Last week I received a call from a potential client, typical of the ones I receive from those seeking help after spending years in and out of talk therapy yet still finding themselves anxious, depressed, or dealing with maladaptive behaviors such as addiction, gambling, or eating disorders. “Why will this treatment be different from what I’ve had in the past?” asked the caller. 

The short answer: because it will likely be the first time you bring your body into the healing process. 

Our bodies hold memories and imprints of our past experiences. The trauma at the root of our anxietydepression, and maladaptive behaviors can’t be resolved without our body finding a way to release these memories and imprints. Sustained healing only happens when our nervous system regains equilibrium. Somatic Experiencing (SE) helps us move beyond the cognitive process of understanding our trauma. It’s a process that reprograms the body’s primitive survival instincts, allowing one to feel a greater sense of connection, safety, and ease in one’s body. 

What Is “Trauma Brain”?

To understand why SE is such an effective treatment for trauma, let’s begin by exploring a new way of looking at trauma. 

When we think about trauma in our lives, we often refer to an event: a burglary, the unexpected death of a parent, an accident that left us injured. But Peter Levine, Ph.D., the founder of SE, has a different perspective. He maintains that trauma is not an event, but the energy that gets locked in your body around real or perceived threat. 

The extent to which a person experiences trauma is directly related to their ability to restore a sense of safety in the aftermath of the threatening event. If they’re unable to effectively do that, their nervous system gets stuck in the survival states of fight, flight, or freeze. 

These survival states are only useful for acute states of threat. When an individual gets stuck in a trauma reaction because they cannot restore their sense of safety, the individual will continually sense danger when danger is not present, or completely shut down and lose capacity to live in the present. 

Think about your own experiences, have you ever found yourself over- or underreacting to a situation for no obvious reason? This is often due to the unresolved trauma from the past that is locked in your nervous system.

To illustrate this, let’s think of our brains always acting in two ways: “survival brain” or “safe brain.” In a safe brain state, we are open to learning new information and can see the big picture of a situation. We feel calm, peaceful, curious, and unafraid of making mistakes. 

When the survival brain is turned on, we are hyper-focused, we feel a sense of threat and cannot tolerate ambiguity. Fear dominates our decision-making skills, and we often lose our sense of competence. The longer survival brain stays on, the harder it is to turn it off. 

Safe brain is expansive and life feels vital and joyful. Survival brain creates misperception, ambiguity, and threat. The better we can manage our stress reaction, the easier we can keep out of survival brain. This takes time and effort and requires that we develop a tolerance of uncomfortable sensation in the body. If we are unable to tolerate the uncomfortable sensations, we try to numb them or distract ourselves from them with maladaptive behaviors. By growing our ability to tolerate discomfort, we gain the capacity to move through our challenges and the knowledge that we can safely come through the other side of a difficult experience. 

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