I am currently in the midst of being trained in a profoundly beautiful trauma therapy modality called Somatic Experiencing. I’m just coming off of the first 4-day weekend intensive of my intermediate year of training, and I am struck by the simplicity, depth, and effectiveness of this work in healing traumas of all kinds. I am drawn to share my knowledge of this work so far, as it holds the potential to be transformational for all of us.
Bear with me through a brief scientific explanation of the physiology of trauma. In Somatic Experiencing, we view trauma through the lens of the nervous system. In the autonomic nervous system (ANS), there are two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system can be described as the gas pedal - it is the system that gives us energy and activation, including the fight and flight survival energy when there is a threat in the environment. The parasympathetic system is like the brake pedal - it is involved in rest and digest functions and can be more active when things are calm. When we look to define trauma in terms of the nervous system, a trauma is anything that overwhelms the capacity of the nervous system. In human beings, when the nervous system is overwhelmed it often becomes dysregulated. The healing of trauma is therefore to re-regulate nervous system and restore its natural capacity and flexibility to move between activation and calm.
What does it look like when the nervous system is dysregulated? When the nervous system is dysregulated by a trauma, instead of having a natural ebb and flow of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, there is a tendency to either be “stuck on ON” or “stuck on OFF”, or to oscillate between to those two modes. Stuck on ON can feel like anxiety, panic, rage, or other high intensity emotions. Stuck on OFF can present as depression, numbness, exhaustion, feelings of emptiness, or dissociation.
To illustrate this further, I’ll use an example of an animal in the wild. Let’s imagine there is a gazelle in the African savannah, and that gazelle senses a lion in the environment. As soon as the gazelle senses the threat, there is a huge activation in the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight. There are physical changes - lungs expand, muscles grow, pupils dilate, breathing increases - in order to muster all of the survival energy possible to fight back or run for its life. If the gazelle escapes attack, the animal will need to discharge all of that sympathetic arousal that had entered the system in order to return to a calm, present state of being. Animals in the wild will discharge this energy by physically running away, fighting back, and even after escape might tremble and shake to down-regulate their systems after such a traumatic experience. Then, they go about their lives! Animals in the wild do not have PTSD for this reason. As humans, we often do not get the chance to run away, fight back, or discharge trauma energy, so these impulses become stuck in our physiology and in our nervous systems.
Because as humans we often do not have the chance to naturally re-regulate our nervous systems after a trauma, the nervous system is still functioning as if the threat is still present in the environment. That is why someone who has experienced a trauma and is still affected by it often feels like the world is unsafe, that something scary is still happening, and that the threat is still present. The nature of trauma is that it is stuck, unresolved, and incomplete in the system. We rarely get the right time, space, and human support to allow the trauma to process, integrate, and unwind from our physiology and our nervous systems. In fact, if we had the right amount of time, space, and human support during the experience, we likely would not have come out of an experience traumatized.
Now to the juicy part. In Somatic Experiencing, the founders and teachers of this modality have discovered that if the right conditions are created, the human physiology and nervous system can naturally complete what it never got to complete in the moment of trauma. Just like in other branches of science, the human physiology and nervous system desires a return to homeostasis. The body can facilitate its own healing by unwinding the trauma stored in the nervous system.
In Somatic Experiencing, we do the work of re-teaching the nervous system how to naturally regulate itself, including how to move from calm to activation back to calm again without going straight into an overwhelmed state. We help guide the physiology to complete fight or flight impulses that never got to come to completion. And over time, with slow and gentle work, we help discharge the survival trauma energy from the nervous system so that the person no longer feels under attack, and can return to feeling present, alive, and safe in the world. This ultimately creates the possibility to feel joy and experience meaning in life again.
The profound nature of this trauma therapy strikes me and inspires me daily. In healing and resolving trauma, we must tap into the inherent wisdom already held in our physical bodies. No amount of telling someone “but it’s over now” will change how a person who has experienced trauma feels. The healing must occur at the root of where it took place, the body and the nervous system.
For more information, check out the books written by Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, including Waking the Tiger and In an Unspoken Voice.
Danielle shares thoughts, insights, and musings through blog posts here. Topics relate to mindfulness, spirituality, and healing.