Health & Wellness Committee: Somatic Experiencing® for Healing Trauma
Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily the Health & Wellness Committee, and are not a substitute for talking to your doctor.
Trauma is any event perceived as life-threatening by an unsuspecting victim. When an individual’s sense of safety is breached, it sends his or her nervous system into overdrive and elicits a survival response — 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, a survivor of a car crash, for example, may undergo a panic reaction every 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 the person’s long-term health, and not optimal for negotiating future challenges.
Somatic Experiencing® therapy is a less-well-known 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.
It was developed by Peter Levine, PhD, who observed that animals living in the wild experience constant threats by predators, and yet appear to stay well adjusted. Levine 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.
SE helps individuals renegotiate their trauma stories once their bodies have completed self-protective responses — an SE term for the survival impulses that get shut down or suspended during trauma such as a yell for help stifled by an assailant’s hand, the impulse to brake an out-of-control car or a failed attempt to rescue a drowning victim.
When successful, SE helps clients get better at mediating challenging life circumstances and dispense with lasting traumatic imprints as they restore nervous-system balance. At its core, SE teaches that 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.
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.”
Rabbi Tarfon, a sage of the ancient world (70-135 CE) was fond of saying, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Bridging these ancient and modern imperatives for individual action to benefit the whole, the importance of healing from trauma has never been more clear.
Elanah Naftali, DrPH, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist practicing in Germantown. Trained in Somatic Experiencing and the Expressive Arts, she specializes in trauma healing. Her website is www.FeelingEase.com.