Trauma or PTSD can be debilitating for many people, but fortunately a form of Somatic Therapy known as Somatic Experiencing Therapy has shown to be an effective way of overcoming the pain and distress caused by traumatic experiences.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is a human response to a deeply painful or frightening event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope with the emotional feelings of fear and distress and sometimes leaves them feeling helpless. Trauma can reduce a person’s sense of self and cause an inability to properly experience the full range of emotions.
Our lives are full of significant events. Some of these events we consider as pleasant, while others are unpleasant. It’s possible for many of us to experience scary and painful incidents, which would not necessarily result in trauma.
This is because our body and mind are very resilient and have the ability to process and resolve events that negatively impact us, difficult as they may be. The nervous system is in charge of that process. It is the most sophisticated system in the human body and it responds to external events we interact with.
When the natural process of the nervous system is interfered with, for various reasons, it can result in trauma.
Trauma can manifest itself in a number of different ways including:
- Chronic pain
- Unhealthy or strained relationships
- Drug or alcohol dependence or addiction
As a way to find relief, we attempt to find effective ways to suppress these experiences, such as the use of mind-altering substances like drugs or alcohol. These may help temporarily, but they are unsuccessful in the long term.
What is Somatic Experiencing Therapy?
We all deserve a relief from our past trauma and concerns for opening up old wounds. Somatic Experiencing Therapy is an approach used for the resolution of trauma and has shown to be effective for people with PTSD and other symptoms of trauma.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) was developed by Dr. Peter Levine in the mid-1980s, which is considered relatively recent in the world of mental health. Dr. Levine created Somatic Experiencing after watching animals in the wild overcome stressful events such as fleeing from other animals and quickly recovering from the event.
In addition to the cognition, feelings and behaviors in other modalities, Somatic Experiencing adds the body sensations and images to its work. This is a gentle, yet very timely effective, approach. It is based on the reaction of the nervous system to events, and its main concepts are described below.
Somatic Experiencing helps people revitalize and rebuild an emotional balance so they feel whole and alive again.
The Human Nervous System
The human nervous system is an autonomic system, which receives information from the environment, assesses it, and reacts (many times before we can even realize) in order for our body to work in sync and to reassure our safety.
The nervous system is responsible for the most essential activities in our body, such as breathing, digestion, motor movements, and hormone production.
Autonomic Subsystems of the Nervous System
The human nervous system has the following two autonomic subsystems:
1. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS)
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) is responsible for our relaxation state, which includes digestion, orientation to our surroundings, well-planned decision making, sex, and sleep.
2. Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The Sympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) is responsible for reaction in times of danger, which includes high blood-flow to our muscles (to run away), tunnel vision (to focus on the predator), fast heart-rate, and adrenaline release. The sympathetic nervous system responds with either fight, flight, or freeze responses to fear or danger.
These responses happen automatically for survival purposes, which means, we do not consciously decide in what way to react.
There are different events that happen in our body in each state. Our transition from the sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) to the parasympathetic state usually occurs with a change in our body.
Changes from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state can include:
- Spontaneous deep breath (not a forced one)
- Tingling feeling in a part of the body
- Tremors or shakes
- Spontaneous movement of the neck
- Perspiring or sweating
- Growling stomach
These experiences require the body to be in a parasympathetic state, and can allow the therapist to observe which one of the states the client is experiencing.
Human emotions require the participation of our entire body, and not just our brain or one part of it, as some people may think.
In terms of unpleasant emotions, we may attempt to not feel them as they are too difficult to bear. As a result, after “bottling up” our emotions for too long, we may have a more intense expression of them once we are willing to open them up.
In other times, we may feel as if we do not experience our feelings in full (e.g., dull feelings), or experience a different emotion than our expected reaction (i.e., sadness instead of fear) as a form of defense in order to cope.
However, we usually cannot “get rid” of these emotions by simply ignoring them. Instead, we just carry them with us everywhere we go. The healing process usually begins with curiosity, and slowly builds the capacity to hold these emotions for longer periods of time.
Other Mammals Do Not Experience Trauma. Why?
In nature, there hasn’t been a finding of other mammals that experience trauma, without intervention from humans.
Many animals lack a Neocortex, the part of our brain that is responsible for strategy, planning, abstract thinking, language, reasoning, consciousness, rationalization, and imagination.
The Neocortex makes us so unique and sophisticated, yet we sometimes use it in inappropriate times, such as in times of danger. We believe that our thoughts will allow us to overcome a terrifying event, and as a result we interfere with the work of the nervous system, which attempts to process the event in a positive or healing way.
Take an example of an impala running away from a cheetah.
The impala’s nervous system notices the cheetah and reacts in a “flight” response and runs away. At one point the impala’s nervous system realizes the cheetah is too fast and would not be able to escape. As a result, it enters a state of a “freeze.”
The impala does not pretend to be dead; its body is in shock, at the highest level of distress, yet immobilized. The cheetah soon loses its interest in the prey that appears to be dead and leaves, which allows the impala to survive.
However, one must ask why the impala is not traumatized? This situation is incongruent, due to the high intensity of the body while all of the energy is captured in a frozen body.
Notice what happens once the nervous system senses safety. Heavy breathing begins to take place and then significant tremors of the entire body, in order to release that stored energy (in similar to tremors we might experience after a car accident or a fall).
Once the body finished the process, the impala runs away, without any trauma.
Human Resilience to Trauma
Humans have the same capabilities to cope with, and process distressing events or trauma, similar to other mammals.
In order to do so, we need to allow introspection and curiosity in regards to our body’s reaction to distressing events in our lives.
Our vocabulary is limited and it is not always possible to express the way we experience incidents in words, such as thoughts and feelings. Our anxiety today may “feel” differently than our anxiety tomorrow.
This is especially true for some populations who have limitations expressing themselves verbally, like children and individuals with disabilities. However, the significance of an event is determined by the way our body experiences it, and less so of the details of the event.
We could all watch an event, with the same “raw data” from our environment, yet only a few of us may be traumatized. This may stem from different reasons, such as our personal history, and it occurs when energy is not released in an appropriate way and stored in our body.
Therefore, the healing will come in a similar manner by releasing that stored energy in our nervous system. In Somatic Experiencing Therapy, the “raw data” of the event will be used in order to elicit these somatic symptoms, and provide a corrective experience of releasing that stored energy.
Fear is in the core of our past traumas and can manifest in different ways. The body tries to experience the event again and again, in the hopes to have a corrective experience, yet does not know how to do so.
As a result, our body can be “re-traumatized” and overwhelm us instead. We need to slowly be able to experience the fear and complete the fight, flight, or freeze response in the original way our body was designed to do in the first place.
Somatic Experiencing Therapy – Titration, Pendulation and Expansion
The work in Somatic Experiencing Therapy is a gentle process, since this is a very direct approach towards the core of our experiences, while considering the need to be able to tolerate these emotions.
The somatic experiencing practitioner or therapist needs to be fully attuned to the clients in their process. In order to do so, we have to work one step at a time, in a process called “Titration,” where we slowly move along the traumatic experience.
However, sometimes, these small steps will still feel overwhelming to certain people. Therefore, first there is a need to resource clients and find ways that strengthen them by using Somatic Experiencing steps. This is called “Resourcing.”
After the Resourcing step, we will be moving back and forth from a “resourceful state” to a “distressed state” similar to a pendulum in the step known as “Pendulation.”
The Pendulation step slowly allows a person to create a sense of relief while exploring body sensations. However, in some situations it would actually be more helpful to remain longer in the feeling of distress and expanding it to other areas so it won’t feel so unpleasant. This is the process called “Expansion.”
This approach would be followed by a much more significant relief.
In order to use this method, we have to use our limited vocabulary to describe what we feel in our body and use images, in addition to thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
These descriptions are many times intuitive and do not always feel like they “make sense.” Curiosity during these sessions would greatly benefit most clients.
“What If I Don’t Remember My Traumatic Experience?”
The body has its own way of re-experiencing past trauma in the form of body gestures, eye movement, feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
As long as the past events still have an effect on us, we will be able to notice and address them in some form or another.
These patterns usually tend to appear again in our daily lives and we can access them in the Somatic Experiencing work.
The Coronavirus Pandemic Situation
The Coronavirus Pandemic Situation is something most of us will probably only experience once in a lifetime, if at all.
In addition to the existential distress this creates in our lives, these difficult times can also bring up our own memories of past childhood illnesses, or the illness and death of loved ones.
These trying times can produce a higher level of stress for many individuals, and they would benefit from Somatic Experiencing work, as mentioned above.
This time of “safer at home” can bring up many conflicts and anxiety, which has the potential to be considered at some point in the future as a “traumatic experience.” They best way to prevent this from happening is to address these issues while they are occurring and fresh in our mind.
Everyone should be aware that they do not have to hold on to the toll of these traumatic experiences forever. There are healthy and effective ways for managing and treating PTSD and trauma.
– Itay Kohane, PsyD, Primary Therapist
Most of the information outlined above was acquired through trainings Dr. Itay Kohane received at the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute.