Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Somatic Experiencing: Resilience, Regulation, and Self
By Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., Clinical Consultant for The Meadows and Mellody House
My life's work, encompassing nearly four decades, as a stress researcher and trauma therapist, has taught me how vulnerable we humans are to the effects of stress and trauma. An apparent contradiction to this fragility surfaced during a study I conducted at NASA with Apollo astronauts. In monitoring their physiological responses transmitted to Earth, I was surprised to observe an extraordinary capacity to successfully withstand extreme levels of stress.
However, the most exciting discovery of my career was the recognition that "ordinary" trauma sufferers had the same innate, though latent, ability to rebound from stress. I was both humbled and amazed to witness their ability to learn the very skills that I believe facilitated the astronauts' spontaneous resilience.
In the 1960s, as a student in the fledgling field of mind/body psychology, I learned how to "read" people's postures and assess the patterns of tension held in their bodies (in the vernacular, many were "uptight," "twisted" in angst, "scared-stiff," or helplessly "collapsed" and without energy). I was experimenting with using body awareness to help these individuals learn to normalize their excessive tension patterns. However, a deeper truth emerged from those shared efforts. I discovered that "long-forgotten" events, which had originally been perceived as significantly threatening or highly stressful, had left deep, organismic imprints on my clients. These stress patterns played out in the theaters of their bodies as habitual postures, recurring symptoms, stereotyped movements and repetitive behaviors.
As I continued to explore these body narratives, it became clear that, given the appropriate support and guidance, most individuals could unlock the somatic "stress memories" trapped in their bodies. In so doing, they experienced a rebound (albeit delayed) similar to what the astronauts exhibited as a spontaneous response to the stress of liftoff and space flight. With their self-possession restored, former trauma victims were relieved of their constrained postures, freed in their movements and behaviors, and liberated from many of their symptoms. I began to recognize that effective treatment was not a matter of remembering or erasing painful memories, but of establishing a resilient nervous system, similar to those possessed by the naturally endowed astronauts.
With the resilience of their nervous systems restored, my clients and I sometimes saw remarkable patterns of behavioral and psychological change. Rather than the repetitive and self-reinforcing patterns of symptoms, new adaptations emerged. Often, without the client even noticing, lifelong symptoms of pain, anxiety and sleep disturbances were replaced with engagement and interest in life.
Thirty years ago, Jody's life was shattered. While walking in the woods near her boyfriend's house, a hunter approached her and began an "innocent"conversation. It was mid-September. There was a crisp New England chill in the air. Her boyfriend and others thought nothing when they saw someone, behind the bushes, apparently chopping wood. A madman, however, was smashing Jody's head again and again with his rifle. The police found Jody unconscious. Chips from the butt of the rifle were nearby, where they had broken off in the violent attack.
The only recollection Jody had of the event was scant and confused. She vaguely remembered meeting the man and then waking up in the hospital some days later. As she tried to recollect the event, she went blank in panic. Jody had been suffering from anxiety, migraines, concentration and memory problems, depression, chronic fatigue, and chronic pain in her head, back and neck (diagnosed as fibromyalgia). She had been treated by numerous physical therapists, chiropractors and physicians. Jody, like so many traumatized individuals, grasped desperately and obsessively in an attempt to retrieve memories of her trauma. However, her body revealed a clearer "snapshot" of the event. The upper half of her body, particularly her neck, back and shoulders, were extremely stiff. Her shoulders were high, with the right one practically touching her ear. Her upper body moved almost as one unit, stiff and jerky. Jody's head seemed like it was retracted into her trunk, like a turtle that had been startled. Her movements were tentative, even furtive; she seemed to be always glancing to the right. It was as though she was on guard, waiting to be struck.
When I suggested to Jody that it was possible to experience healing without having to remember the event, I saw a flicker of hope and a momentary look of relief pass across her face. We talked for a while, reviewing her history and her day-by-day struggle to function. Focusing on bodily sensations, Jody slowly became aware of various tension patterns in her head and neck. With this focus, she began to notice a particular urge to turn to the right and retract her neck. In following this urge, in slow, gradual "micro movements," she experienced momentary fear, followed by a strong tingling sensation. Through "tracking" these sensations and movements, Jody began a journey that her mind could not understand. In learning to move between flexible control and surrender, she began to experience shaking and trembling, which gradually spread throughout her body. Thus began, ever so gently, the discharging of her trauma - and the recharging of her life with its lost vitality.
In later sessions, Jody experienced other spontaneous movements, as well as sounds and impulses to run, bare her teeth and claw like a cornered animal. By gradually carrying out and experiencing these biologically established protective responses, Jody was able to sense how her body had prepared to react in that fraction of a second when the hunter raised the rifle to strike her. By allowing these incomplete movements and sounds to be mindfully expressed, Jody began a deep, organic experience of her body's innate capacity to defend and protect itself. Through "owning" the life-preserving actions that her body activated at the time of her attack, she released that bound energy and realized - from deep within - that she in fact could, and did, act to defend herself. Gradually, as more of these "defensive" and "orienting" responses reinstated, her panic and anxiety decreased, as did her physical symptoms.
As Jody came to appreciate the return of her animal instincts, I came to appreciate how animals, while preyed upon in the wild, respond to constant, life-or-death threats without breaking down. If animals did not possess a natural "immunity" to stress, the survival of the individual, as well as the species, would be tenuous at best. This innate "hardiness" was in line with my observations of the astronauts" stress responses, and it sharply contrasted with the symptomatic people I was beginning to treat with my body/mind techniques. This was the final piece of the trauma puzzle.
While humans and animals share the part of the nervous system designed to respond to threat, many of us have somehow lost the capacity to "shake off" our encounters with danger; instead we become paralyzed - physically, emotionally and mentally - as trauma victims. As I worked with more and more people, I became increasingly convinced that freeing that bound "survival energy" - and finding access to our innate restorative capacity - is what allows us to return fully to life. This became the central therapeutic goal. The story of how we have "forgotten" the capacity for self-regulation, and how we can regain it, is at the core of what I describe in my writings. It is what we teach in our Somatic Experiencing® (SE) professional trainings.