Somatic Experience is a naturalistic approach that favors the resolution of stress and trauma. It is based on the ethnological observation that animals in the wild use innate mechanisms to regulate and neutralize various levels of arousal associated with survival and defense mechanisms (ie. Fight/Flight/Freeze). Somatic Experience seeks to moderate and relieve the symptoms of trauma/stress that are retained within the body after traumatic experiences and takes the necessary steps, (using nature as it´s blueprint), to release and heal trauma.
And before you think ´Traumas only occur in really horrible circumstances…´ have little read from Psychology Today of how Trauma is defined :
For the past week I have been totally immersed in the work of Dr. Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger, In an Unspoken Voice), Dr. Van Der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score), Paul D. MacLean (The Triune Brain) and Doctor Stephen W. Porges (The Polivagal Theory) as I began my journey and training into the therapeutic approach of Somatic Experience. The definition and video above is a very small window into what Somatic Experience is and I would encourage everyone to read ´In an unspoken voice´ by Peter Levine and ¨The Body Keeps the Score´ by Dr. Van der Kolk, to fully understand appreciate the power and science behind this approach.
From the first
day, as we moved more into practice and less into theory I got very excited about the training. I began to integrate and appreciate more and more my education in Psychology, Sociology as well as my
training as a Yoga instructor, Body worker and Rape Crisis Volunteer. I had to admire just how very smart and efficient nature is. She is an amazing creative force that builds upon already existing concepts to create new creations and concepts. For example, we as human beings are nothing more than a three layered brain of reptilian instincts (brain stem), mammalian emotion and connection (limbic brain) and at the very top and being the most recent addition, a thin little cortex that allows us to look at time abstractly, compute intricate social interactions and plan our existence accordingly.
It is this cortex, specifically the pre-frontal cortex, that has allowed us humans to get to and remain at the top of the food chain. I say this because in physical terms from the perspective of evolution, we aren´t that impressive. We aren´t especially fast like the cheetah or gazelle so catching quick prey or running from quick predators is not an option. Also, we are pretty lame in the strength and teeth department. For example, if you had to place bets, who do you think would win in a fight of brawn? A tiger or a human? Excluding more than human figures like Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee, any rational human being would have to agree that the odds would be overwhelming in the tigers favor.
So from a physical viewpoint, the human´s location at the top of the food chain makes very little sense, but this is where the power of brain over brawn comes in. Thanks to all the amazing computing capabilities of the cortex, human beings have figured out how to move in groups and create weapons and use tactics that outsmart our competitors, predators and prey. For example this great video of 3 Africans acting in unison frighten away 15 lions from freshly killed prey is a great example of how the existence of our pre-frontal cortex offers an amazing evolutionary advantage.
This cortex is built upon the foundations of a mammalian brain (the limbic/emotional brain) and a reptilian brain (the instinctual/basic functions). It is VERY IMPORTANT to remember that these parts did not just disappear as the cortex developed and moved humans up the food chain. They are still there alive and active and from them we get our desire for social cohesion and our ability to know when we need to eat, go to the toilet and look for a mate. Each part provides its important and necessary function for our survival as humans.
Nonetheless, this latest addition of complex, bio-network connections that is the cortex, also has it´s disadvantages. Due to social norms and our innate desire and NEED to be accepted as part of a group, often times our instincts that would lead us to either fight or run away from a situation is thwarted by the dual edged reality of contemplated behavior that allows us to live in community and follow socially acceptable behavior.
For example, we can´t really punch our boss when she makes us mad, we have been taught not to cry and to sit still and stay until the end, no matter how long the class or office meeting. These modern day realities that restrict our biological instincts manifest in clinched fists, a tight throat or a shaking leg, respectively. Often times, it is in our best interest to resist physical violence when we feel anger or to resist running out the emergency exit when we see an aggressive or annoying co-worker or family member. It is the cortex that controls those drives, but that energy is still inside and when it is too strong or goes on for too long…our fight and flight responses are stifled and like animals who go into a frozen physical state when the fight/flight response is not given as an option (ie. playing possum) human beings may do the same, but instead of falling over and playing dead, human beings simply disassociate.
The freeze response, like disassociation is a defense response. Nonetheless, the great difference between animals and humans is that when animals come out of the frozen state, they literally shake out that ´frozen´ energy, take a deep breath, as see here with this polar bear:
and move on with their lives…for a variety of reasons, thanks to the cortex, most human beings have either learned to ignore and disregard this drive to discharge energy, but that doesn´t mean the body has released it.
The stress of the event, no matter what it may be, it could be a car accident, a surgery, various forms of abuse or just a very quick shock to the system like hearing a gun go off though no harm is done, or perhaps an on-going stressful work or family environment, doesn´t just go away. Depending on the resilience of each individual, that unreleased energy gets stuck somewhere. That stuck flight/flight response will then manifest itself perhaps in tense neck/shoulders, poor posture, perhaps in high blood pressure, an upset stomach or frozen shoulder, or perhaps an inability to concentrate and focus thoughts and feelings—disorientation can occur and/or an uneasy sense of danger, depression and/or anxiety.
‘How should I deal with this guy?’ ‘My advice, try playing dead!’
This stress, or trauma, acts like a break in the computer code in the brain and instead of being able to move back and forth between the three parts (the cortex, limbic and brain stem) we get stuck. We might be stuck in the fight phase or we might be stuck in the flight phase, and if it goes not long enough, not being given the opportunity to complete the physical movement required by the fight/flight response (because of safety or social constraints), we disassociate from our bodies (the freeze response) and even though we may continue to eat and breath and fulfill basic biological functions, we are not really living. The code is broken and our body still thinks it is under threat and must play ´possum´. Due to the chemicals released to protect us in such a state, everything becomes duller and those in such a disassociated state may report a lack of physical sensations as well as emotional reactions and connections.
As stated and shown above, animals, for better or worse, are protected by an automatic reset button that pushes them to ´shake out´ the shock. In fact, it was demonstrated that animals that were not allowed to fulfill their biological call to shake out the flight/freeze response after being frozen, died soon after. Stress kills because the body, in some way, is still sending a message to the brain to run or fight, but if this fight/flight signal goes on too long and is ignored, as a biological defense mechanism, we as humans disassociate, or emotionally we may ´freeze´ because we have learned that the environment is not safe enough to come out of that state. Sadly, due to a serious lack of internal body awareness and safe spaces for honest expression, I would argue that this state of ´disassociation´ has become the modus operandi of our day in age.
Western culture, as summed up by Descartes in his infamous quote, ´I think therefore I am´ revolves around the rational thought provided by the cortex but completely disregards the very mechanism, the body, that allows this cortex to exist. In eastern medicine it is well recognized that the brain, is not only located within the skull, but is integrated throughout the entire body. In fact, in ancient Egypt, the brain was destroyed during the embalming while the heart and rest of the body remained intact. More and more research is demonstrating that there is communication between cerebrum and body and body to cerebrum via various nerve networks, especially that of the Vagus Nerve. It is not a one way street.
Modern science is of course now discovering this and is finally giving eastern philosophy and science some acknowledgment. New discoveries in neuroscience and quantum physics are ´proving´ what the east has known for over a millennia, we are animals WITH a cortex not just a cortex. To live happy, healthy and productive lives all parts must be integrated. There have been practices developed around this reality. Yoga could be considered the oldest recorded practice, but also practices like Tai Chi, Aikido, and ChiKung as well as various Shamanic rituals and tribal practices have sought to work WITH the integration of the mind/body not against it.
These practices are all legitimate and effective in their own right, but as a professor and practitioner of Yoga I look at Somatic Experience from the perspective of the Yogic traditions of asana, breath and meditation. You can read more about my views on these connections and my own personal experience with SE in the following blog…