I would like to begin with a statement that I believe is an important one for me to make: I don’t consider myself an expert on Somatic Experiencing. I am a certified Somatic Experiencing (SE) practitioner, and prior to my SE training, I was a body-centered psychotherapist for twenty-six years. I am writing with the wisdom I have, using the expertise I have acquired from both my years on the planet and on the job, and from my heart and soul. My intention is to provide a view on a variety of issues and a way to work in psychotherapy through the lens of a Somatic Experiencing practitioner.
Slowing down. This is so often easier said than done. We live fast. Western culture promotes a fast-paced lifestyle, and this is evident in our work environments, our technology, our speed on the road, and our personal lives. The work of Somatic Experiencing involves slowing down. Achieving this goal is often challenging. Slowing down cannot be a demand, because demands apply pressure and promote rapidity. Instead, we can begin by simply bringing awareness to the revved up pace that has become normal.
We experience life as it comes. When it comes too fast, or with circumstances that deny the freedom to move, our ability to process our normal physiological responses is compromised. Under ideal circumstances, the nervous system triggers the release of stress hormones that eventually dissipate. In scenarios of extreme overwhelm, a shut down occurs and the physiological response is incomplete. This means that future unrelated circumstances can trigger the incomplete physiological response from the earlier event. For example, a person might lash out at a colleague or a friend for an innocent comment when it hits a nerve. This stored fight or flight response can surface at times that aren’t rational or particularly fitting for our normal reactivity, because the physical body remembers the older trauma and continues to try to complete the cycle of release. Suddenly, we find ourselves behaving in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise. We may act defensively in the course of a simple dialogue because of the unresolved trauma associated with surgeries, or car accidents, or with family conflicts experienced in childhood. We may even find that we react irrationally as a result of the body’s unfinished response to something like a dental procedure performed without anesthetics. Clearly, with our complex, diverse histories, it is not unusual to carry unfinished aspects from car accidents, surgeries, injuries of various types, and challenging childhood dynamics clustered together, narrowing our degree of resilience.
It might seem unlikely that a critical incident such as a car accident, tonsillectomy, or in utero shock could influence one’s ability to navigate relationships at work or in one’s personal life. I tend to be a skeptic until I have experienced something first hand. It might seem unlikely, but the unlikely could show itself to be profound.
Peter Levine, PhD; Raja Selvam, PhD, SEP; Diane Poole Heller, PhD, SEP; Nancy Napier, MA, SEP; Yiri Dollekamp, CMA, SEP
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