Somatic Experiencing is a method for healing trauma that was developed by Peter Levine, after observing animals in the wild. This is described in his book Waking the Tiger. Trauma happens because an organism’s ability to cope with an experience is overwhelmed. Instead of being processed into an ordinary memory, the event seems to be broken into pieces, and if some reminder of the event triggers the organism, it is then literally back in the past. “Flashbacks” are not just an image of the event, they are an actual reliving. Usually the trauma survivor will have some of the information, but not all. She may remember the sight, but not have any feelings about it, or she may be overwhelmed by emotion which seems to come out of nowhere.
The word “trauma” is badly misused in our culture. It’s generally seen as being in the event — people would agree that a tornado or a car accident was traumatic but not more everyday things. Or people will say “I had a traumatic day” when what they had was a very stressful day. Trauma is something that happens in the nervous system of an organism when it meets an event, and its ability to cope with the event is overwhelmed. Two things that contribute to trauma are helplessness (either real or perceived) and the threat of death (either real or perceived). Peter Levine says that an infant can be traumatized by being left alone in a cold room. The infant is truly helpless, and its ability to regulate its body temperature may not be developed enough yet, and if the situation isn’t changed by an outside agency, the infant might well die.
Peter Levine’s theory is that trauma happens when an organism’s physiology detects a death threat, and responds by gearing up for fighting or fleeing. If the creature can either fight or flee it uses up the energy that has been mobilized, but if it can neither fight nor flee, instinct has a default plan which is freeze. This is what the possum does to avoid being eaten by a predator who thinks it’s dead and is not interested in eating dead meat. The coyote walks away, and the possum comes out of freeze. What happens to all the energy that was stored in the body? The possum shakes it off, before it walks away. The bear that has been chased and shot with a tranquillizing dart will start making running motions as it comes out from under the anesthetic. The body knows what it needs to do to discharge the energy. What happens to a child who is abused by its parents? Neither fighting nor fleeing is possible, and the necessary shaking may be stopped by a parent who says “I didn’t hurt you. Stop that.”
I don’t know what trauma happened to me. Fortunately I don’t need to know in order to heal. I deduce from the available evidence that what happened was I was left alone too much when I was an infant. Imagine an infant lying in her crib and she’s hungry. She cries as loudly as she can. Crying represents her entire repertoire of ways to ask for help. She’s so young that she doesn’t yet have “object constancy” — for the baby, if mother is out of sight, mother doesn’t exist. The truth is that this baby is completely helpless. If no one brings her food, she will die. The moment that her reptilian brain stem concludes that she will die, she enters the realm of trauma. I can tell you what that baby feels like: she feels terrified, some nameless doom is rolling toward her (she has no cognitive understanding of death) and she feels totally despairing because there’s absolutely nothing she can do to change it. These feelings will continue through her life as recurring episodes of depression and terror.
I did part of the training to be a Somatic Experiencing Practioner, but when I got very sick for the second weekend in a row, I decided my body was telling me that this was not right for me at this time. But I learned a lot about the process which has been very helpful in my own healing. In the training they taught us that the body doesn’t know the difference between a reality and a thought or an image. (The evidence for this is brain scans while someone is reading the story of their automobile accident.) If you tell the story of your trauma, you may be retraumatizing yourself.
In Somatic Experiencing, the first step is to get “resourced.” A resource is anything that helps you feel more calm, centered and grounded. Sometimes a resource can be a person or a place, or even an imaginary person or place. What makes something a resource is whether or not it makes you more comfortable. A resource can also be a place in your body that’s more comfortable. For me it’s often feeling my weight in the chair. Once you are fully resourced, you are allowed to look at one piece of your trauma story. Example: “When did you first know the car was going to hit you?” If your heart starts to pound or you get an adrenaline rush, you stop right there and go back to your resource. Using a technique called “pendulating” the practitioner guides you between the trauma and the resource until the trauma loses its charge. The idea is to work with tiny manageable bits of what happened. It’s counterproductive to tackle the whole thing at once, that’s how you got traumatized in the first place.