How Peter A. Levine’s Somatic Experience Therapy Unlocks Trauma

Peter A. Levine has a doctorate in medical biophysics and psychology. His system is the fruit of an extensive research career that is interested in better understanding the neurophysiological and psychological bases of trauma and creating a body psychotherapy capable of healing it.

In his work, Levine has included knowledge of physiology, neurology, psychology, ethnology, and anthropology, reflection on the body-related work of Wilhelm Reich, Ida Rofl, Eugene Gendlin, or Matthias Alexander, techniques linked to mindfulness, the study of the healing methods of shamans, and eastern philosophies.

Somatic Experiencing is based on a holistic approach to addressing anxiety as it integrates the innate wisdom of the body and physiological responses into therapeutic healing processes. So, when trauma or Anxiety Therapy Services are incorporated into Levine’s framework, its holistic approach to healing is enhanced, recognizing the intricate relationship between bodily sensations and emotional states. We can affirm that Somatic Experience is a therapy that responds to its commitment to the modern notion of “embodiment,” in which it is defended that our cognition, learning, and life start from our body.

Somatic Experience Therapy Framework

Somatic Experience focuses on the treatment of anxiolytic and traumatic experiences through the person’s corporeality. In this therapy, it is considered that simple reflection is insufficient to heal the trauma, so it is necessary to work from the body.

The intervention in the Somatic Experience focuses on ensuring that the person is able to let the energy that was “frozen” by the traumatic experience come out of their body.

The idea is to progressively reverse the process that led to the person’s collapse to overcome, in the first place, the insensitivity and bodily disconnection that the immobility phase implies through the myelinated vagal system; then, the hypersensitivity that involves sympathetic activity and that connects with the fight or flight instincts; to finally finish, establishing balance, relaxation, and tranquility of the unmyelinated vague system that returns the individual to everyday social life.

The intervention has 12 phases. The first three are preparatory and aim to connect the person with their body to overcome the insensitivity that was installed with the trauma so as not to feel pain or suffer from the stressful situation. At this stage, the patient is encouraged to connect with pleasant body sensations to offer reassurance that the body sensation is not dangerous.

The subsequent three phases aim to help individuals begin to understand the language of their internal body sensations and learn to differentiate between thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

Phases seven, eight, and nine explore working with emotional reactivity by activating fight-and-flight patterns, while the last three phases focus on returning the person to a balanced, calm, and social life.

  • Phase 1.-Connect with the body and its sensations in a pleasant environment. To facilitate this, simple exercises are introduced, such as taking a hot shower and touching your entire body to feel it, making gentle taps with your fingertips over the entire body, and pressing your hand on the body’s extremities to notice how the muscles are; or running a rope around the body’s perimeter to feel its limits.
  • Phase 2.-Land and focus. These include rooting exercises to the ground in the standing position from the body’s center of gravity or sitting on a large air ball that forces you to work with the body to rebalance.
  • Phase 3.-Accumulate resources. Following the ideas of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Conceptual Therapy, this phase encourages establishing a list of the resources the person has used to move forward after the trauma.
  • Phase 4.-Feel and not imagine what your body feels. Here, you are first encouraged to identify the vocabulary that helps you become aware of what you feel by identifying the size, shape, and quality of each sensation (heavy, fluid, tense, painful, suffocating, knotted, blocked, disconnected, frozen, hollow, tight, expanded, floating, electric, bubbling, calm, light, etc.).
  • Phase 5.-Investigate how thoughts, memories, emotions, images, etc., have a bodily reality. In this phase, the person learns to differentiate in their body between sensations, imaginations, and thoughts, naming them as they appear in the mind. The person learns not to imagine the sensation but to truly experience it.
  • Phase 6.-Notice how the body’s sensation changes when you pay attention to it. Notice that when you focus on a bodily sensation, it changes, expanding and decreasing like a drive that becomes increasingly lighter. In this phase, the person learns to see her emotional reactivity as a spectator.

In these first six phases, which focus on overcoming immobility, Levine recommends working from the bodily experience and not talking. The reason is justified by alluding to the fact that research has shown that when the person activates the amygdala associated with fear, Broca’s area (a region of the brain located in the frontal lobe, usually in the left hemisphere) linked to language is inhibited. Levine affirms that in trauma, there is terror without words. Later, when you enter the state of sympathetic activation, the word will gain prominence.

  • Phase 7.-Work from the fight response. Here, he delves into unblocking sympathetic activation and includes exercises such as pushing the therapist’s hand from the center of the body. At the same time, he returns a slight counter-resistance, pushing yourself back-to-back, feeling that the push comes from your feet, or causing yawning by opening the mouth.
  • Phase 8.-Work from the flight response. This includes an exercise consisting of running on a cushion while sitting in a chair and performing large movements that exaggerate protection or crouching reactions.

Both in this phase and in the previous one, the person is encouraged to reproduce the gestures and movements that their body would like to have made in the traumatic situation (crouching, twisting, running, shrinking, etc.).

  • Phase 9.-Act in the face of collapse and defeat. Here, it encourages entering and exiting the posture that reflects the collapse. Fold forward and straighten vertebra by vertebra until the head is vertical.
  • Phase 10.-Disconnect fear from the feeling of immobility. In this phase, the person learns to voluntarily contact the intimidating physical sensations that the trauma awakens for long enough for them to change. The person connects with the fear of it and with the immobility itself, to progressively and consciously explore the sensations that arise, textures, images, associated thoughts.
  • Phase 11.-Go from the internal to the external environment and social connection. When you open your eyes after being inside, let them go wherever they want, where they are curious, where they want to explore. It is a phase of awakening in the person’s search for objectives and goals.
  • Phase 12.-Settle and integrate. Here, he introduces a Shin Jin Jitsu exercise that consists of placing his hands on two body segments to “connect” them:

In this last phase, spiritual work is presented to the patients, reconnecting them with the will to live and with the sacredness of life.

Five Fundamental Aspects in Trauma Therapy

It is important to note that in the process, the therapist—whether it’s Through Online Anxiety Therapy—works from five fundamental aspects aimed at gradually disconnecting the mental and emotional associations that the trauma has established with bodily sensations.

  1. Bodily sensation (kinesthesia, proprioception, and visceral sensation);
  2. The subjective perceptions that arise at the visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory levels in relation to the memories associated with the trauma;
  3. The body expression that the patient constantly expresses (postures, gestures, tension patterns, involuntary movements, breathing patterns, micro-expressions of the face);
  4. The emotions and feelings that arise or come into play in the unblocking work; and
  5. The meaning or “tags” that the patient introduces into his conversation.

These five key aspects help the therapist to detect which of the three nervous systems has been activated in the patient at each moment and thus, to be able to better decide which phase or exercise to work on.

Levine warns that in therapeutic intervention, bodily and emotional reactions may appear related to the process of releasing blocked energy at the bodily level, such as tremors and muscle spasms, involuntary body trembling, anger, and contained aggression. For Levine, the first are natural reactions that the nervous system uses to reestablish its balance, and the second, the consequences of channeling the emotions of shame, depression and hatred generated towards oneself and the situation that caused the experience.

Finally, it’s important to note that Levine advises a gradual approach to therapy. This involves starting with the meager hint of survival-based activation to prevent re-traumatization.

Final Thoughts

Peter A. Levine’s Somatic Experience therapy offers a comprehensive approach to healing trauma. His healing approach blends various disciplines that focus on bodily sensations. Individuals with trauma need to follow its methodical phases to gradually reconnect with themselves and move towards the recovery process with the expert guidance of a professional therapist like Maureen Donohue. Connect with Maureen Donohue for personalized Online Somatic Therapy. Embark on a journey towards healing trauma today!

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