Somatic Experiencing and Trauma How a Tiger Inadvertently Healed Thousands of Trauma-Locked Lives

We would like to welcome you to The Master Series, which this quarter focuses on Trauma. Taking place over three days in September (Thur 23 – Sat 25), we have gathered together world renowned innovators who have challenged the status quo by applying new thinking and concepts to age-old conditions, turning accepted opinion on its head. We challenge you to explore these concepts or “Big Ideas” and reframe what you know about our world and experiences across this series of workshops.

The Series brings together Doctors Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, and Stephen Porges – leading lights in the field of trauma research and treatment. Their work focuses on different aspects of trauma, informed by years at the top of their game, but with a common observation that the answer to the effective treatment of trauma lies in unlocking the physical aspects which get “locked in” by the body. Healing those previously resigned to a life of misery having been thought of as untreatable, they have collectively changed the lives of countless trauma sufferers around the world. Here, we feature some of the work of our second speaker, Dr Peter Levine, who coined the term, Somatic Experiencing.

Dr Levine believes that “trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.” Having personal experience of childhood trauma, Dr Levine says he was “guided by his own compelling need to heal” and refers to his research as “me-search”. As the developer of Somatic Experiencing® (SE), a naturalistic body-awareness approach to healing trauma, which he teaches all over the globe, his work is a testament to his lifelong investigation into the connection between evolutionary biology, neuroscience, animal behavior and draws on more than forty years of clinical experience in the healing of trauma.

Somatic Experiencing® (SE™) is a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to healing trauma and other stress-related disorders. It offers a framework to assess where a person is stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze responses and provides clinical tools to resolve these fixated physiological states. The image of a tiger came to Dr Levine during the course of his work with a patient referred to as, “Nancy”, who suffered from a litany of symptoms which had a devastating effect on Nancy’s life for over twenty years. Unexpectedly reliving a traumatic childhood experience during their session, which led her body through a series of responses that he equated to animals in the wild, Dr Levine realized that while animals in the wild are under the constant threat of death or injury, they appear not to display any signs of on-going trauma. His subsequent studies revealed that this was due to the less often referred to third response to trauma, which is to freeze or in the case of animals, play dead, thus rendering themselves (the target) less of a threat. With the response being a series of steps including this immobility phase, the animal needs to complete the last and most crucial part, a process of shaking and trembling, which serves to discharge the colossal amounts of energy that had initially been built up in preparation for fighting or fleeing. If that phase does not take place, that charge of energy becomes trapped inside the body, keeping it in a state of perceived threat, with dire consequences for mind and body; however, it is in the body that this constant state of warning needs to be disabled. This harks back to the more primitive aspects of human existence, the consequences of which have become corrosive and damaging in the context of modern life. Dr Levine was able to unlock Nancy’s childhood trauma, enabling her to start living again.

In humans, an on-going trauma state may be as a result of acute stress brought about by imminent threat such as being mugged or having a near death experience or alternatively, due to the result of chronic, pernicious stress. Some argue that the latter is more damaging (affecting everything through to cognitive functioning, due to the causation of depressive symptoms) due to its relentless nature but the end result of each is a powerlessness to move through life with a healthy amount of durability against the day-to-day knocks of life in the 21st Century. There are many root causes for trauma other than sexual, physical, and mental abuse. Trauma can result from military conflict, personal conflict, bereavement, surgical procedures, accidents, force (or vis) majeure in the form of any one of a catalogue of natural phenomena, but the consequences are a dysregulation of normal functioning and/or disassociation as a means of coping.

Living in a biological survival state creates vulnerability to diseases and psychological disorders as the body was not designed to be able to permanently harbour the stress chemicals released into it as part of survival scenarios. Shaking is perceived as a weakness and sign of an inability to cope but if the tremoring and shaking that naturally proceeds a stressful (or on-going) experience can be utilized to discharge unneeded chemicals, physical symptoms would improve and the reptilian parts of the brain would realise that the threat is over and the cognitive parts of the brain would enable the subject to better cope with similar events in the future, with an understanding that similar events will be survivable.

The body responds to physiological and psychological trauma with its innate survival response. The skill is to allow the body to move through the whole range of the response so as to not be trapped in any one part of it. 

“Although humans rarely die from trauma, if we do not resolve it, our lives can be severely diminished by its effects. Some people have even described this situation as a “living death.”Dr. Peter Levine

In Dr Levine’s workshop on September 24 he will:

Demonstrate how SE™ addresses trauma through a combination of theoretical explanation and body-oriented experiential exercises. Participants in this program will learn the underpinnings of trauma and explore how nervous system regulation and awareness of bodily sensations can bring clients out of a trauma state and into a more embodied and regulated sense of authentic self and:

  • Differentiate between top-down and bottom-up processing and discuss how they can work together
  • Classify the trauma response as a set of defensive bodily reactions mobilized to protect us
  • Describe how shame, defeat, and humiliation, associated with the original traumatic event, replay themselves repeatedly in the body
  • Define how trauma-based perceptions remain fundamentally unchanged until the internal experience of the body changes

We look forward to seeing you at the conference. 

Sign up to our mailing list

To stay up to date on our latest posts, learning packs and educational resources.

Our Sponsors

Scroll to Top