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Trauma and Somatic Experiencing

Trauma and Somatic Experiencing

by Spencer Lee, intern

Are you familiar with the saying playing dead or playing possum? You probably learned the phrase by hearing your parents say that while pretending to be asleep growing up or by learning how that possum saying came to be. Playing dead or freezing is the third component of our sympathetic nervous system response- fight, flight, and freeze. When faced with threatening situations, people and animals do one of three things: fight- attack whatever is attacking them, flight- run away from the threat, or freeze- play dead.

Freezing is more than just pretending to be dead; it serves two very important purposes. This “immobility response” comes in handy for escape. Let’s say a coyote gets hold of an opossum; opossum plays dead. The coyote may lose its appetite, along with the thrill of the kill, and walk off. The coyote may take the possum back to its den, and in a moment of inattention, the opossum may find a time to run off. The second purpose the immobility response serves for living beings is protection. During this response, we go into an alternative state where no pain is felt. So, if the coyote decides to eat the possum, the possum will not feel the pain. We may have experienced this in a car crash where you feel no pain during the accident itself.

If you were to watch this opossum after the threat has passed, it would literally shake off the freeze response and trauma it endured during that threatening event. Here is a great video showing an impala demonstrating this “shaking off the trauma” after an encounter with a cheetah (don’t worry, the impala is okay!). Notice how the impala is completely frozen, takes some time to shake off the trauma, and then runs free like nothing ever happened.

Peter A. Levine is the person who made these connections between how animals and people deal with trauma. He realized that the cause of trauma in humans results from not shaking off the traumatic event’s shock rather than the event itself. He created the therapeutic intervention of Somatic Experiencing as a way to release stored trauma from our bodies.

What is Somatic Experiencing?

As we will refer to it, Somatic Experiencing, or SE, is a trauma therapy that re-integrates parts of ourselves to become fully functional again. Let’s back up a bit. When we freeze and do not release the shock of trauma, parts of ourselves stay frozen. These frozen pieces of ourselves perform trauma-serving tasks, meaning they act like the trauma is still going on. This presents as symptoms. Things like hyper vigilance, racing thoughts, increased heart rate, dissociation, or feeling helpless are examples of trauma-serving symptoms that are yet to be re-integrated.

Remember when we talked about how freezing takes us to a different, dissociated state where we don’t feel pain? Carrying around traumatic shock maintains a disconnection within our body. SE encourages us to feel every part of our body. Its exercises engage us in thoroughly examining sensations so that we can reconnect those frozen, trauma-serving pieces. The thorough examination and tolerance building of traumatic symptoms allows for releasing of the shock. Like mindfulness practices, SE encourages sensations and feelings to be felt, not avoided in order to be resolved. After we have released trauma shock from the frozen parts, we can live life functionally and with fewer trauma symptoms.

The goal of SE is to regain self-regulation. Before trauma, we can feel afraid and brave, hypervigilant and relaxed, as well as frozen and fluid. After trauma, we can become stuck in sensations of fear, hyper vigilance, and immobility. SE transforms us from being stuck in those feelings to giving us the ability to swing in and out of emotions as we would in normal functioning. There are times when it is appropriate to be fearful or hypervigilant. There are times when it is appropriate to freeze. The dysfunction comes from getting stuck in those and not being able to experience relaxation, calm, peace, or bravery. SE works to return us to our natural, functional state.

Somatic Experiencing in Therapy

I would highly recommend reading the book ‘Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma’ by Peter A. Levine, the expert on all things SE. His book gives a detailed explanation of trauma and SE exercises that can be tried alone. However, SE involves experiencing trauma symptoms, so it is best to engage in SE with a trained professional. Stillpoint offers SE as one of our specialties. If you feel it may be a good fit for you, give us a call today or talk to your current therapist about incorporating it into your care.

For more information on Somatic Experiencing, check out their official site.