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Shock: How It Limits Our Lives, What We Can Do About It – by Peggy Rubin interviewing Karlton Terry

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Karlton Terry is a pre- and perinatal educator, and the head of the Consulate Healing Center, a naturopathic, holistic healing center, in Denver, Colorado. Peggy Rubin, of the Center for Sacred Theatre in Ashland, conducted this interview in January 2001.


PEGGY: You do a great deal of teaching and also private work with individuals around shock. What is shock, and how did you get involved?

KARLTON: Shock is an inhibiting pattern held in the psyche and the body after someone has experienced a shocking event—one that has caused actual, clinical shock. An extreme version of this is what is called post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s why Vietnam vets have flashbacks. It might also be why Mrs. Jones persistently forgets her keys or loses her wallet. We are all affected by shock. I have yet to meet a soul who does not carry some amount of unresolved shock. And until shock is resolved, folks often have significant areas in their lives where they are stuck and inhibited.

The study of shock and its psychological impacts is one of William Emerson’s most advanced and significant bodies of work. No psychological or body-oriented therapy that I know of has the level of consciousness or understanding of the phenomenon that one finds within the Emerson community, especially among his advanced colleagues.

In the course of accelerating my own therapeutic process, I undertook several forms of therapy over a ten-year period. I attended just about every kind of advanced course I could get into, some of which required practicing techniques with clients. William Emerson’s trainings were the best in terms of incorporating the scientific as well as the spiritual aspects of the processes that take place around birth and during the time in womb—which is when the earliest and deepest patterns in our bodies and minds are laid down. I found I had a natural talent for this work, and my private practice has grown through referrals. I am totally immersed in William’s work, and at the same time, I am beginning to expand on certain areas where I have particular interests and am adding some of my own new material.

William Emerson emphasizes the difference between trauma and shock. He has also devised different treatments for each. What are these differences?

Differentiation between trauma and shock in both diagnosis and treatment is critical because shock does not respond to classic therapeutic techniques. Shock is more severe than trauma, and it is held in the body and in the psyche in stubborn and often non-logical ways. Trauma is easier to treat, is often more linear and logical in the way it is held in the body and psyche, and responds well to cathartic processes and other forms of therapy. A trained facilitator can determine whether a person is carrying shock or trauma around a given issue and can help the person with the appropriate therapeutic technique.

How do these differences manifest in people’s lives?

Trauma is more short-lived in the experiential realm; it is more like an irritant or serious inconvenience. Shock is thematically bigger, keeping us really stuck.

In your years of work in this field, have you sensed that the number of shocking experiences is growing—that people are having a harder time, for example, being born and giving birth without shock?

The human condition is shocking: it’s almost impossible to get through embodiment and birth without being shocked. No doubt things like the effects of the population explosion and unconscious acts of aggression seem to be getting worse and worse, but I find it hard to say that shocking experiences are definitely on the increase.

What is more important to understand—and what most people don’t realize—is that the quantity of shock we carry is affected by how many resources we had and how defensible our bodies and psyches were at the very beginning of life. Developing fetuses, for example, are much more defenseless than newborn babies and can be much more easily shocked by something that might only be traumatizing or even benign to an adult. A baby who is the result of a violent rape and gestates in the womb of a crack-addicted, unmarried teenager will have been conceived and gestated in shock—very different from a wanted, consciously conceived baby whose mom is happily married and eats healthily.

As fetuses in utero, both will be more vulnerable to shock than a month-old baby, but one of the fetuses has more resources. Once we have been shocked, we are highly vulnerable to shocking events—particularly ones that are thematically similar to the original shocking event—until the shock is resolved. Nowadays there are many more obstetrical interventions than ever before—Caesarean sections, the administering of drugs, and so on. These are shocking to the baby, and we are finding that they are often unnecessary.

However, I have done volunteer work in urban elementary and middle schools, and I have studied photographs of school children in the early 1900s in the U.S. in both urban and frontier areas; I can tell you that in those populations there was at least as much shock, if not more, than there is in today’s school children.

How about for a teacher in a classroom with children who are demonstrating shocked behavior—what does that look like and what can she or he do?

The main thing a teacher can do is to understand when shock is activated and what activates it. Shock initiates brain-pituitary-adrenal patterns that can override logical function. It brings out patterned behavior that can feel impossible to contact or correct, especially for a teacher who has a room full of kids with behaviors all going on at the same time. Once a kid is exhibiting shocked behavior, it is almost impossible for her to manifest the kind of behavior or attention a teacher wants. In classrooms all over the world teachers are knocking themselves out trying to make a kid do something she really can’t—at least not at that moment. It’s a bit like trying to use a computer when it’s frozen. If a teacher understands she is dealing with shock, it will make her life a lot easier. There are some facile tricks she can learn that will help—as long as she herself can stay out of shock, for shock tends to be contagious.

How does shock work in families? I can imagine that parents tend to share it and pass it on to their children. Is that possible?

Family shocks are complex and fascinating. Shock is particularly contagious among family members who have suffered from familial shocks, which often involve alcohol, neediness, emotional wounds, and control issues. Family reunions and holidays can often become crucibles of family shock. If just one person knows what is going on, however, he can bring about an energetic shift. He can spot the shock activations and avoid them, thus becoming a resource for himself and others. Children are most often shocked by their parents, and if a parent has a shock reactivation it will most certainly affect a child, even an adult child.

If I realize that certain things reawaken memories of a shocking event from the past and yet I seem to keep doing them, can I get some clarity about why that’s happening? What am I doing to myself?

If you continue to do things that reactivate your shock, it most likely means that your psyche wants you to work on this area, so it keeps putting it right in your face.

Most people just throw up their arms and ask, “Why does this always happen to me?” To get clarity on such a situation it is important to contextualize it in every way you can. The more understanding you develop around it, the more you can see it coming. What is it I do? In what situation does this happen? What happens before this starts to happen? What are my feelings—the real body sensations—before, during, and after? Where are they in my body? You might journal or even talk to friends about it. Once these maps are created you can see the landscape more clearly and more consciously. This is the beginning. Once you have a map, you can begin to address specific shock patterns.

Shock diminishes consciousness. That’s its job. The problem is that when shock is reactivated, our consciousness gets diminished unnecessarily and we end up contributing to our own dilemmas.

I realize that there are huge differences in people’s ways of experiencing shocking events and of working with the aftermath, but is there something generally true for a person who realizes she’s in shock and is finding ways to work with it?

Amazingly, just learning how to recognize when and whether we are in shock is one of the healthiest things we can do. The next step is to seek and obtain resources—particularly in the presence of empathy, including self-empathy.

How can a person release shock from his body, his emotional intelligence, his mind?

Well, there really are no short answers. But I can say in brief that the work needs to be done in a safe, empathic, supportive environment where people can experience small, incremental levels of their shock without being re-traumatized. They need to regress in the direction of their shocking event yet keep at a safe distance. Once you understand what shocked you and how it affects your feelings and your body, you can begin, through self-empathy and conscious awareness, to use the appropriate techniques to release the way the shock is held in the system.

After your shock has been released, if you’re suddenly surprised, rather than going into shock and reacting from an unconscious pattern, you can stay fully conscious and make appropriate decisions and responses. This gives us the freedom to be able to go on about the purpose of our lives, with increased consciousness and more options.

When unresolved shock is reactivated in the course of our daily lives, many physical symptoms often emerge. The examples below, which relate to the sympathetic and the parasympathetic aspects of the body’s autonomic nervous system, are examples of these two types of shock.

  • Rapid blink rates, or very slow blink rates;
  • Very tense holding of the muscles, or flaccid, over-relaxed muscles;
  • Ruddy, splotchy redness or blush-like colorations of the skin, or very white pale skin coloration;
  • Intense, overly focused state of being, or spaciness and fogginess;
  • Quick overreactions to stress or stimulus, or a pallid turning inward with inability to organize thinking in a person’s system.

The first step in resolving such limitations and affectations is to start to recognize them in ourselves. Such self-awareness actually begins to diminish the intensity and frequency of the shock reactivations. Keeping notes on the stimulus that elicits these shock responses will help you begin to identify the “shock scenarios” in your day-to-day life.


Karlton Terry is a certified teacher of Emerson Training Seminars, and workshop leader in the U.S. and abroad. Peggy Rubin conducts workshops internationally both on Sacred Theatre and as the principal working associate of Jean Houston. Karlton presents workshops twice a year in Ashland under the auspices of the Center for Sacred Theatre. For information, contact Trish Broersma at (541) 482-6210 or email [email protected].


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