Lately when I have used the word trauma, I have noticed some rolling eyes, deep sighs and words like, “not again.” I think it is mainly because the word trauma is misunderstood today. “How can everyone be traumatized, when I grew up during a war and we didn’t have this much talk of trauma.” This is a fair point I heard recently, however I think it is because of the overuse and the misunderstanding of what trauma actually is that makes people frustrated with the word. According to Dr Peter Levine, trauma can happen to anyone who perceives a threat and is unable to complete a satisfactory fight, flight, or freeze response. It is not what happens to you, but how the body reacts to the event that constitutes trauma. Dr Levine, created somatic experiencing as a way for the body to be able to settle from the dysregulation caused by trauma. Somatic experiencing is a way for the body to complete the response it got “stuck” in, which manifests in physical and emotional symptoms.
SE facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms. This is approached by gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions.
In my own work with somatic experiencing, I have witnessed how powerful the technique is. During one session with my teacher, I was having a particularly stressful weekend. My default to stress has always been fight or flight(mostly flight). People do have one primary default, but can also enter other states as I did such as freeze and one that is not spoken about as much – fawn. I also have used fawn as a response to stress. Fight or flight was the primary way my nervous system responded. As a result, I mostly ran away from stressors .
I have not only ran away from stressors by “avoiding”, I also used running to feel better. Starting in my teens I began to run outside and consistently done so until today (aside from times I could not run due to physical symptoms.) I speak about how running was a part of my life here. During the session I had with my teacher she asked me to describe what I was experiencing in my body. I felt warmth, and a heaviness in my belly. The heaviness seemed to have fear behind it.
As she guided me to observe these sensations I found myself crying. She asked if it was ok to be with this negative emotion for a bit and so I was guided to observe where the tears were coming from. I spoke about an incident that occurred during the weekend. It was the meaning I had attached to these emotions and sensations. Next, she helped to resource (positive interventions) me and asked what was supporting me during this time. I told her “running” and she asked to hear more. As I spoke of how running makes me feel, she helped to pause me and allow savoring of the positive emotions. My entire demeanor changed and the heaviness and tears that had been became joy and strength.
As we continued, I had my legs up on a chair. I told her that I noticed my left foot was sliding up and down my right. She had me place my feet on the floor . I noticed my torso become more upright, my feet on the floor begin to shift up and down, first the left and then the right, like I was in a slow jog, my eyes looked straight ahead, my chin up, deeper breath. I described what was happening with my feet and now the emotions I was feeling as well as the sensations in my body. The words I used were “clear, focused, strong, powerful”, as my legs bobbed up and down.
It was the act of running from my chair, completing a stress cycle that had not yet been able to do so. The movement was involuntary and all I had to do was get out of the body’s way and let it take over. The movements ended,my breath slowed, and I relaxed back into my seat. I felt like I had just completed a run. A feeling of ease and lightness filled my body and I described how I could see better and felt more clarity. My body had tried to finish a stress cycle it had been stuck in. The movement was completely involuntary and surprised even me.
Somatic experiencing can be done with a trained facilitator to be effective, however there are smaller practices you can do at home such as:
- Observing your nervous system state- becoming aware of the state you are in is the first step to change. Using the chart below familiarize yourself with the nervous system states and create a practice of observing each day. Sitting in a relaxed seat as you close your eyes fully or just gaze half closed at the floor, think about the following-
Which nervous system state are you in right now? How do you know? What does it feel like? What does it feel like in your body? Why did you enter it? Were you in this state all day? What other states were you in? What did they feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? What sensations do you experience? Can you just observe them? What happens as you observe?
Does the body have any impulse? Is there something it would like to do? Just observe this. What do you experience. Try to stay in the role of the observer, rather than getting enmeshed with any story. A story may come up, but just put it to the side while you take a look at sensations , images, emotions that come up . What do you notice happens as you watch?
- . If you feel yourself in or getting activated into fight, flight, freeze, is there something that helps you to ground? What is it? Can you bring it to mind or observe it in your environment using any of your senses? If not, can you try finding a resource in your environment and savor it (something one of your senses is attracted to- something pleasant to look at, something pleasant you hear, smell , feel, taste). What happens as you take it in? What do you notice? Can you savor this resource?
I have had a similar experience to this with something called TRE another somatic practice to help release tension and trauma. You can read about it here.
Somatic experiencing seems to be more gentle and the experience is titrated. In other words, small amounts of activation are elicited more and more as one gets more comfortable and feels at ease handling it. With a skilled facilitator I feel both are safe and can be of great benefit.