practitioners - Christine Jensen and Bevis Nathan
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-based treatment used for releasing and healing trauma, shock, stress and the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was pioneered by American psychologist Peter Levine.
Dr Levine studied wild animals, observing that even though their lives are routinely threatened, they don’t suffer with PTSD. They are able to release all the ‘fight, flight and freeze’ survival energy from their bodies, naturally and simply, when the threat is over.
They then go on with their lives as if nothing has happened.
Through SE, people are taught how to track sensations
and feeling-states in their bodies where trapped trauma energy may be held.
With expert and gentle guidance, this energy can be released,
enabling people to come out of 'survival mode' and into a state of health and thriving.
Although human beings have a similar nervous system to wild animals, we do not easily
discharge this energy from our bodies. In our modern-day sophisticated world, we tend to override our instinctual natures. For example, after even a minor traffic accident where there is always a powerful adrenaline rush, we do not usually allow our nervous systems to express and release this energy (for example by crying and shaking). Rather, we will concern ourselves instead with the practicalities of the event, such as exchanging addresses, and hurrying to work. It is this ‘override’ that causes the 'spaced-out' state we call ‘shock’.
This survival energy is enormous – it allows a mother to lift a car from her toddler trapped underneath. If not released, it will remain trapped or 'bound' in the body and mind, and can persist for years causing a variety of debilitating symptoms. This energy may keep us stuck in the past, re-living trauma, unable to engage with life and the ability to feel fully present.
The 'Freeze' Response
In the wild, when an animal is threatened, it will first try to run away or fight the attacker (‘fight or flight’ response). A third survival scenario is also possible. If running or fighting is not going to work, or is not possible, then the animal will become immobile ('freeze' response) in a last attempt to escape death.
If the prey animal survives (predators often lose interest in immobile prey), it will discharge the enormous amount of frozen fight/flight energy through shaking and sighing and breathing deeply. All fight and flight energy will be released at this stage. The nervous system returns to normal, and all other bodily functions also normalise. Life is resumed as if the threat had never occurred. There will be no PTSD.
Modern-day humans are often unable or unwilling to use the instinctual fight or flight under threat. We therefore go into the freeze mode as the only other choice. This shock is often experienced as numbing or dissociation, together with other symptoms such as muscle tension. And this generally does not get released as in the case of our wild animal. Shaking and crying after a threatening event is something a sophisticated ‘in control’ modern human doesn’t like to do! It may feel embarrassing and uncomfortable. This suppression lies at the heart of understanding trauma and why so many people – often unknowingly - are suffering from PTSD.
By not releasing freeze energy, we feel that the threat is still there, keeping us effectively locked in the past. This can cause emotional problems (for example anxiety and panic attacks) and physiological symptoms - especially chronic muscle pain, and digestive and breathing-pattern disorders. Many of these problems have no obvious medical diagnosis.
We may feel that the threat is somehow always with us in some shape or form, but because we've 'frozen' our fight/flight energy, we feel helpless and powerless without really knowing why. Carrying around unresolved survival energy can keep us hyper-vigilant, unable to relax or feel at ease.
Talking therapies may not free us from trauma if we are stuck in the freeze state because it’s is a nervous system injury not a mental disorder. We need the language of the lower brain – that of sensation - to do the work. Somatic Experiencing addresses this animal brain injury.
Trapped trauma energy can result in:
Digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome
Muscular tension and chronic pain problems
Inability to think clearly
Hyper vigilance, feeling on guard
Sensitivity to sound and light
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Our bodies, like those of wild animals, have an inherent capacity to heal and self-regulate. Our nervous system wants to return to a state of equilibrium and balance. SE teaches the client to track her own body sensations or ‘felt-sense’. Through this door, the nervous system shows us the trapped survival energy felt in the body and its release is encouraged safely and in small manageable pieces. This dynamic and creative body-aware approach can be deeply empowering, bringing us to a greater sense of self, and awareness of our senses and instincts. We then have an opportunity to reclaim what we have lost through trauma.