Somatic Experiencing (SE)
A gentle, body-based approach to Resolving Symptoms Related to Stress, Overwhelm & Trauma
Peter Levine is the founder and developer of Somatic Experiencing. He studied how animals in the wild reacted and responded to, what we would experience as a traumatic situation, possibly leading to years of varying degrees of post traumatic stress (PTS). He noticed that these (natural) threats-to-life did not cause wild animals residual trauma or symptoms of on-going stress. But in humans it did. He noticed a series of behaviors that animals go through, and developed techniques to help humans go through them too, unlocking stuck-ness and continuing the process of resolution and return to flow and healthy.
Ama will direct and accompany you through simple yet powerful body-centered explorations, exercises, self touch, and assisted touch, to help move these stuck energies, to complete the survival physiology, to encourage reconnection with self and deep healing.
As we begin the process of delving into the depths of trauma and survival physiology, we explore first with minor stressors to keep the process gentle. Ama guides you to notice how the body reacts and changes, and helps you to identify coping strategies that have been employed. We listen and feel into the body's experience, in the present moment. Without requiring a story, without replaying an incident, we begin by listening to what the body is telling us, and try to translate it for deeper understanding. And we direct focus and attention to what helps shift that feeling.
Where do you put your focus, in your body? Is there a shape? A color? A Texture? A temperature? Any symbol or image associated? Anything popped into your head? Connections? And after acknowledging that which is true, in the moment, Ama will ask you to look and feel deeper... "What else do you notice?" What makes the experience change for the better? What offers relief? Who supports you?
Your attention expands to other parts of the body, other experiences, perhaps more comfortable or pleasant feelings that are ALSO present, simultaneously.
We develop this ability to move between the discomfort and the comfort; the pain and the pleasant; the stressful and the relaxing; the contracted and the expansive. In SE, we call this capacity to move back and forth between these states Pendulation. It is a major skill necessary for increasing Resiliency.
Functions and Behaviors
When an animal in the wild experiences a potential threat to it's life, there are a series of behaviors they go through to increse their chances of survival.
First, the animal orients its senses toward the perceived area of danger. For example, the dear looks and points it's ears and nose toward the direction of a possible predator. It takes an instincual split second to determine if it needs to run or not. If not, it will go back to grazing. Relaxed. Able to digest.
The animal's Parasympathetic Nervous System Response can resume - digestion resumes, blood returns to the core, heart rate decreases and repiratory rate increases back to normal.
If the animal IS in fact in danger, it will Fight, Flee, or Freeze, to minimize the potential of death and pain. In this scenario, the Sympathetic Nervous System Response takes over - blood shunts to major muscle groups to enable Fight or Flight. Adrenaline and cortisol pump, senses are sharpened, heart rate increases, respiratory rate increases, digestion ceases.
If the animal cannot run or fight, it might Freeze. It's like pressing the gas pedal and the brake pedal to the floor at the same time. Respiratory and heart rate decrease, but there is high tone in muscles and the stress hormones are pumping away. Alternatively, the animal might Feign death, which is more of a collapse of the systems. Both survival strategies of the nervous system are due to overwhelm in the system and often cause Disociation. They involve a numbing effect; an attempt to feel no pain; to be invisible.
When the threat is over, and the wild animal has survived, it shakes off left-over stress hormones and muscle tensions, and breathes deeply, before returning to life as usual - eating, digesting, and engaging with the herd.
As for humans (and domesticated animals as well), we sometimes get stuck somewhere in this Fight/Flight/Freeze/Feign process. We didn't have Completion of one or more stages in the Survival Physiological Responses, which causes symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).
For example, we didn't get to fight, we may have symptoms of pain and tension in our arms and neck. The energy never had a chance to work it's way out but the impulse is still there, still requiring blood flow, still pumping adrenaline, keeping us in high alert, exhausting our reserves.
If we had an impulse to flee, there is likely too much muscle tone in the legs, forward stance, a readiness to pounce, to move, to run towards safety or away from danger.
In some scenarios there are symptoms of hypertension and hypervigilence, in other circumstances, or for other people, there may be a flacidity, a lack or impulse or ability to move or act, depression or digestive problems. Again, acknowledging that in some moment in time, that stillness is likely what the system perceived as successful strategy to stay alive, it will keep employing that coping mechanism with other perceived threats and stressors throughout time. In this case, we need to awaken the inner tiger; we need to find and activate innate impulses at our more advanced stage of understanding and development.
We may experience any number of other physical and emotional challenges from past or ongoing present stressors and overwhelming scenarios. SE works to help reset the nervous system back into parasympathetic operation. We start slow and with Resourcing.
Building Capacity & Resiliency
Just as one person who witnesses a terrible crime will go on to a normal day, another person will have recurrent night mares and trouble digesting. How did one person become so much more resiliant than the other? It is hard to know, but the good news is that there are many learnable skills we can employ in stressful and overwhelming moments, and afterward.
As we practice building our capacity to stay centered and have appropriate reactions and responses, we increase our resiliency. Small things that used to aggrevate or upset us are less invasive in our lives. We learn to choose and direct our focus and energy into productive thoughts and behaviors, and comfortable sensations. We elevate our understanding about what triggers us and have more tools to proceed in a healthy manner, letting go of and working with the energy that arises.