Resolving shock & PTSD symptoms
The symptoms are often difficult to explain in ordinary medical terms, and can seem resistant to treatment. Sometimes a symptom will resolve after some kind of treatment, only to be mysteriously replaced with another symptom somewhere else in the body. This is because the energy hasn’t been set free from the body.
Somatic Experiencing (S.E) is a body-based treatment used for releasing and healing trauma, shock and stress. It was pioneered by American psychologist, Peter Levine.
Dr Levine studied wild animals, observing that even though their lives are routinely threatened, they don’t suffer with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are able to release all the ‘fight and flight’ survival energy from their bodies, naturally and simply, when the threat is over. They then go on with their lives as if nothing has happened.
Although human beings have a similar nervous system to wild animals, we do not easily discharge this energy from our bodies. In our modern-day sophisticated world, we tend to override our instinctual natures. For example, after even a minor traffic accident, there is always a powerful adrenaline rush, and rather than allowing our nervous systems to express and release this energy, we will concern ourselves instead with the practicalities of the event, such as exchanging addresses, and hurrying to work. It is this ‘override’ that causes the spaced out state we call ‘shock’.
This survival energy is enormous – it allows a mother to lift a car from her toddler trapped underneath. If not released, it will remain trapped in the body and mind, and can persist for years causing a variety of debilitating symptoms. This energy may keep us stuck in the past, reliving trauma, unable to engage with life and the ability to feel fully present.
The freeze response
In the wild, when an animal is threatened it will first try to run away or fight the attacker (‘fight or flight’ response). A third survival scenario is also possible. If running or fighting is not going to work, or is not possible, then the animal will become immobile (‘freeze’ response) in a last attempt to escape death.
If the prey animal survives (predators often lose interest in immobile prey), it will discharge the enormous amount of frozen fight/flight energy through shaking and sighing and breathing deeply. All fight and flight energy will be released at this stage. The nervous system returns to normal, and all other bodily functions also normalise. Life is resumed as if the threat had never occurred. There will be no PTSD.
Modern-day humans are often unable or unwilling to use the instinctual fight or flight under threat. We therefore go into the freeze state as the only other choice. This is often experienced as numbing or shock or dissociation. And this generally does not get released as in the case of our wild animal. Shaking and crying after a threatening event is something a sophisticated ‘in control’ modern human doesn’t like to do! It looks silly and feels uncomfortable! This suppression lies at the heart of understanding trauma and why so many people – often unknowingly- are suffering from PTSD.
By not releasing freeze energy, we feel that the threat is still happening, keeping us effectively locked in the past. This can cause emotional problems (for example anxiety and panic attacks) and physiological symptoms – perhaps especially digestive and breathing pattern disorders. Many of these problems have no obvious medical diagnosis.
We may feel that the threat is somehow always with us in some shape or form, causing us to feel helpless and powerless without really knowing why. Carrying around unresolved survival energy can keep us hyper-vigilant, unable to relax or feel at ease.
Talking therapies may not free us from trauma if we are stuck in the freeze state because it’s is a nervous system injury not a mental disorder. We need the language of the lower brain – that of sensation, to do the work. Somatic Experiencing addresses this animal brain injury.
What is trauma?
Trauma is defined as a particular nervous system response to an overwhelming event; trauma is not the event itself. (Note – the same event might cause a post trauma syndrome such as post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in one person, and not in another.) When we are involved in a traumatic event, a huge amount of energy is made available in our bodies so that we can deal with that event. But often we become overwhelmed – shocked – and the energy that should be there to help us becomes frozen and stuck. Having ‘nowhere to go’, this trapped energy results in symptoms like these:
- Over-alert and easily startled – feeling ‘on-guard’
- Reacting irritably to trivial things, restlessness
- Exaggerated emotional reactions, and extreme mood-swings
- Sleeping poorly
- Panic attacks
- Flashbacks and nightmares
- Numbness and lack of feeling
- Feeling ‘frozen’, disconnected or ‘spaced-out’ (dissociated)
- Unexplained medical disorders
- Muscle tightness and pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Psychosomatic illnesses
- Fibromyalgia, asthma
- Skin problems
- Digestive problems
What causes trauma
People may experience symptoms that continue long after a traumatic event, and many treatments and therapies just don’t seem to work, or only do so for a short time. Whether the traumatic event was something global like war or a natural disaster (tsunami, earthquake), or something more close to home such as a road traffic accident, sexual or other physical abuse, severe illness or injury (including surgery), emotional trauma, or neglect or abandonment during childhood; the fact is that the body will react to all these different experiences in a very similar way.
Sometimes symptoms can be caused by events we may think are trivial – medical and dental procedures, for example, ‘minor’ falls, watching a horror movie, sudden loud noises, and even the stress of birth. The fact is, trauma does not have to stem from a major catastrophe.
And what is traumatic and harmful to one person may be thrilling or stimulating to another. You might go hang-gliding for fun, whereas I might feel sick at the thought of it.
So traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself, they’re caused when left-over energy from the experience is not set free from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.
Trapped trauma energy can result in:
- Breathing disorders
- Digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome
- Muscular tension and chronic pain problems
- Feeling ‘spaced-out’
- Inability to think clearly
- Memory loss
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Unexplained pain
- Hyper vigilance, feeling on guard
- Sensitivity to sound and light
- PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
- Panic attacks
Our bodies, like those of wild animals, have an inherent capacity to heal and self-regulate. Our nervous system wants to return to a state of equilibrium and balance. S.E teaches the client to track his/her own body sensations or ‘felt-sense’. Through this door, the nervous system shows us the trapped survival energy felt in the body and its release is encouraged safely and in small manageable pieces. This dynamic and creative body-aware approach can be deeply empowering, bringing us to a greater sense of self, and awareness of our senses and instincts. We then have an opportunity to reclaim what we have lost through trauma.
Summary: Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a gentle and effective short term method of resolving post-traumatic symptoms. It gradually allows the body to complete the natural cycle of events needed to turn off the reaction to the trauma. This allows the energy that causes symptoms to be released from the body. The body can then return to a more relaxed state and allow you to engage with life again, feeling more settled, present and comfortable.
I have a particular reason for being interested in the treatment of trauma – I and my family were down on the beach in southern Sri Lanka on Boxing Day 2004 when the tsunami arrived. (See ‘about me’ for a fuller description of what happened.) Miraculously, incredibly, we all survived. But thousands didn’t. And I had first-hand experience of what a human being has to go through when faced with a life-threatening situation. I felt the animal in me take over, while I kind of looked on.
Later, while researching the treatment of trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I read how the technique Somatic Experiencing (SE) was used to help the tsunami survivors in Thailand and India (see below for the research articles), and I began my training in it.
I myself went through SE therapy and found it transformative.
To read more about SE, have a look at the website /www.traumahealing.com/, or read Peter Levine’s books; Waking the Tiger; Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1997, and Healing Trauma. Sounds True, Boulder, 2005. Also see the articles Somatic Experiencing Treatment with Tsunami Survivors in Thailand: Broadening the Scope of Early Intervention. Leitch M L, Traumatolgy 2007;13:11, and Somatic Therapy Treatment Effects with Tsunami Survivors. Parker C, Doctor R M, Selvam R. Traumatology 2008;14:3.