In the wake of trauma, an individual may hold considerable tension throughout their body. While we often think of post-traumatic stress disorder as a purely mental affliction, Somatic Experiencing aims to bring awareness to, and subsequently relieve, tension held in the body following trauma.
Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., developed Somatic Experiencing after a life of researching and healing through a multidisciplinary lens including physiology, psychology, biology, neuroscience, ethology, and indigenous healing practices. Dr. Levine earned his doctoral degree in medical and biological physics at the University of California, Berkeley. His studies opened the door to his gradual development of Somatic Experiencing, which aims to be a body-oriented approach to healing trauma and stress disorders while “restoring the authentic-self with self-regulation, relaxation, wholeness and aliveness.”
We all know that in the face of a predator, an animal enters fight or flight mode. What we don’t always think about, though, is the third option to a stressor, which is to freeze. In a life or death situation, immobilizing may have made our ancestors less of a target or even allowed them to dissociate from the horrific experience of being eaten for lunch. Whereas staying mindful of the present moment could lead to an utterly debilitating traumatic experience, numbing out the event’s experience was the best thing an organism could do until it was over or the predator lost interest. Dr. Levine took great interest in this phenomenon as he noticed that animals regularly face life-threatening situations yet don’t show signs of trauma.
As it turns out, the freeze response is time-sensitive. The fight-or-flight response and the sympathetic nervous system, when activated, produce massive amounts of energy for immediate use. When an animal freezes, these immense energy stores need to be dispelled, often through shaking and trembling. If the cycle of this aspect of the sympathetic response fails to complete, the body can never return to rest. Instead, it perpetually perceives that it is still in incredible danger.
We may struggle to know what to draw as we don’t always know what we’re feeling. Suppose we instead let our overthinking minds take the backseat to mindfulness. In this way, we can bring awareness to our bodies, feeling its subtle complexities and tensions and allowing this information to guide our hand on the paper. The practice can seem daunting, but once you start drawing, you’ll likely discover something more about the way you’re feeling, something that your body has known before your conscious mind has.
Humans tend to overthink and get stuck living in their thoughts. Using creative art to just be present with what we’re doing can help us let go of much of the anxiety we feel, simply because fear doesn’t exist in the present moment. When our minds get stuck in the future, we experience the tension of anxiety.
With this perspective, we can better understand that it isn’t the event that causes the trauma but the response. Following a traumatic event, an individual may experience anxiety and panic, restlessness, hostility, chronic pain, or digestive issues. These symptoms could indicate a stress response that got stuck “on,” causing physiological imbalances as the nervous system continually adapts to the perceived stressor that never went away.
On the contrary, an individual with a system stuck on “off” or a chronically activated parasympathetic nervous system could experience symptoms including depression, chronic fatigue, flat affect, dissociation or digestive issues.
The goal of Somatic Experiencing is to help access the body’s memory of the traumatic event to release energy and restore balance to its flow. To quote Dr. Levine, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not have to be a life sentence.”
Dr. Levine uses the term pendulation to describe the oscillation between the duality of our bodily experiences. He recognizes that the body moves between regulation and dysregulation, expansion and contraction, warmth and cold, and so on. Somatic Experiencing aims to develop a state of dysregulation within the patient, such as being stuck in freeze mode and helps to return them to a regulated state. The way the therapy works is by slowly increasing the individual’s tolerance to aversive and suppressed feelings, ultimately building resilience to stress.
Somatic Experiencing is a gradual process. You are guided through cycles, slowly feeling the oscillating bodily sensations of pleasure and pain, warmth and cold, expansion and contraction according to your current level of tolerance. As you progress to handling stronger and stronger doses of the sensation, you create the opportunity to heal traumatic energetic patterns that have been stuck for years. This rhythmic process takes patience, but it can help you develop the resilience you need to remain present as you deal with stressors going forward.
The therapy depends on and strengthens your ability to cultivate awareness of your body and mind. Dr. Levine developed Somatic Experiencing with an emphasis on bottom-up processing; that is, feeling sensations as they are through your bodily senses, rather than letting them trickle down through the mind and its preconceived notions, thoughts, and feelings. This approach can help immensely in your ability to sit and be mindful of the present moment, regardless of what might come up, and feel what’s going on in your body rather than getting wrapped up in telling yourself stories about it. Through this direct experience of your body, you may just be able to resolve energetic patterns that have been influencing your behavior patterns your entire life.
Trauma, PTSD, and other stress disorders can affect us for our entire lives. When the fight or flight response gets stuck, energy can become contracted in the body. These contractions throw off our natural rhythms and balances, leading to chronic disease and mental illness. Somatic Experiencing aims to release these energetic blockages and allow energy to flow and balance to be returned to the body’s processes. At Safe Harbor, we understand how devastating traumatic events can be even years after their occurrence, contributing to a life full of stress, tension, anxiety and addictive behavior. We offer Somatic Experiencing, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, art therapy, psychotherapy and much more. We understand how difficult it can be to deal with related or comorbid mental health symptoms. We want to help you heal with a holistic approach that integrates many tried and true therapeutic perspectives. To learn more, call us today at (833) 580-1473.