21st Century Psychotherapy Takes Lessons from the Jungle
Traditional talk therapy is transforming. Over the past decade, a host of “embodied” therapies have emerged which all serve the same purpose of healing from the “bottom up” (vs. traditional “top down” cognitive approaches, that sometimes get stuck at the body/symptom level). One of these, Somatic Experiencing™, engages clients through the “felt senses” in their bodies, helping to integrate the five main ingredients of our embodied experience: Sensation, Image, Behavior, Affect and Meaning.
By studying animals in the wild, psychologist Peter Levine, Phd. has provided an empirical basis for what many complementary therapists have known intuitively for centuries about the fundamental mind-body connection. That knowledge is based on the fact that we all are animals, with the same basic brain structures, autonomic nervous system, and fight/flight/freeze responses. When uninterrupted by fear, these natural responses flow through the body, allowing for the innate healing capacity of the nervous system and of trauma related responses and disorders.
In his research, Levine set out to study why animals in the wild, who routinely get threatened by life and death situations, rarely become “traumatized” with symptoms like we humans get--of anxiety, phobias, OCD, depressive disorders or most severely-- PTSD. He discovered ways that highly activated motoric responses (fight/flight) can sometimes get “stuck” (frozen) in the body/nervous system--undischarged at the moment of “startle” or shock, due to blockage from a fear of experiencing those responses (feelings, sensations). This stuckness (like having the gas and the brake on simultaneously), becomes wired into the brain, associated through conditioning with the original fear--creating a sensitivity to triggers that remind the body (again through conditioning) to “relive” rather than remember the original experience which was never fully negotiated through the nervous system. Observing animals, Levine found that intense shaking, trembling, breathing and heat in the body are some of the healthy ways to stay off the brake and to discharge this activation. Knowing this became the foundation for developing techniques that allow the body finally to do what it couldn’t in the first place.
There are many colloquialisms that provide examples of these universal “felt senses” and healing responses such as 1) having a gut feeling 2) getting it off one’s chest 3) feeling a pit in the stomach 4) getting a load off one’s shoulders 5) having a broken heart 6) feeling jangly and jittery 7) having a hot temper 8) taking a deep breath.
Levine states that it is, interestingly, that part of our brain which sets us apart from wild animals--the neo-cortex, which interferes with innate healing, putting humans at a greater likelihood for developing trauma related disorders. It is the way that humans try to make (non)sense or connections about the events and their experience, which causes a shutting down of the natural flow--by thinking (thus fearing and avoiding) too much about cause, blame, shame, anger, sadness, guilt etc. which have sensations that are seemingly too enormous and scary to be experienced at the moment.
Levine affirmed that it is the uniqueness of humans which causes one person to get stuck and another to move on in flow, unafraid--showing that a traumatic reaction is not necessarily the same as the event itself. Additionally, he found that many, perhaps unexpected experiences, remembered or not, but coupled with fear and a frozen state, can become traumatizing--such as administration of anesthesia in an unsettled state, being trapped or strapped down following an accident, or chronic, painful separations during childhood. It is a cornerstone of healing to provide a non-judgmental space for these long held vulnerabilities to emerge through the body.
Simply put, Somatic Experiencing™ allows in a safe place, an opportunity for the client to “renegotiate” the original trauma, gently touching into (through the “felt sense”), the still charged memories or symptoms, and then gently allowing the body to reorient to safety in the moment, gradually titrating down into balance the overcharged and overwhelmed nervous system. This freed up energy is truly a life force, helping to reengage clients into a more vital and connected personal, social and indeed, universal experience.