Somatic Experiencing: The Chase for Trauma Healing

When I was conducting research for Panic! …and Poetic Justice, I came upon a fascinating perspective on trauma healing. In addition to presenting it in the eWorkbook, I wrote an article about it some time ago. Well, now it’s time for a two-part rehash.

Somatic Experiencing (SE) was conceived by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. SE is a “body-awareness” perspective on trauma. It’s based upon Levine’s belief that we possess, whether we realize it or not, an innate ability to overcome the effects of trauma. Problem is, our thinking gets in the way.

SE came to life as Dr. Levine observed that though wild animals of prey are under constant threat and siege, they’re rarely traumatized. Credit is given to an innate regulating mechanism that very efficiently manages and discharges the energy that accumulates in their bodies as a result of self-preservation behaviors.

Levine observed that when an animal of prey survives a potentially deadly chase, it actually takes the time to physically shake-off unused energy before moving on with the herd. Come to think of it, I’ve see that. Haven’t you?

Well, Levine posits humans are equipped with essentially the same mechanism; however, ours is greatly inhibited by our more advanced cognitive capabilities. Ah, once again – our thinking makes life more difficult for us.

Human-relevant is a structure in the midbrain known as the periaqueductal gray (PG). The PG, often stimulated by our alarm HQ, the amygdala, is thought to be involved with physically defensive reactions such as freezing, jumping, running, rapid heartbeat, blood pressure fluctuation, and increases in muscle tone.

Interestingly enough, the PG is also responsible for something known as quiescence, a state of being at ease and immobile, yet highly alert. Many scientists believe this is a natural recovery response after a tussle with a real or perceived threat.

Did you ever feel like you were frozen or immobile during a time of intense fear or anxiety? Come on, you know you have.

In humans, indeed all mammals and reptiles, freezing usually occurs right before the real or perceived attack. It’s one of three primary responses called upon when we’re faced with a perceived overwhelming threat, the others being fight and flight.

Well, this altered state of consciousness is designed to provide a last ditch shot at escape and to spare the body pain through a natural analgesic process should a brutal death occur. And guess what? The PG is responsible for this onboard pain relief, as well.

Now, this inability to “shake-off” causes big problems because it prohibits a complete purging, if you will, of excess survival energy. And this, in turn, impedes the nervous system’s efforts to regain a sense of internal balance or homeostasis. And that, in yet another turn, leads to trauma because the body now has to try to accommodate an excess of unused survival energy.

And this “has-been” mass of energy remains bound in our bodies where it rips us up mentally, emotionally, and physically. Again, we humans have the ability to shake-off this toxic mess; however, we generally find a way to think our way out of it.

Join us tomorrow as we tie a bow on the series, discussing so much more about Somatic Experiencing, including how we can put it to work. And if you’d like to do a bit of research between now and then, here’s a link to Dr. Levine’s website. Oh, yes – comments are always welcomed on chipur (right?)…

Foundation for Human Enrichment/Somatic Experiencing