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Somatic Experiencing: Free Your Body to Free Your Mind
“Our relationship to our own body is often one great casualty of trauma.” ”Learning to tolerate and be curious about dreaded physical sensations gives people a sense of mastery. . . Somatic experiencing, with an intuitive knowledge that there is a natural flow in and out of emotions, opens up an appetite for even deeper experiencing. . . Yoga is part of the overall healing process . . . ”
~Emerson & Hopper in Overcoming Trauma through Yoga
Traumatic experiences can interfere with our ability to enjoy a full and vibrant life. But are the psychological scars of traumatic experiences mirrored in the body in the form of trapped energy?
This is the tenet of Dr. Peter A. Levine, a pioneering thinker in psychotherapy and trauma work, who created Somatic Experiencing – a body awareness approach bearing many similarities to what the ancient yogis taught about how we can deal with the—at times overwhelming—stresses of life.
Millions of Americans live with trauma each day. Approximately 3.6% of men and nearly 10% of women in the US will meet criteria for post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime, surveys suggest. Among war veterans, occupants of inner city neighborhoods, political refugees, and children and adolescents who have been exposed to traumatic events, these numbers are considerably higher.
Many people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD. However, for some people, even highly stressful life events such as an accident, illness, death of a loved one, divorce, and unemployment can lead to many of the symptoms of PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD often include reliving the trauma over and over again, bad dreams, intrusive frightening thoughts, avoidance, depression, hyper-vigilance and agitation, and angry outbursts among others. These symptoms often create considerable disruptions to a person’s life, interfering with employment and social relationships.
Historically, treatments for trauma have mainly been psychotherapy, which focused on examining the thoughts and emotions surrounding the event, and exploring methods for coping with traumatic stress. The influence of trauma on the body was largely ignored.
Increasingly, however, counselors and psychotherapists are realizing that traumatic experiences become locked in the body as well, and that to be effective, treatments for traumatic stress need to incorporate both the mind and the body.
The Somatic Experiencing approach created by Dr. Peter A. Levine is an excellent example of this pioneering work. Dr. Levine is one of the foremost experts on healing trauma, the founder of the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute, and the author of the best selling book, Waking the Tiger.
Trauma, Dr. Levine says, is a “highly energetic response” in which energy gets “locked down in the system when [it is] traumatized.” Painful symptoms associated with trauma are the result of “fragments of sensory body memory” that become trapped. (See the YouTube interview below in which Dr. Levine describes his unique approach to releasing traumatic experiences locked in the body.)
Somatic Experiencing is a technique that involves discharging this trapped sensory memory, and integrating it with present day experience in a “coherent way.” The key to Somatic Experiencing is releasing and integrating this energy gradually, rather than reliving the experience or thinking about it. Dr. Levine believes that it takes a great deal of energy to keep the trapped sensory body memory associated with trauma from being released, which often results in fatigue or an inability to engage in pleasurable activities for fear that intense emotions such as fear or rage will emerge.
“The trick is not to deny, but not to get swept away” with anger or other intense emotions associated with trauma, Levine suggests. Feeling these emotions as “physical sensations in the body,” and releasing these sensations incrementally, he notes, is an important way to safely free stored energy associated with the trauma, and re-channel this energy into pleasurable activities.
Irrespective of whether you are dealing with a traumatic life event, or ‘simply’ high levels of stress, Somatic Experiencing offers important insights into how we can process intense emotions such as anger, grief, and fear in an incremental and healthy way. It recognizes that the experiences of our minds and our bodies are intertwined, allowing for healing at a deeper level.
As such, it is part of the larger mind-body revolution, of which yoga is also a part, which continues to deepen our insights into the importance of incorporating both body and mind in healing modalities for both psychological and physical issues.
Bessel van der Kolk, Medical Director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute and David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, authors of the book Overcoming Trauma through Yoga are pioneers in the integration of yoga and trauma therapy. They draw on the ability of yoga to cultivate mindful awareness, inner peace, and body consciousness, to allow people to safely experience challenging emotions and physical sensations, and to gain mastery over them. This fosters personal empowerment even in the presence of fear-provoking sensations.
Each time we ‘hold space’ for present awareness in our yoga practice—be it braving the physical challenge of sustaining a posture, or confronting difficult emotions or thought patterns—we learn to accept and embrace sensations in our bodies and minds that may previously have been interpreted as threatening. Yoga allows us to sit with those feelings, reinterpret them in the present, and release them, This is just one more example of the ways in which yoga is a practice of liberation that allows us to heal, and to experience the richness of life to its fullest.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at firstname.lastname@example.org or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.