What is Trauma?

Trauma is the the often debilitating symptoms many people suffer from the aftermath of perceived life-threatening or overwhelming experiences.

Causes of Trauma

Trauma can result from external events like an auto accident, natural disaster or loss of a loved one. More subtly, it can occur due to witnessing domestic violence or from poor attachment experiences as a child. Emotional, physical or sexual abuse can cause trauma as well as war experiences and medical surgery. This is an abbreviated list of possible sources.

Symptoms of Trauma

Hyperarousal: this can take the form of physical symptoms of increased heart rate, sweating, difficulty breathing, cold sweats, tingling and muscular tension. It also can manifest in the mental process with increased repetitious thoughts, racing minds, and worry.

Constriction: when faced with life-threatening conditions, hyperarousal is accompanied by constriction of our bodies and narrowing of our perception. This is our body preparing itself to focus in a optimal way toward the threat. The problem is getting stuck in this place.

Dissociation and Denial: this is how the self protects itself by “softening” the pain of escalating arousal, fear and pain. Dissociation involves the self “leaving the scene” for protective purposes. Denial is a protective mechanism by which the self avoids acknowledging how serious the traumatic event was because the emotions tied to the event are simply too painful to experience.

Feelings of Helplessness, Immobility and Freezing: If hyperarousal is the nervous system’ s accelerator, then one’s feelings of helplessness are the brakes. Having one’s accelerator and brakes on at the same time results is the phenomenon called “freeze.” It is a very common occurrence of traumatic events, and contributes to feeling collapsed, immobilized and utterly helpless.

Somatic Experiencing – Powerful Therapy for Healing Trauma

Somatic Experiencing is a powerful therapy for healing trauma. It helps individuals come out of states of freeze, hyperarousal or constriction by giving self-corrective experiences that enable individuals to regain their sense of safety, power, and orientation. Trauma research has shown that individuals, at the time of experiencing a trauma, are unable to engage in appropriate fight or flight actions and, hence, have to protect themselves by entering a “dissociative” or “freeze” state. By approaching the traumatic experience in small portions, Somatic Experiencing is able to work with manageable levels of activation and, hence, work safely and effectively with the trauma. Working safely with the trauma allows effective work to occur. The results of therapy are often less hypervigilance, more calmness, less chronic pain or fatigue, less anxiety and tension in one’s body, more energy and a greater sense of power, voice and aliveness in one’s life. In other words, true healing from the traumatic experience occurs. This is a powerful model and individuals like working with it due to its safety, and effectiveness.

Examples of How Somatic Experiencing Works

First, take a car accident. If an individual gets hit by a car and does not see the car coming, then the individual will go into shock and protect themselves through dissociation and freeze mechanisms. What the individual wanted to do at the time of the trauma was to “orient” to the car (by turning their head to see the car), then put their foot on the accelerator and turn the the steering wheel in order to avoid the accident. These avoid-the-car actions are also called the “fight or flight” mechanisms. Somatic Experiencing creates corrective experiences for individuals by helping these “fight or flight” protective actions be re-experienced in relation to the trauma at the sensory level, thereby enabling the client to re-gain their sense of safety, power and joy in life.

Second, take chronic pain. Somatic Experiencing works directly with somatic (bodily) symptoms, by having clients learn a form of “sensory mindfulness” in relation to their places of pain, pleasure or neutral areas. Paradoxically, bringing mindfulness alone to places of tension can bring relief. Then, most usefully, when the client senses “somatic resources” (body areas that are neutral or feel good), and moves (“pendulates”) back and forth between the painful versus neutral or “good feeling” areas, this awakens the body’s self-healing mechanisms and trauma begins to be healed at the somatic level.

Learn More About Somatic Experiencing

For further Interest, I would suggest reading Waking the Tiger, and In an Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine. The book Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes by Peter Levine and Maggie Kline is a good resource for parents when dealing with a fall, surgery, abuse, or a child witnessing something disturbing.  Freedom From Pain by Peter Levine and Maggie Phillips is valuable for exploring how to work with chronic pain.  The Power of Attachment by Diane Poole Heller discusses attachment styles and intimate relationships.  Finally, Nurturing Resilience by Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell explores how to heal early developmental trauma.