by Peter Levine
WHAT IS SOMATIC EXPERIENCING®?
”Somatic Experiencing®” (SE) is a short-term naturalistic approach to the resolution and healing of trauma developed by Dr. Peter Levine. It is based upon the observation that wild prey animals, though threatened routinely, are rarely traumatized. Animals in the wild utilize innate mechanisms to regulate and discharge the high levels of energy arousal associated with defensive survival behaviors. These mechanisms provide animals with a built-in ”immunity” to trauma that enables them to return to normal in the aftermath of highly ”charged” life-threatening experiences.
Although humans are born with virtually the same regulatory mechanisms as animals, the function of these instinctive systems is often overridden or inhibited by, among other things, the ”rational” portion of our brains. This restraint prevents the complete discharge of survival energies, and does not allow the nervous system to regain its equilibrium. The un-discharged energy remains in the body, and the nervous system becomes stuck in ”survival mode.” The various symptoms of trauma result from the body’s attempt to ”manage” and contain this unused energy.
SE employs the awareness of body sensation to help people ”renegotiate” and heal their traumas rather than relive them. With appropriate guidance into the body’s instinctive ”felt sense,” individuals are able to access their own built-in immunity to trauma, allowing the highly aroused survival energies to be safely and gradually discharged. When these energies are discharged, people frequently experience a dramatic reduction in or disappearance of their traumatic symptoms.
Because traumatic events are often encounters with death, they evoke extraordinary responses. The transformation process can allow people to deepen their sense of self and others. The healing journey can be an ”awakening” to untapped resources and feelings of empowerment. With the help of these new allies, people can open portals to rebirth and achieve an increased sense of flow. The experience can be a genuine spiritual awakening, one that allows people to re-connect with the world.
The very structure of trauma, including hyper-arousal, dissociation. and freezing, is based on the evolution of the predator/prey survival behaviors. The symptoms of trauma are the result of a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. By enabling this frozen response to thaw, then complete itself, trauma can be healed.
Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the dangerous event itself. They arise when residual energy from the event is not discharged from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds. Wild animals have developed the ability to shake off this excess energy. The key for humans in dispelling traumatic symptoms lies in our being able to mirror wild animals in this way. Dr. Levine offers a safe, gradual way to help trauma survivors develop their own natural ability to eliminate the excess energy caused by overwhelming events.
Trauma, Healing, and Spirit by Peter Levine, Ph.D.
Trauma is an internal straitjacket created when a devastating moment is frozen in time. It stifles the unfolding of being, strangling our attempts to move forward with our lives. It disconnects us from our selves, others, nature and spirit. When people are overwhelmed by threat, we are frozen in fear. It is as if our instinctive survival energies are ”all dressed up with no place to go.”
Trauma is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. We humans have the natural capacity to ”thaw” these frozen moments, and move on with our lives. By understanding why animals in the wild are rarely traumatized-though their lives are threatened routinely, we find the key to healing trauma. We do not have to cling to the past, reliving devastating events again and again. By gently awakening this innate capacity for resilience that we share with all living organisms, the straitjacket is loosened. As we are unbound from the past, a future abundant with new possibilities unfolds. Our ability to be in the present expands, revealing the timeless essence of the ”now.” Trauma can be hell on earth; transformed, it is a divine gift.
Peter Levine, Ph.D. is the originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing® and the Director of the Foundation for Human Enrichment. He holds doctorate degrees in both Medical Biophysics and Psychology. During his thirty year study of stress and trauma, Dr. Levine has contributed to a variety of scientific, medical, and popular publications. His book, Waking the Tiger; Healing Trauma is in its fifth printing and receiving wide international attention. He is presently working on two other books. It Won’t Hurt Forever is a guide to the prevention and healing of trauma with children. The other book is presenting trauma theory and practice with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Levine’s method, under the title Healing Trauma, Restoring the Wisdom of the Body, is available in an audio cassette tape learning series produced and distributed by “Sounds True, 1999. Peter was a consultant for NASA during the development of the Space Shuttle, and has taught at hospitals and pain clinics in both Europe and the U.S., as well as at the Hopi Guidance Center in Arizona. He lives near Lyons, Colorado, on the banks of the St. Vrain River.