Jennifer* had been through some previous therapy following rape in college. Through talk therapy, she processed the trauma and the feelings around what happened to her and understood that it was not her fault.
In her previous therapy, she worked on breathing techniques to calm her nervous system and positive self-talk to reduce the negative thoughts around the incident. But she still felt anxious when in a large crowd of people. Her heart would pound, and she would begin to sweat profusely. She felt short of breath, her head would start to spin, and she felt like every fiber in her being just wanted to run!
Jennifer avoided the supermarket at peak hours. She also stopped going to the dance classes that she once enjoyed. She would not use public transportation even though a convenient light rail station in front of her apartment complex stopped a block away from work. Jennifer quit going on dates because men made her uncomfortable because of how her body reacted.
Jennifer could not understand why she could not talk herself out of this. She had been to therapy and processed the trauma. Logically, it made no sense! Jennifer wondered what was wrong with her.
Working with the Freeze
Jennifer kept feeling like the problem was not in her head but in her body. No matter how hard she tried to talk herself out of the reaction, it did not work.
Jennifer sought my help to process what was happening in her body through somatic experiencing. She began to understand that her reaction was not her fault. When reminded of the incident in some way, a process would begin whereby her body would set itself up to process and clear the trauma. Her body was stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response to trauma. She began to understand this as the body’s brilliant protective mechanism to keep her alive during a crisis.
We started with allowing her body to experience simple pleasures, like viewing a picture of her beloved grandmother and remembering baking warm chocolate chip cookies on Sunday mornings as a child. This work was hard for her at first. Feelings of shame came up with pleasure. But as we worked together, Jennifer learned to separate joy and shame. She reclaimed her right to experience pleasure in all of its forms.
We worked with expanding the nervous system’s ability to gently move between painful and pleasurable, building resilience in her nervous system. Jennifer got good at this and realized that her tolerance for experiencing unpleasantness increased, and her body naturally shifted into relaxation, peace, and joy.
As Jennifer improved her skill by shifting her nervous system, we slowly reprocessed the trauma, allowing her body to respond to the memory. With support and empowerment, Jennifer allowed her body to move through waves of freeze, fight, flee, and finally shake off the physical trauma.
Jennifer was free by the end of our work together. She could go to concerts without a physical reaction and ride the light rail to work with no fear, heart pounding, or feeling of needing to run.
She even returned to her dance lessons and met a single man with whom she fell in love and is now engaged.
You Can Do This
It is time to thrive! You are on this page because you have an experience you cannot shake.
Perhaps, your body may be hyper-reactive to things and locked up in past trauma.
Although you worked with talk therapy, and it helped, you are far from healed. It is time to do the deep work. This work will set you free emotionally and physically from the past.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is Holistic.
We engage the brilliance of the body to allow healing naturally. Your nervous system is designed for resilience! Peter Levine, the founder of SE, theorized that the body has brilliant mechanisms for coping with trauma in a crisis. It responds to different stages of an overwhelming event with intelligence.
(The following contains a story of a gazelle hunted by a lion. Please use your discretion in reading it. Stop reading if it becomes too much, and know that this is a good sign that you need to do some work with your nervous system and trauma!)
Stages of the Crisis Response
Imagine a gazelle on the Serengeti. He is happily munching some grass when he hears rustling in the tall grass behind him. He quickly orients to the noise, turning both ears and eyes in that direction. He sees nothing, but his nervous system is in “watch out” mode. Hypervigilance, jumpiness, and feelings of being unsettled are often characteristic of stage one of the crisis response.
He does not know that a lion is stalking him in the tall grass. Suddenly, the lion springs from the grass, claws extended. The gazelle takes off, running for his life at full speed. His brilliant body shuts down unnecessary tasks like digestive and mating functions, pulling blood from those areas and pushing it to his legs for the run. It is an all-out effort to flee the lion. This is a stage two crisis response, sometimes experienced as a panic attack, the feeling to run, fight or hide.
The lion catches up to the gazelle and tackles him, taking him by the throat. The gazelle’s body prepares for shutdown as he surrenders to the lion’s jaws. He tried to get away, but it didn’t work. The gazelle’s body begins to feel disconnected from the pain, pulling his consciousness away from the jaws of the lion. However, his body maintains tension because there is a slight chance he may still be able to get away.
The lion is tired from the run and may not have the energy to make the kill. Feeling floaty, yet keyed up, represents stage three of the crisis response, resulting in feeling simultaneously panicky and spacy.
The lion increases his pressure on the gazelle’s neck. It appears the lion does have the energy to make his kill. The gazelle’s body knows it is over, and time is short. The body completely releases and goes limp – representing stage four of the crisis response, resulting in total dissociation. There may be no feeling in the body. One may feel detached from the body, experiencing no pain. Time slows down, and one may have an out-of-body experience.
The story isn’t over!
A herd of elephants happens to come by and chase off the lion before it kills the gazelle. The gazelle lies motionless on the ground until it begins to shake vigorously. Then the gazelle stands up and walks away to live another day. This behavior is the body’s natural response to trauma. The shake resets the gazelle’s nervous system to return to normal functioning. Humans rarely get to this stage naturally due to inhibition and social training. This keeps our bodies locked in trauma.
Somatic Experiencing considers this process and meets the body where it got stuck in the crisis. Imagine for a moment being a soldier in hostile territory. Perhaps a bomb exploded while this soldier was on duty. His body may have gotten stuck in orienting toward the sound. It never got to complete this action and is stuck in this stage. He may display a tick or a twitch in his neck without physical explanation. His work may involve allowing his body to move through all stages (orient, fight, flee, and shake) to reset the nervous system.
Maybe his body got stuck in dissociation instead of orienting and has not come out. Life feels detached and strange, and he feels out of sync with time. His work may involve allowing the body to slowly experience the activation of flee and fight to shake off the trauma.
Wherever you are in your process of trauma, wherever the body has gotten stuck, SE is a gentle way of meeting you, building resilience, and allowing the body, mind, and emotions to reprocess the trauma as a whole and release it.
Disclaimer: Name and story are composite narratives and do not reflect an actual client.