Trauma Resolution Through Somatic Experiencing

by Peter Levine

A single brief exposure to an overwhelming event can throw a normally functioning individual into an abyss of emotional and physical suffering.

Whether or not a person rebounds from this dark edge of near insanity, or tumbles more deeply into the ”black hole” of trauma (or even exactly what causes it), has been an enigma to modern psychiatry.  Somatic Experiencing®(SE)is a naturalistic approach to the understanding and healing of trauma developed by Peter A Levine over the past 40 years and taught throughout the world. SE®is a clinical methodology based upon an appreciation of why animals in the wild are not traumatized by routine threats to their lives while humans, on the other hand, are readily overwhelmed and traumatized. Fortunately, the very same instincts (and related survival based brain systems) that are involved in the formation of trauma symptoms can be enlisted in the transformation and healing of trauma. Therapeutically, this “instinct to heal” and self-regulate is engaged through the awareness of body sensations that contradict those of paralysis and helplessness, and which restore resilience, equilibrium and wholeness.

Because human responses to potential threat vary so greatly, it is difficult to identify or classify sources of trauma. Most people associate trauma with events like war, violence, extremes of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, crippling accidents, or natural disasters. However, many ”ordinary” or seemingly benign events can also be traumatic. For example, so-called minor automobile “whiplash” accidents frequently lead to bewildering and debilitating physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms. Common invasive medical procedures and surgeries (particularly those performed on frightened children who are restrained while being anesthetized), can be profoundly traumatizing. Somatic Experiencing® utilizes basic tools (and “building blocks”) but also works differentially with various sources of trauma. These diverse categories include:

  • Medical: hospitalizations, surgeries, invasive medical procedures, anesthesia, burns, poisoning, fetal distress and traumatic birth.
  • Accidents: falls, high impact accidents (including auto accidents), head injury, electrocution.
  • Suffocation: drowning, strangulation.
  • Attack: rape, war, bombings, physical abuse, mugging, molestation, physical injury, stabbing, gunshot wounds, animal attacks.
  • Natural and man made disasters: earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, floods, terrorism, dislocation from the natural world and community.
  • Horror: Seeing an accident (especially with blood, gore and dismemberment), watching someone else being abused, raped, killed or tortured, killing or hurting someone.
  • Developmental: neglect, abandonment, loss and ongoing abuse.
  • Torture, repeated rape and systematic abuse

** The following is an excerpt from Peter Levine’s book “Waking the Tiger” **

The key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans is in our physiology. When faced with what is perceived as inescapable or overwhelming threat, humans and animals both use the immobility response. The important thing to understand about this function is that it is involuntary. This simply means that the physiological mechanism governing this response resides in the primitive, instinctual parts of our brains and nervous systems, and is not under our conscious control. That is why I feel that the study of wild animal behavior is essential to the understanding and healing of human trauma.

The involuntary and instinctual portions of the human brain and nervous system are virtually identical to those of mammals and even reptiles. Our brain, often called the ‘triune brain,’ consists of three integral systems. The three parts are commonly known as the ‘reptilian brain’ (instinctual), the ‘mammalian or limbic brain (emotional), and the ‘human brain or neo-cortex’ (rational). Since the parts of the brain that are activated by a perceived life threatening situation are the parts we share with animals, much can be learned by studying how certain animals, like the impala, avoid traumatization. To take this one step further, I believe that the key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans lies in our being able to mirror the fluid adaptation of wild animals as they ‘shake out’ and pass through the immobility response and become fully mobile and functional.

Unlike wild animals, when threatened, we humans have never found it easy to resolve the dilemma of whether to fight or flee. This dilemma stems, at least in part, from the fact that our species has played the role of both predator and prey. Prehistoric peoples, though many were hunters, spent long hours each day huddled together in cold caves with the certain knowledge that they could be snatched up at any moment and torn to shreds.

Our chances for survival increased as we gathered in larger groups, discovered fire, and invented tools, many of which were weapons used for hunting and self defense. However, the genetic memory of being easy prey has persisted in our brains and nervous systems. Lacking both the swiftness of an impala and the lethal fangs and claws of a stalking cheetah, our human brains often second guess our ability to take life preserving action. This uncertainty has made us particularly vulnerable to the powerful effects of trauma. Animals like the agile, darting impala know they are prey and are intimate with their survival resources. They sense what they need to do and they do it. Likewise, the sleek cheetah’s seventy miles an hour sprint and treacherous fangs and claws make it a self-assured predator.

The line is not so clearly delineated for the human animal. When confronted with a life threatening situation, our ‘rational’ brains may become confused and override our instinctive impulses. Though this overriding may be done for a good reason, the confusion that accompanies it sets the stage for what I call the ‘Medusa Complex’; the drama called trauma.

As in the Greek myth of Medusa, the human confusion that may ensue when we stare death in the face can turn us to stone. We may literally freeze in fear, which will result in the creation of traumatic symptoms.

Trauma is a pervasive fact of modern life. Most of us have been traumatized, not just soldiers or victims of abuse or attack. Both the sources and consequences of trauma are wide-ranging and often hidden from our awareness. These include natural disasters (e,g., earthquakes, tornadoes floods and fires), exposure to violence, accidents, falls, serious illnesses, sudden loss (i.e., a loved one), surgical and other necessary medical and dental procedures, difficult births, and even high levels of stress during pregnancy.

Fortunately, because we are instinctual beings with the ability to feel, respond and reflect, we possess the innate potential to heal even the most debilitating traumatic injuries. I am convinced, as well, that we as a global human community can begin to heal from the effects of large-scale social traumas such as war and natural disaster.

It’s About Energy

Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ”triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the ”immobility” or ”freezing” state. However, we can thaw by initiating and encouraging our innate drive to return to a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Let’s cut to the chase. The energy in our young impala’s nervous system as it flees from the pursuing cheetah is charged at seventy miles an hour. The moment the cheetah takes its final lunge, the impala collapses. From the outside, it looks motionless and appears to be dead, but inside, its nervous system is still supercharged at seventy miles an hour. Though it has come to a dead stop, what is now taking place in the impala’s body is similar to what occurs in your car if you floor the accelerator and stomp on the brake simultaneously. The difference between the inner racing of the nervous system (engine) and the outer immobility (brake) of the body creates a forceful turbulence inside the body similar to a tornado.

This tornado of energy is the focal point out of which form the symptoms of traumatic stress. To help visualize the power of this energy, imagine that you are making love with your partner, you are on the verge of climax, when suddenly, some outside force stops you. Now, multiply that feeling of withholding by one hundred, and you may come close to the amount of energy aroused by a life-threatening experience.

A threatened human (or impala) must discharge all the energy mobilized to negotiate that threat or it will become a victim of trauma. This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body, and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms; i.e., anxiety, depression, psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism’s way of containing (or corralling) the undischarged residual energy.

Animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy and seldom develop adverse symptoms. We humans are not as adept in this arena. When we are unable liberate these powerful forces, we become victims of trauma. In our often unsuccessful attempts to discharge these energies, we may become fixated on them. Like a moth drawn to a flame, we may unknowingly and repeatedly create situations in which the possibility to release ourselves from the trauma trap exists, but without the proper tools and resources most of us fail. The result, sadly, is that many of us become riddled with fear and anxiety and are never fully able to feel at home with ourselves or our world.

Many war veterans and victims of rape know this scenario only too well. They may spend months or even years talking about their experiences, reliving them, expressing their anger, fear and sorrow but without passing through the primitive ”immobility responses” and releasing the residual energy, they will often remain stuck in the traumatic maze and continue to experience distress.

Fortunately, the same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform the trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery, and even wisdom. Trauma resolved is a great gift, returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love and compassion. Having spent the last twenty-five years working with people who have been traumatized in almost every conceivable fashion, I believe that we humans have the innate capacity not only to heal ourselves, but our world, from the debilitating effects of trauma.