Trauma occurs when an event, or a series of events, overwhelms our ability to respond effectively to our circumstances. When an individual’s sense of safety is breached it sends their nervous system into overdrive and elicits a survival response such as fight, flight, or freeze. If there is a successful resolution of the incident there may be no lingering damage. When an incident is less successfully maneuvered, however, a physical and/or emotional injury is sustained keeping the survivor locked in defense mode. While the same conditions may not be experienced as “traumatic” by someone else, to a survivor of a car crash, for example, there may be a panic reaction each time the familiar intersection is negotiated. Coping strategies, like taking alternate routes to avoid feeling vulnerable, can help to a degree but will likely compromise the individual in other ways. When an overwhelmed nervous system stays locked in perpetual overdrive, mobilized by fear and anxiety, it is wearing on one’s long term health, and not optimally adaptive for negotiating future challenges.
Somatic Experiencing® (SE) Therapy is a mind-body approach to healing trauma. Unlike more conventional talk therapies, it engages sensory tracking, supportive touch (with consent), and meaning-making through an appreciative lens of the body’s natural survival tendencies. It teaches individuals to recognize their nervous system activation when physically or emotionally threatened, and it helps them find ways of recovering self-agency once nervous system balance is restored.
Developed by Peter Levine, PhD*, who observed that animals living in the wild experience constant threats by predators, but do not show signs of post-traumatic stress. He theorized that animals can withstand recurring threats by immediately discharging the energy built up in their bodies, returning to a state of homeostasis (body equilibrium) once safety is restored. In contrast, human beings do not routinely practice this vital task of clearing out nervous system activation, in the aftermath of a traumatic incident. *Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1997; http://somaticexperiencing.com.
Based on these scientific principles, SE helps individuals renegotiate their trauma stories by helping their bodies to complete self-protective responses; an SE term for the survival impulses that get shut down or suspended during trauma. For example, a yell for help stifled by an assailant’s hand, the impulse to brake an out-of-control car, or the failed attempt to rescue a drowning victim. When successful, SE clients get stronger at mediating challenging life circumstances and dispense with lasting traumatic imprints as they restore nervous system balance. At its core, SE believes all of us are whole, even in the bleakest moments of brokenness, and that we are not helpless in fostering our healing. SE is about partnering with you to restore wholeness in body and mind; offering witness as you turn on your, “I can do!” switch.
Given the rising tide of hate crimes in the United States, personal trauma stories are intersecting with a national experience of horror. Peter Levine, writing in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings, stated “…societal trauma is not limited to war-torn areas or inner cities. It exists all around us and affects us all, especially our children. Trauma disconnects us from both ourselves and the world around us. We cannot feel connected to one another if we are not connected to ourselves — and when we feel disconnected from others, we are more apt to be violent. In a state of disconnection, it is easier to externalize the “other,” to blame them for our unresolved post-traumatic distress, and to dissociate from any pain we cause them.” (Levine, Peter A. Study Guide: Healing Trauma; Restoring the wisdom of the body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 1999, p. 23 of enclosed pamphlet; 1st edition of book.)
Rabbi Tarfon, a sage of the ancient world (70-135 C.E.), was fond of saying, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot, 2:16).” Bridging these ancient and modern imperatives for individual action to benefit the whole, the importance of healing from trauma was never more clear.