Somatic Experiencing

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Dr. Levine: When I first started developing my approach to trauma, I noticed how many different kinds of seemingly ordinary events could cause people to develop symptoms that would be later defined as trauma, as PTSD.
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I also was really curious why animals in the wild don’t develop the same symptoms – because the parts of the brain that respond to stress are quite similar in all mammals, including humans. And if animals became so easily traumatized, they probably would never survive because they would lose their edge. They wouldn’t survive, nor would the species survive.
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So I realized there must be some powerful innate mechanism that helps people rebound; that sort of resets our nervous system after highly arousing encounters with stress. And I discovered that these reactions that reset the nervous system are identical with animals and with people. The difference is that we learn to override it because of our fear of powerful sensations.
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“I discovered that these reactions that reset the nervous system are identical with animals and with people. ”
I know it is an oversimplification, but the basic idea is to guide people to help them recapture this natural resilience. We can do this through helping them become aware of body sensations. And as they become aware and are able to befriend their body sensations, they are able to move out of these stuck places.
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I realized that trauma was about being stuck in these high levels of arousal or in low-level, shut-down levels of arousal and dissociation. So it really became a matter of learning how to help the people to contain these sensations and help them to move through, back into life, to discharge, as it were, these high-levels of activation.
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“It really became a matter of learning how to help the people to contain these sensations and help them to move through, back into life, to discharge, as it were, these high-levels of activation.”
In animals – and in humans – I noticed that trauma has a particular type of sequence involving shaking and trembling.
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We can help move these people out of these high states of hyper-arousal back into balance, back into equilibrium, and how to help people come out of shut-down and dissociation, and come back into life. We discovered that it was possible to do this in a safe way; in a way that really largely ensured that people weren’t overwhelmed.
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Back in the 1970’s, there were some cathartic therapies that would lead to really big reactions, and often people would feel better after that – probably, at least in large part, because there was a releasing of endorphins and catecholamines, adrenalin-like hormones, and neurotransmitters, and so people, in a way, felt a tremendous relief, even a high. But then they would go back into the same trauma patterns afterward.
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So I realized that, if you just overwhelm the person, the nervous system really can’t tell the difference between the trauma and just being overwhelmed/overloaded in the same way.
“If you just overwhelm the person, the nervous system really can’t tell the difference between the trauma and just being overwhelmed/overloaded”
So that really is the basis of the core aspects of somatic experiencing. And because it was a naturalistic way of approaching things – learning from animals in the wild, from ethology (I actually called my first book Waking the Tiger, dealing with trauma) – to awakening those resilient instincts that exist within us because we are mammals.
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8 responses to this post.

  1. Fascinating!

  2. Posted by Jennifer on May 31, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Stuck parts (places).

  3. There is also an element of chronic stress at play.
    Acute fight or flight, once we escape, usually involves a period of calm in which to reset.
    Chronic exposure in humans does not permit this, leading to full complex trauma patterns appearing, as the response has no chance to dissipate.
    Sandy
    Vajrablue.com

  4. 22 vets a day commit suicide

    No chance to dissipate

    Thoughts can kill when is linked to trauma

  5. Posted by Jennifer on June 1, 2016 at 12:47 am

    I don’t think just Vets. Chronic stress does come in to play, effects all of us in one way or another. Catalyst to fire up nervous system, triggers a C PSTD event.

  6. A very similar process is seen in attachment and developmental trauma that can develop into so called borderline personality disorder.

  7. Posted by Al on June 2, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    Marty,
    Have you ever tried TRE (Trauma Releasing Exercise)? It helps induce the body’s natural tremor/shaking unfreezing response Peter Levine writes about. I have been doing the TRE 3x week, and it has been very helpful to me. It always the psoas muscles & diaphragm to release their held tension. I feel a lot more relaxed, and way more empowered. TRE for me was the missing piece (much already transformed through just being the Seeing, and breaking allegiance to/identification with the mind with mindfulness.
    If you ever tried it, I would love to hear what you think.
    Thanks for the site & book recommendations.
    Be well!

  8. I am checking that out, thanks

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