An Approach to Working with Trauma in Therapy
Somatic experiencing was developed by Peter Levine, PhD. It’s an approach to working with trauma that is looking at the fact that the trauma is more in the body. It’s dealing with, not just like the midbrain, but even the brain stem.
With most psychological issues we’re working with, we’re thinking more about the midbrain, which is the emotional part, the relational part, the dynamics we got from childhood. However, when it comes to near-death experiences or things that were very intense, it’s really fight-or-flight. And when that doesn’t resolve itself in a healthy way, it can lead to some symptoms that can be very confusing and disturbing and that need to be addressed in a slightly different way.
What is Traumatic for One Person May Not be Traumatic for Another
With trauma, it’s not like the event itself is the trauma. It is, but what is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another person or vice versa. It is more about what happened internally. Does the system, the whole nervous system, get locked up and frozen around the trauma or is it moving through it?
Approaching Your Feelings in a Way That is Manageable
Somatic experience is just an approach to helping people’s system approach the feelings and activation in a way that it can actually manage. That’s why we go really slow—it’s called titrating—taking little pieces at a time. There is something that happens in a healthy nervous system that is natural and is good called pendulation. It’s when there’s a rhythm where we go through activation or emotion or get a little activated and then we soothe ourselves and step away from it, maybe look out the window, take a breath, take a break from thinking about that for a second.
Watching People’s Nervous Systems
This all happens in the unconscious, but that’s a healthy nervous system. So, we can go into therapy and I’ll watch people’s nervous systems. For instance, when they talk about something hard: Does their nervous system take little chances for breath? Or do they really just get swimming and locked into it? That would be being over on one side of the pendulum. Being stuck on the other side might be where they can’t feel it at all or are completely avoiding it.
Therapy is really about finding this nice swing between the two. Finding balance and wiring that in so you can move towards it, take a little bit of memory or process and the active feeling and then swing over to deal with it and process it. It needs a lot of coaching—with anything—but especially with trauma. So, somatic experiencing really uses that back and forth process because the trauma was so overwhelming and it messes up the pendulation.
Helping the Brain Come Back into Balance
So, treating trauma is really about coming in and using a lot of skills to help that pendulation come back into balance. It’s the process of teaching grounding and things to help people swing in the right way. To ground…to soothe. To just take a break. To use the connection for soothing. We call that resourcing—learning how to resource—and then using that for processing the trauma.
What is grounding and how is it used in therapy?
Grounding is a physical sense of being more in your body. You’re being lowered and in yourself. Sometimes you feel more rooted to the earth, which is probably why we use the word grounding.
Sometimes, actually, getting your feet on the floor and pushing them against the floor can be a grounding force. Grounding is the opposite of disassociating, which is when people feel they are floating up, like they are spinning or out of their body. Grounding would be where you want to come back into feeling your body so that you are more centered in your whole brain where everything is active. Grounding is about being more centered and in phase, feeling like you can slow down, make sense of it all and organize it, rather than being lost or spinning in it.
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