It Starts with Connecting to Our Bodies
There’s a theme in my work of connecting back to the body (which I think is already a feminist idea), and I wanted to describe one of the modalities I use to do that. I think a lot of people are used to the idea of therapy as talk therapy, and may not realize that there are other, more body-based forms of healing that can be used by trained trauma specialists to allow clients to move through their traumatic symptoms. I think this can be especially helpful when clients are dealing with more body-based symptoms like hypervigilance, a more sensitive startle response, freeze responses, dissociation, chronic tightness, tension, or pain they feel is related to the trauma, and so on. It may help clients who feel they have already told their story and and looking for the next layer of healing, along with clients who don’t want to have to share the details of what happened to them with anyone.
A Quick Synopsis of Somatic Experiencing
Somatic Experiencing is based on the work of Peter Levine. He wrote Healing Trauma, Trauma and Memory, and a few other books of a similar vein. His work is based on this idea that when we go through a traumatic experience – which could be anything from a sexual assault, childhood abuse, to a car accident or fall, for example– our nervous system responds. It goes into fight flight or freeze – a natural, survival response that allows us to live through a situation. And here, especially coming from a feminist lens (where I recognize that clients can be blamed for their experiences and their survival responses) I want to reiterate that all of these survival responses are equally valid. In less than a second, our body reads a situation as life-threatening and does whatever it needs to do to survive. The body also doesn’t judge one way of surviving as better than another – it just does what it needs to in order to get through. I spend a lot of time working on this with my clients and helping them recognize the ways in which their bodies actually protected them (even when it doesn’t feel like it).
Levine recognizes that sometimes, even after the traumatic event is over, all that nervous system energy gets stuck, or thwarted, and we’re not able to come back down into feeling re-regulated again. Maybe there wasn’t someone safe to run to, or it all happened so quickly. We may end up left feeling still frozen, still stuck. Or constantly vigilant, like there’s something terrible about to happen. Or consistently angry, in fight mode all the time.
When that happens, which is more common for humans than it is for animals in the wild, the therapy is that we slowly, safely, and through containment make space to go back and process those past events. We release any activation so that our traumatic symptoms no longer have such a hold over our current lives.
What Somatic Work Looks Like in the Therapy Room
The way I typically use Somatic Experiencing, if clients want to give it a try, is to start with some grounding and resourcing activities. We could end up spending one session on this, or three, or ten, all depending on each person and what their body needs in order to feel safe. Really important here as a feminist therapist is offering somatic work with consent (“would you like to give this a try?”) and working at the client’s pace.
Once we’re both feeling confident that they’re ready to begin processing the traumatic event, we take the time to ground ourselves, then begin with the part of the experience that is least activating for them. This is known as titration. It basically means doing a little bit at a time (the smallest amount that the client can stay present to) and not just overwhelming the nervous system by diving into the most difficult part of the trauma. Once we’ve processed the least activating part, we move a little further in, and so on, and so on. The entire process can take five sessions, or ten, or …. You get the idea.
That’s my attempt at describing Somatic Experiencing for tonight. Please note I have taken the Beginner and Intermediate trainings but not the advance, which means that though I of course integrate everything I've learned into my work, and do so often, I am not an official Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP). If you’d like to learn more about Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine has been interviewed a number of times about his work and he's shared some fantastic stories, metaphors, and wisdom, a lot of which is available for free on YouTube.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.