How Somatic Experiencing Was Developed

Dr. Peter Levine, Founder of Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing is a mind- body approach to treating trauma that was developed by Peter A. Levine.  His first book, “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma”, shares his finding in the field of traumatology that he had been developing over the previous 40 years.  Peter A. Levine holds a Ph.D. in medical biophysics from the University of California at Berkeley, and also holds a doctorate in psychology from International University.  In his development of Somatic Experiencing he looked to the wisdom inherent in nature by observing the behaviors of animals in the wild.  He wanted to understand why wild animals consistently were able to return to normal after traumatic experiences and rarely developed adverse side effects like humans?

To begin this discussion of Peter Levine’s findings, I’d like to talk about the role that our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) plays when we’re faced with a threat.   The human body’s nervous system, like wild animals, is wired to be able to detect threat and sense if an environment is safe.  A psycho-physiologist, Steven Porges called this involuntary, and non-cognitive function to perceive relative safety “neuroception.”   Technically, it’s our neural circuits that distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening.

If an environment is unsafe for us, our body has automatic sequences of neural processes that initiate defensive behaviors.7  Our body’s first primitive defensive strategy is an orienting response.  Like animals, if we were walking in the forest and heard a sound in the bushes we would naturally stop, listen, and look to try and identify what caused the sound, and where it is the environment.   If we find out that there is in fact something threatening our bodies naturally prepare us to fight back (aggression), flee the situation (fear), or freeze (overwhelm)- “play dead”.

Each one of these defensive motor responses has a designated pathway in the Autonomic Nervous System’s (ANS) sympathetic or parasympathetic branches that become engaged to protect us at the appropriate moment.  The hypothalamus is the seat of the control of the ANS.  Through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis energy is mobilized for survival.  I’m pointing this out because understanding the workings of our nervous system’s built in defensive responses is essential for understanding Somatic Experiencing’s key strategy for the resolution of traumatic stress.

Peter Levine observed that animals were easily able to come out of these high states of the sympathetic arousal of fight, flight, and the parasympathetic freeze response after a threatening encounter, unlike humans.  What he observed was when animals returned to a safe enough environment after being attacked by another wild animal, involuntary they would do specific movements with their bodies that seemed to help them “come down” off of the high charged of the survival responses, and return to a state of equilibrium.  It was only when relative safety was restored in the environment of a wild animal, and thus their neuroception read “safety”, were their bodies able to let down their guards.  Then subsequently a very interesting and critical thing would occur. There would be an instinctual and organic completion of the motor movement action plan of self-protection that was interrupted at the time of their attack.  This organic completion of self-protective movements allowed the animals to easily find a state of equilibrium once again.  The biological need to complete a defensive motor action plan is essential in the understanding how species survive.  If humans are able to regain their connection to their instinctual and natural abilities, they will make steps toward resolving their own debilitating traumatic stress.

To give an example of this from nature, there is a classic video shown in the Somatic Experiencing trainings where we see a polar bear being chased by a helicopter.  The panicked polar bear is running and running with all his might to get away from this huge and frightening loud metal monster in the sky, fully engaged in the “flight” response.  He then goes crashing down with the shot of an anesthesia dart, and falls into this immobilized state. The interesting part is as he’s coming out of the effects of the anesthesia he’s on his back and his legs and paws are making movements as if he’s running, then he spontaneously convulses, twitches and shakes for a while before return to normal.  In terms of trauma healing, what is the significance of all these seemingly random movements of the Polar Bear?

Our whole class’ thoughts were “oh the cute polar bear, was he having a bad dream?”  We later learned that what he was in fact doing was completing the motor action plan that was set in motion at the time that it was interrupted by the strike of the dart.  The polar bear then proceeds to complete the sequential discharging of the built up survival energy.  The polar bear’s motor action plan was to successfully get away from the threat.  To see this plan through his Autonomic Nervous System summoned a tremendous amount of energy and adrenaline for survival that became trapped in his body when he was struck by the dart.  So as a result, when the traumatic event was over, and he was in a safe enough environment, his body exhibited it’s natural way of deactivating that high state of activation of his sympathetic response.   Little by little his nervous system began to return to the parasympathetic branch of it’s functioning, were he felt calmer and relaxed.

The key to understanding the Somatic Experience model is that these movements that he made are exhibiting his body’s natural ability to complete the motor action plan that was in place before he got attacked.  The completion of his defensive responses of running away, as he lay on his back hours later as the anesthesia wore off, allowed his nervous system to reach a peak in his arousal cycle that then would lead him to the deactivation of the remaining survival energy.  His legs were moving and engaging all the muscles that are used for running, his breathing was increasing as if he was in the moment of his chase and his adrenaline was pumping.  All his responses reached a peak in their arousal cycle that allowed the energy to come back down.  This discharge of energy is what wild animals are able to do organically, that we have somehow forgotten how to do, thus we develop post-traumatic develop stress disorders.

Another one of the Autonomic Nervous System’s responses that we share with wild animals is the freeze response.   Peter Levine became particular interested in this automatic self -protective response that is brought on when death feels eminent, because he saw this parallel response in humans.  This defensive response is natures compassionate way of “taking the edge off” the pain of a being violently attacked, as it triggers a release of endorphins.  In this analgesic state you don’t feel much pain, as there is a sense of being disassociated from the experience.   Humans, when faced with an overwhelming experience, involuntarily freeze too.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be eminent death that brings on this response; it can just be a situation that feels overwhelming to our nervous systems.

So on that note, if one of the other protective responses of fight or flight was unsuccessful in it’s attempt to protect us, as the last sequential resort, our bodies automatically resort to the primitive mechanism of the parasympathetic branch which is to freeze or become immobilized.  Even though outwardly the effects of the freeze response makes people come across as low energy, without much life force, and depressed, underneath that frozen shell is a tremendous amount of thwarted survival energy.

Peter Levine observed that we as humans have not been able to easily navigate out of this immobilized state, often leaving us feeling collapsed, disconnected, and depressed- common symptoms found in our culture.  He has linked these symptoms to humans being stuck in this primitive response, and has developed a way to delicately help people navigate through these elusive waters.  As a result they’re able to return to sense of self.  This shut down of immobility defensive response is characteristic of numbness, death-like feelings, as if nothings happening.  It’s the allowance of these sensations, and an uncoupling of the fear that is associated with them, that humans are able to move through and resolve this state.

I remember my teacher Steve Hoskinson saying to a client in a Somatic Experiencing session who had contacted their internal frozen state, “so how about if we just hang out in this “no feeling” without having to do anything?”  The client then, with their awareness paid attention internally to this numbness.  As a result, usually what happens was that as the “no feeling” is experienced with a person’s conscious awareness, for a long enough time period, there is a subsequent sudden and strong emergence of emotions and sensations that have been bound up.  This suggests that underneath many people’s seemingly numb feelings are in fact a storehouse of emotions, and incomplete responses.

On the freeze response, Peter Levine says “The physiological evidence show that the ability to go into and come out of this neutral response is the key to avoiding the debilitating effects of trauma”.  For a traumatized person, when this sense of self is regained after these processes, it’s like having a new lease on life.  A sense of  “I can” is restored and feelings of  “I can’t” begin to dissipate.  To witness someone make a recovery from feelings of listlessness to again feeling alive with the life force pulsing through them is touching and fills me with hope that there are solutions for many peoples debilitating symptoms.

So why is it that humans are not able to move in and out of these responses as naturally as animals do?  One reason is due to our higher brain center the neo-cortex.  It is the intellectual, rational, and cognitive aspect of our brain interferes with our body’s ability to discharge these high states of arousal brought on by traumatic events.  It intellectualizes and at times “talks” and reasons the body out of doing what it instinctually wants to do.  Peter Levine describes this part of our brain as the one that often “second guesses our ability to take life preserving action” and can be attributed to humans “self made web of fear-induced immobility”, states Levine.  The subtle and instinctual healing force that we share with our primitive past cannot be substituted with our reasoning abilities.

Also we as humans are self-conscious creatures that don’t want to appear strange to others in the society around us.  Shaking and convulsing after a traumatic event would appear “strange” so we suppress it, even if that was what our bodies need to do.   We’re constantly suppressing and skipping over these instincts and impulses of the reptilian parts of our brain, and in essence we rationalize ourselves out of feeling.  This override of the neo-cortex has lead us to getting further and further away from what we feel as the instinctual impulses of our beings, where the answers of how to unwind us from our traumas can be found.  Peter Levine believes that the key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans “lies in our being able to mirror the fluid adaptation of wild animals as they shake out and pass through the immobility response and become fully mobile and functional again”.

- Felicia Samata Mihich, S.E.P, C.M.T. is a Los Angeles based Somatic Experiencing Practitioner specializing in S.E. Touch Therapy.