Peter Levine On Somatic Experiencing: A Mind-Body Approach To Healing
Cover Photo By Marc-Olivier Jodoin
By Rachel Nichols
Editor’s Note: Somatic pioneer and trauma expert Dr. Peter A. Levine has dedicated his life to healing trauma worldwide. His life’s work on healing trauma through his method, Somatic Experiencing, has resulted from his multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application.
He recently led a two-day CIIS Public Program workshop on Healing Trauma in San Francisco and graciously gave SF Yoga Mag an exclusive interview. We explored the definition of trauma and how it can affect our lives, yoga’s role in healing trauma, as well as the importance of feeling our feelings, developing body awareness and embracing healthy connections so that we can heal; because healing is our birthright, afterall.
Trauma. What comes to mind when you hear that word?
A lot of people associate trauma with big, shocking, dangerous or scary events, such as natural disasters, getting into a bad accident, losing a loved one, or experiencing physical or emotional abuse. But trauma, according to somatic pioneer and trauma expert Dr. Peter Levine, is much more encompassing than that, and can have lasting effects on the body, mind and nervous system if not properly addressed.
When I asked Dr. Levine how he would define trauma, he said it’s an overwhelm of our natural defensive responses that creates something like an injury in our autonomic nervous system, which affects its ability to self-regulate.
“When we feel that our lives are threatened, our bodies naturally charge up for fight or flight. If neither of those two options are available, we fallback to the third option, to freeze—to trick a predator into thinking we’re dead, and giving us a potential opportunity for escape later,” Dr. Levine said. “Once it is safe, an animal will eventually shake and tremble, discharging all of that fight or flight energy. However, in trauma, we stay stuck in freeze, either there is too much, too soon, or too little, too long, and the animal (i.e., us) isn’t able to process, discharge and integrate the experience.”
The criteria for this is also on a sliding scale—unique to each person at each age. The younger we are, the less developed the autonomic nervous system is, and the easier it is to traumatize. This early traumas make us more vulnerable to other traumas later on in our lives, he said.
Trauma can also result from acute stress from perceived life-threats (our brain can’t tell the difference between a perceived threat and a true life threat), or as the end product of cumulative stress. Trauma may also become imprinted in the body early on in life when there are developmental or attachment issues that occur when children aren’t properly attuned with their caregivers, or if a child has a high ACE score (see the Adverse Childhood Experience study by pioneer Dr. Vincent Felitti) due to accumulated adversity in the first 18 years of life. The corrosive stressors of ongoing fear and conflict can also result in trauma.
“Over time, accumulated stress reaches a certain threshold where the normally resilient nervous system flips over into collapse and dysregulation. Sort of like the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Dr. Levine said. Over time, habitual dysregulation in the nervous system can lead to a number of conditions that have historically been difficult to diagnose, understand and heal, including chronic pain, fatigue, fibromyalgia, hormone regulation disorders, autoimmune disorders, panic attacks or a chronic underlying feeling of anxiety. The most important thing to know, though, is that while “trauma is a fact of life, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence,” Dr. Levine said.
Restoring Connection to Ourselves and Others
Dr. Levine, who has worked in the field of stress and trauma for more than 45 years and written several highly-regarded books on the topic, has developed his own unique approach to healing that he has been practicing for decades. He calls it Somatic Experiencing (SE).
He shared this fascinating and gentle approach with a group of healers, seekers and changemakers in San Francisco at a two-day Public Program put on by the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in April. The workshop explored how Somatic Experiencing can help release energy that gets trapped in the body after becoming overwhelmed by trauma so that we can restore our connection to ourselves and others. “That’s what trauma does—it breaks connection,” Dr. Levine said.
This disconnection happens when there is “dis-ease” between the mind and body. Therefore, the healing of trauma doesn’t come from reliving trauma—for example, by talking about it or retelling the story about the trauma, which can actually retraumatize a person—but rather by developing a coherence between the body and mind. The Somatic Experiencing approach is one that can help develop this coherence by helping a traumatized person increase their tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and emotions that have been suppressed, as a way to survive.
According to the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute, founded by Dr. Levine, the “SE approach facilitates the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms. This is approached by gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions.”
“We take on trauma in manageable chunks, so that we can stay present, in the here and now. That way, we can notice and reconnect to a lot of the more subtle nuances of our experience (either in the present, or in the past) that get lost in the traumatic narrative,” Dr. Levine said. “We also train our clients to notice (and not fear) the ups and downs, the contractions and expansions, of daily living. As an individual becomes more comfortable with staying present throughout these shifts, their capacity to handle more intense traumatic material also increases. Not only do we find healing, we develop a greater resiliency to future stress, as well.”
While “somatics” is becoming more of a buzzword these days in the healing world, it’s still a new term for many people, so is worth quickly defining before moving on. The way that the dictionary defines somatics is: relating to the body, especially as distinct from the mind. But when I asked Dr. Levine about his definition, he said that we should never exclude the mind in any conversation regarding the body.
“What we are working towards is correcting the over-reliance on the mind as the solution to reclaim our happiness, health and soul,” he said. “Descartes error: Cogito ergo sum (famously translated as ‘I think; therefore I am’). When the better idea is to seek out and utilize the wisdom of the body along with the mind, so they work together.”
Another way to look at it is: rather than trying to resolve the trauma through talk therapy—a “top down” approach, which can sometimes be re-traumatizing—somatic therapy does the opposite by working through the body first to help reprogram the mind—this is a “bottom up” approach to healing. The aim with Somatic Experiencing is to access the body memory of the event, not the story, and then work to heal and release the embodied trauma patterns.
Connecting With Our Felt Sense: How Yoga Helps With Trauma
While learning about Dr. Levine’s approach to healing trauma, I couldn’t help but think of how the practice of yoga seems to be a somatic, mind-body practice that can address trauma. One of the things that we learn in yoga is that "we have issues in our tissues," and that the practice of moving the body can bring some of the trapped energy (issues) to the surface. For example, it is not uncommon for yogis to find themselves in tears for what feels like no reason after doing several poses that engage the hips or opens the chest/heart space.
With that in mind, I asked Dr. Levine if there are any parallels that can be drawn between the practice of yoga and healing old trauma through body-centered approaches. The answer, excitingly for us yogis, is yes!
“Yoga has been shown extensively to be very effective with trauma, and, I believe, because it helps to move emotion out of the body,” Dr. Levine said. “The Latin root of emotion is e-motif—to move through. Yoga is most Westerners’ first access into the felt sense of the body, and staying with strong sensation.”
Staying with our bodily sensations is key to healing and releasing our old trauma imprints, but truly feeling our feelings is not always easy to do. This is where titration and pendulation—two important pieces of the Somatic Experiencing approach—can help. Titration is about “taking things in small, digestible, integrate-able chunks”—not doing too much at one time. Pendulation is the rhythmic shifting between the polar states of expansion and contraction.
Let’s apply these two concepts to the practice of yoga (asana) as an example: While in a yoga pose, we practice becoming aware of our bodily sensations, and don’t move into any area of the body (or into a pose) too quickly; we move slowly so that we don’t overwhelm the body—this is titration. When you feel stuck in a pose, you need to move into the contraction, and then out of the contraction, and then back into it, at a level that is at least tolerable, so that the contraction changes to something else—this is pendulation. Practicing titration and pendulation can help a person identify, feel and release trapped energy in a way that feels safe, therefore, easier to metabolize and heal.
How Trauma Energy Gets Locked in the Body
So how does trauma energy get locked in the body to begin with? “In order to describe it effectively, we need to look at something called the threat response cycle. This is a series of steps that all mammals take when confronted by a potential threat,” Dr. Levine said. “It’s important because, in trauma, any one of these (or even multiple) steps can be overwhelmed, and we get stuck in them.”
These steps include: orienting, arrest/assess, fight, flight, freeze, collapse and shutdown. The first stage of the threat response is the orienting, arrest/assess stage, in which a person (or animal) is assessing whether something is a real threat; for example, after a person hears a startling noise, they will automatically stop and decide whether or not they are safe.
If the body decides it’s not safe, a person’s fight/flight response kicks in, and their nervous system and primal brain decides at lightning speed whether or not they can fight or flee to stay safe. A problem sets in, though, when the person can’t fight or flee. This is when we freeze, or dissociate—think of a small child caught in the middle of two parents who are in a screaming fight. Babies and small children can’t fight or flee—they attach for safety—and if this isn’t available, they will mentally dissociate as a protection/coping strategy. If children have to protect themselves over and over again, they are in the process of developing a highly sensitized and dysregulated nervous system, which, as mentioned before, makes them even more vulnerable to other traumas down the line.
“A lot of us experience this freeze as dissociation or bracing,” Dr. Levine said. “All this energy is bound up with nowhere to go. Typically, the freeze response is time-limited, in that, once the threat has passed, we eventually come out of it. However, if the animal is attacked every time it comes out of freeze, or it goes into freeze while terrified (and is kept in it for too long) then more severe things happen.”
This is when we go into shutdown—a survival mechanism that manifests as a limited energy state. “This appears to be the lowest energy state possible, like preparing for death,” Dr. Levine said. “However, keep in mind that all of that fight or flight energy is still sitting at the ready, waiting to go. When stuck in shutdown, you get the issue of the brake and gas pedal being on at the same time. There is no energy, but an underlying feeling of anxiety. When things get more severe, the trauma becomes more somatitized, syndromes begin to appear, like chronic pain, fatigue, fibromyalgia, hormone regulation disorders and autoimmune disorders.”
How We Heal: Safety And Connection
Dr. Levine views trauma as the consequence of trapped survival energy. This had me wonder then if there are steps one can take directly following a traumatic event that might help one process their emotions to prevent this energy from becoming trapped. When I asked Dr. Levine about this, in short, the answer is: seek safety, connect with others and feel your feelings. We can begin to relax and come back into our bodies when we feel safe; then connecting in relationship to someone who can hold space for us, and show compassion and care, allows us to feel safe enough to feel the sensations in our body without cutting them off. He referred me to another one of his books, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, to illustrate an example of this.
“The first chapter actually is the story of how I was hit by a car while crossing the street. The key was the appearance of the pediatrician and her soft and kind presence, which really gave me the feeling of being safe and okay,” he said. “When pediatrician came and asked if there was anything she could do, I just told her to hold my hand and stay with me.”
After finding safety and orienting yourself, the next step is to go inside and notice sensations that are happening—or not happening—and report back as new sensations arise, or other sensations change. “Make sure to stay in the areas that are tolerable,” Dr. Levine said. “Give yourself 10 times as long as you think you are entitled to. Really, give yourself a lot of time. And, as you’re feeling these shifts and changes, feel how your body moved to protect yourself, and piece together the pieces of the puzzle, the orchestrations that allowed you to survive. Take your time. You may begin to notice a trembling or buzzing. If you do, let it happen. Don’t exaggerate it, but let it happens, if it builds, that’s great. If it stays the same, that’s great too. But wait for the buzzing, shaking and trembling to settle.” Feeling our feelings and sensations is key in helping the trauma energy get processed, digested, metabolized and released through the nervous system.
Discovering the Relationship Between Trauma and the Body
Fascinated by this approach to healing, I asked Dr. Levine about how he came to discover the relationship between trauma and the body in the first place. He said his first experience with embodiment was back when he was a graduate student at Berkeley in 1965-66, and shared this story:
“Some friends had invited me to a daylong workshop led by Charlotte Selvers, who did beautiful work with meditation and breathwork. At that point in my life, I would have characterized myself as not even having a body. I was just a floating head. And, here I was at a church in Berkeley with advanced meditators, Buddhist monks, and the like. Charlotte was instructing us to ‘breathe into [our] feet.’ And I was a science guy; I mean, I knew that we can’t breathe into our feet. Needless to say, I was very frustrated with this process, and I made it until lunch time when I decided to bolt out the door; but my friends saw me and grabbed me and told me to give it one more chance, which I eventually submitted to.
“It was around the last hour of the class when I finally had the experience of the breath filling my entire body, through my shoulders, my hands, legs, and even the feet. I was suddenly met by this deep feeling of, what you would now call, presence. More importantly, a sense that I was going to be okay. The world may still be dangerous, but that I would be able to handle it. I remember walking around the park later that evening, and I noticed that colors seemed richer, and the external senses seemed more attuned in general. This was what made me orient to the body.
“I began utilizing these breathing techniques, and experimented on some undergrads by attaching them to electrodes and trying to see if I could get them to have the same experience that I did, and that’s how I learned about coherence, or the optimal operation of breath and pulse rate, which is now studied as heart rate variability, HRV. With Nancy (a patient he wrote about in his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma), that was the first time that I saw coherence return to someone by discharging shock after guiding the client out of the early experience of helplessness, terror, and collapse into a new experience of empowerment and triumph.”
Since then, Dr. Levine has been on a life-long mission to heal trauma worldwide using his body-centered approach. He has worked with thousands of clients, written several books and led workshops around the globe. He also founded the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute, which offers professional training and public education in Somatic Experiencing.
As I have been working to rewire my own sensitive nervous system more recently, learning about the bottom-up approach to healing has been a personal gamechanger for me. For many years, I had tried to “let go” of anxiety that was chronically hijacking my body no matter how hard I tried to override it with my mind, which added layers of shame on top of it. I also couldn’t read my way out of it, talk my way out of it, or even breathe my way out of it. But now, as I begin to better understand the mind-body connection and how trauma is stored in the body, it is all starting to make sense why I couldn’t think my way out of old pain.
My biggest takeaway in a nutshell is that the old saying, “time heals all wounds,” couldn’t be more false. Time doesn’t heal wounds. Feeling them does.