprotected, and unsupported in the first stage of life, can lead to a tendency to isolate and feel alone.

Working with GHIA

Reactive patterns may show up in all aspects of life or several areas. It’s important to catch the sympathetic nervous system arousal from a thought/feeling/sensation before it spikes. Because the dysregulation underneath drives huge reactions, we work with patterns rather than specific events or content.

I support clients in recognizing their patterns—what triggers them, where they show up in the body (often in the midline: throat, chest, belly, pelvis) with a quality of buzziness and urgency. The goal is to interrupt the pattern by grounding, orienting, resourcing, and self-touch. It’s important to notice and stretch out the small shifts and how it feels to not be caught.

Noticing little bits of down-regulation, even for 5 seconds, is important to break the pattern repeatedly. The interoception (how we sense ourselves internally) provides feedback to the reptilian brain that we are not stuck; we are a little bit safer. Research shows that these bits can accumulate and build momentum for bigger shifts.

When clients have enough capacity, we address the survival energy underneath the chronic freeze/collapse, discharging little bits at a time. I share words from SE teacher Dr. Abi Blakeslee. "Fear is a physiological state; the feeling of terror in the body are sensations of a time you felt fear a long time ago; stay with what's happening now. You had to dissociate to survive, and now you can take some time to release some of that charge/terror (titrated, with skilled guidance)."

Working with GHIA is long, slow work. I encourage clients to practice daily, down-regulating exercises to unbrace, taking in moments of ease many times to break the pattern of high sympathetic, nurturing rest/digest with good sleep and eating habits, etc., reconnecting with their aliveness bit by bit.

With deep gratitude for all my teachers.

Brianna Lia Ho, MBA, BBA-PSYC is a NARM Master Practitioner & Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, also certified in Integral Somatic Psychology as well as in spiritual counseling with the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. She’s also trained in somatic attachment work including Transforming the Experienced-Based Brain & Somatic Resilience Regulation, and Neuro-Affective Touch. She sees clients internationally on Zoom.

Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a psychotherapist or mental health counselor. The info above is not a substitute for licensed medical, psychological or psychiatric help.

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