“Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.”- Peter A Levine, PhD
“Our bodies hold memories and imprints of our past experiences. The trauma at the root of our anxiety, depression, and maladaptive behaviors can’t be resolved without our body finding a way to release these memories and imprints. Sustained healing only happens when our nervous system regains equilibrium. Somatic Experiencing (SE) helps us move beyond the cognitive process of understanding our trauma. It’s a process that reprograms the body’s primitive survival instincts, allowing one to feel a greater sense of connection, safety, and ease in one’s body.
What Is “Trauma Brain”?
To understand why SE is such an effective treatment for trauma, let’s begin by exploring a new way of looking at trauma.
When we think about trauma in our lives, we often refer to an event: a burglary, the unexpected death of a parent, an accident that left us injured. But Peter Levine, Ph.D., the founder of SE, has a different perspective. He maintains that trauma is not an event, but the energy that gets locked in your body around the real or perceived threat.
The extent to which a person experiences trauma is directly related to their ability to restore a sense of safety in the aftermath of the threatening event. If they’re unable to effectively do that, their nervous system gets stuck in the survival states of fight, flight, or freeze.
These survival states are only useful for acute states of threat. When an individual gets stuck in a trauma reaction because they cannot restore their sense of safety, the individual will continually sense danger when danger is not present, or completely shut down and lose the capacity to live in the present.
Think about your own experiences, have you ever found yourself over-or underreacting to a situation for no obvious reason? This is often due to the unresolved trauma from the past that is locked in your nervous system.
To illustrate this, let’s think of our brains always acting in two ways: “survival brain” or “safe brain.” In a safe brain state, we are open to learning new information and can see the big picture of a situation. We feel calm, peaceful, curious, and unafraid of making mistakes.
When the survival brain is turned on, we are hyper-focused, we feel a sense of threat, and cannot tolerate ambiguity. Fear dominates our decision-making skills, and we often lose our sense of competence. The longer survival brain stays on, the harder it is to turn it off.
A safe brain is expansive and life feels vital and joyful. The survival brain creates misperception, ambiguity, and threat. The better we can manage our stress reaction, the easier we can keep out of survival brain. This takes time and effort and requires that we develop a tolerance of uncomfortable sensations in the body. If we are unable to tolerate the uncomfortable sensations, we try to numb them or distract ourselves from them with maladaptive behaviors. By growing our ability to tolerate discomfort, we gain the capacity to move through our challenges and the knowledge that we can safely come through the other side of a difficult experience.
Why Somatic Experiencing Is Different
When trauma strikes, the nervous system loses its ability to maintain a state of balance. The trapped energy from the traumatic experience causes the nervous system to rush to a state of fight, flight, or freeze — the “over” or “underreaction” that we discussed earlier. SE works to help bring the nervous system back online by helping the individual restore their sense of safety. This can only happen when the body has a “biological completion” and the trauma energy has the opportunity to reintegrate back into the body.
SE uses a clinical map to access the physiological states of survival known as fight, flight, and freeze and helps release the self-protective and defensive responses we hold in our bodies. When an event happens too fast and we do not have the time or ability for self-protection or defense, this survival energy gets stuck in our body as an incomplete biological reaction. This stuck energy is what causes trauma symptoms.
In this way, humans are no different than animals in the wild. When an animal has been under threat it will reset its nervous system by shaking off the trauma. This shaking is a “biological completion” for the animal that allows its nervous system to restore its sense of well-being.
Often in talk therapy, an individual continues to relive the story of the past experience. And while it is important for the story to be heard, the retelling of it alone does not enable the body to create a new and more empowered relationship with the past experience.
SE is different. SE includes talking, but the talking is used to track body sensation and meaning attached to experiences, rather than bring the individual back into the event of the trauma. When we bring the body into the therapy process and facilitate a way for the individual to physically move through the experience with a sense of safety, the relationship to the experience changes, and the stuck energy will discharge.
As an SE practitioner, I have the privilege of helping individuals restore their sense of safety and gaining a new lease on life. I witness clients experience a renewed sense of safety and the ability to experience a more joyful and connected life filled with deep, meaningful relationships. I see incredible openings of creativity and productivity, all of which are possible when one is able to change their relationship with their traumas and leave them in the past where they belong.” (Adapted from https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-why-somatic-experiencing-works#1)
If you or someone you know matches the trauma symptoms listed above, I am confident that I can help and invite you to contact me today for an appointment!