The developer of a therapy called Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine helps patients overcome traumatic memories through physical movement.
Photo Credit: Maggie Kline
What is Somatic Experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing works from the relationship of the body to the trauma. For example, when we feel threatened or in danger, our bodies respond in a particular way. We mobilize energy to flee, or if we perceive a mortal threat, we’ll collapse. Somatic Experiencing helps people become aware of their bodies’ responses and find new responses that contradict those of helplessness. It works on the principle that trauma happens in the body, and to heal trauma, the body gives us the resources and power to overcome overwhelming experience with resilience.
What happens during a typical session?
In traumatic memory, there are the different sensations of what we tried to do to defend ourselves when we were overwhelmed. When you’re in a situation where your life is threatened, every bit of you is deciding whether to fight, flee, or freeze. SE helps a person get unstuck from where she got stuck in the body. For example, during a traumatic event, maybe her shoulders went up, she gasped, her diaphragm was held up in a particular position. Until we change that experience, trauma keeps replaying in the present. Through SE, we can help her complete actions she couldn’t complete at the time.
By doing that, we change memory itself. When we remember an event, we actually have the opportunity to update the event. When we revisit a body memory, we get to change the whole body, psyche, and brain.
How did you come to this work?
I like to say we always teach what we most need to learn, and that applies to me. In 1969, I saw a patient, Nancy, who was suffering from a plethora of symptoms: IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), fibromyalgia, migraines. What we uncovered together as she overcame symptoms was that as a child, she had undergone a tonsillectomy under ether, which was common at the time. She was strapped down, made to inhale this terrifying gas, and basically abandoned. Through our work, I was really stunned by her coming back to life and how her symptoms disappeared. But I also realized I’d had a similar experience as young child.
In my latest book, In an Unspoken Voice, I describe how several years ago, I was hit by a car, thrown against the windshield, into the air, and onto the road. If I hadn’t been able to use the same techniques I used with Nancy, I would have had symptoms of trauma.
We all have some traumas in our life, as part of the human condition. The question is: Can we have new experiences that replace those of the traumatic sensations?
What are you working on now?
We’re training an international organization that responds to disasters, like last year’s typhoon in the Philippines. Everyone can benefit from Somatic Experiencing, and I’ve found that all the people I’ve worked with can recognize principles of SE as part of their heritage. There’s universality in navigating the inner landscapes of one’s consciousness. Memories serve us, but “re-membering” is key—knitting and stitching experiences together so the person can experience wholeness again.
This article was first published as "Body of Work" in the March/April 2014 issue of Spirituality & Health.