COME ALIVE: Body Wellness and Somatic Experiencing

Apr 07, 2015

by Eva Angvert Harren

There is hope! Healing is available to everyone; we just need to spread the word. After 15 years of searching for a solution that could make it possible for me to live inside my body and mind, I ‘stumbled upon’ Somatic Experiencing in 2005. SE taught me a body/mind-awareness approach to the unresolved stress and pain remaining from past traumatic events. This approach to healing from anger, anxiety, paranoia, etc, helped me to restore my own abilities to allow and self-regulate my emotions; a wonderful way to release pent-up stress and energy. It changed my life forever. I CAME ALIVE! My life is now filled with strong and wonderful feelings of freedom and possibilities. I would love to share the journey with as many as possible. If you wonder about body/mind wholeness, if you feel an interest in this approach to healing, Dr. Levine’s book In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness is a must read!

And of course, visit my office and start your journey….:-)

There is a process available that can offer transformation from the debilitating effects from traumatic events to join the human race again. In his book, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Psychologist Dr. Peter Levine describes the “antidote for trauma: the core biological mechanisms that therapists must be aware of and able to elicit in their clients in order to assist in resolving their traumatic reactions” (73). In chapter five of the text we learn how incredibly important the know-how about trauma really is. This chapter alone could be a helpful source for every member of the healing community when it comes to trauma resolution and true recovery. Unfortunately for many trauma victims, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) serves as “the law” when it comes to categorizations of disorders. Consequently, trauma victims may end up in different categories dependent on their most prominent disorders at the time of diagnoses.

According to Dr. Hermann M. van Praag, in his article, “Kraepelin, Biological Psychiatry, and Beyond,” these diagnoses and disorders were originated by Dr. Kraepelin who “inaugurated a new diagnostic paradigm in the realm of mental disorders.” According to Kraepelin mental pathology could be “divided in discrete disorders distinguishable one from the others.” Van Praag points out that the DSM-IV’s system of diagnosis and symptoms is greatly influenced by Kreapelin’s theory, and he wonders if this system has “indeed been productive for biological psychiatry, or rather hampered progress in this field” (van Praag 29).

There seems to be a legitimate reason to take a look at the disorders and reconfigure old paradigms for diagnosis. There is great danger in identifying or categorizing people via labels of disorders. The work of Dr. Levine is a refreshing model that views the patient as a person. We need to learn how to recognize symptoms identifying trauma and still grant the person the dignity to be seen as a whole human being. To be seen as case studies who need to manage our disorders with medications does not respect and support human beings to come alive. Levine introduces nine building blocks essential to a successful return to aliveness.

Feel Alive, Feel Save, Dare To Feel

To feel alive, truly alive, we first need to feel safe enough to dare to feel anything. Many of us have desperately tried to avoid any remnants of memories that will remind us about what happened. Doing so, many of us have used (consciously or unconsciously) countless recourses to achieve one single goal…numbness. Some of us have been existing, not living; many of us have been functioning, but not been alive.

The steps to recovery from trauma that Dr. Levine suggests have been my personal path back to life. When the past interrupts and distorts my present moment, the SE model has supplied me with the skills to ‘be with the sensations,’ give them some attention, and release the energy which creates the pressure. The result is a wonderful relief and ability to stay present…no matter what. Dr. Levine calls this “the freedom of attention,” a delightful awareness available to us all.

Gratitude is what comes to mind when I think of Dr. Levine and his tireless work with Trauma. The same I hear from people who have been fortunate enough to find a therapist with, not only knowledge, but experience with somatic awareness. One of the paths to this awareness is offered through Dr. Peter Levine’s SE model. The steps back to aliveness are not linear, but it is essential that the first three steps are established as a foundation of safety and trust before real “psychobiological process” can take place (Levine 74).

The first important step for us in the SE model is to “establish an environment of relative safety.” In Dr. Levine’s own story, when he was hit by a car, a woman sat down calmly next to him and provided a sense of safety that helped him to stay aware and able to process in the moment what had happened. Levine points out that this is a “critical element that trauma therapists must provide for their unsettled and troubled clients. This truly is the starting point for one’s return to equilibrium” (Levine 75). In other words, the foundation for recovery back to life starts with feeling safe.

When we can feel a sense of safety and a trust that the practitioner has the competence to ‘be there’ no matter what, we may dare to explore sensations in the body. Many of us have not felt anything for years. Consequently, when we start to recognize feelings again the sensations can quickly become overwhelming.

As a second step, we need competent support by practitioners who themselves are trained in SE, and know how to tolerate and maneuver their own body sensations. So, we start small. As long as we have had an experience of feeling safe within, there is now an intuitive knowing that we can get there again. We can then develop the courage and skills to move between exploring more of our body sensations and then quickly back to safety again. Therefore, the third step is crucial to be able to allow this back and forth rhythm to flow.

This third step is called “pendulation” which means that our innate organism has a natural rhythm of contracting and expanding. As we pendulate between these two sensations, we learn that regardless of how painful the sensation is, it will change. We become unstuck and start moving from expansion to contraction, and back to expansion, slowly learning how to stand the sensations that arise (Levine 74). In other words, we learn to create a “comforting rhythm” which helps us move back and forth between “resistance/fear and acceptance/exploration”  (Levine 77). This way we start to discover the inner landscape of our being and body with more feelings of aliveness.

Feelings Of Aliveness

An interesting fact is that the feelings of aliveness give a sense of arousal in the body very similar to the feelings, for example, of fear or rage. This thin line between sensations can be both confusing and frightening until we learn to distinguish between the two. After having experienced trauma and not being able to exercise our natural survivor instincts, for whatever reason, we have areas in our bodies that hold excess energy. The possibilities for pockets of sensations with explosive charges are plenty, and the therapist has to be competent in supporting the client while s/he is discharging the energy. After the first three steps are established, it is the job of the practitioner to hold a safe place for the client who then can neutralize excess energy, and slowly and gently come back to life.

As we are returning to the living, we are learning to pendulate and to “titrate” our way through these highly charged areas. Titration represents the process of a “gradual, stepwise process of trauma renegotiation” that happens when we feel into the pain and release any stored excess energy (Levine 82). Since trauma includes feelings of helplessness, rage, fear, powerlessness, and sometimes even nothingness, the remaining steps are used to develop the body’s own defense mechanisms and intuitive boundaries. Doing so helps us restore our own sense of safety, our sense of aliveness and empowerment, which in turn enhance the “capacity to be grounded in present time and to engage, appropriately, with other human beings” (Levine 94).

Engage With Others

Being able to engage with others is one of the most difficult challenges to overcome after years of disassociation and/or numbness. Many of us have been stuck in a time warp after the initial trauma, and many more have been repeatedly abused. Normal development of social skills and the abilities to engage in the world have been altered—another reason why the DSM-IV with its limiting and disabling categories of disorders can easily lead to a misdiagnosis of symptoms, and be a threat to a trauma survivor.

So, to blend and engage can be a challenge. As a trauma survivor myself, I can vouch for the feelings of confusion and wonder about how to behave and why. The subtle non-verbal cues of socialization are often hidden for a person who has not had the normal childhood opportunities to learn about social behaviors, or the time to develop an intuitive sense of time and space. Although there is a tremendous excitement in coming alive, it is coupled with an equally strong feeling of fear, the fear that comes from the knowing that you are different, and that you have missed out on years of normal development.

Something to consider: When we see a blind person, either with a ‘blind stick’ or a ‘seeing dog’ it touches our hearts, we can feel compassion for that person’s struggle. If this person would ‘bump into’ us, we show patience and understanding, and a willingness to support the person and guide her in the right direction. On the other hand, if we are socially blind, there is no stick! We cannot walk around with a sign saying “I am socially blind, please help me to see.” And when we ‘bump into’ people, step on their toes, become intense, awkward, or whatever that create discomfort in others, there is no compassion, or willingness to re-direct or guide. For the socially blind there is a high risk of being the unaware cause for irritation, frustration, and plain anger. We are most likely met with a frown or a stare, and a tremendous resistance to a second chance.

The road back to civilization, a sense of belonging, and the ability to build relationships are long with plenty of pitfalls. Recovery from trauma can be a painful process that requires willingness, courage, and trust. It has been said that rejection can hurt like physical pain. Stories from clients and personal experiences can confirm this. Being rejected, excluded, or shunned can manifest as a bone ache in your chest, close the throat, tighten the skin, shut down any cognitive function, and end with an embarrassing attempt to escape.

However, if you don’t give up, you will eventually find a few saints that are willing to put up with your awkwardness and support you on your journey. In addition, with the right therapist/coach/practitioner who can guide you to greater self-awareness, the journey back to aliveness is possible and exciting. You start to notice your own behaviors and how they affect others. Life can often be embarrassing; however you will develop competence in how to maneuver in the world, and experience the wonderful feeling of belonging! It’s a great journey!

Dare to come alive!

Works Cited: Levine, Peter. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness,
Van Praag, Hermann M. Kraepelin, biological psychiatry, and beyond, Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin
Neurosci (2008) 

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