Trauma and PTSD

“Trauma is a fact of life.
It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”
– Peter Levine

What is Trauma?

Many of us have experienced difficult events in our life, such as abuse or emotional neglect in childhood, divorce of parents, accidents, surgery, loss of a loved one or a dear pet, to name just a few. These events feel overwhelming. They left us with feelings of anxiety, sadness, depression, anger, shame, a loss of aliveness and sense of being cut-off from ourselves, or a need to control what is around us. Often, these feelings show up in many different situations in our lives. They can get in the way of living our lives the way we want, feeling confident and good about ourselves, establishing satisfying relationships, and feeling joy and pleasure.

Many different kinds of events can feel overwhelming and have lasting impact on our lives. There is no general rule. Whether we experience something as overwhelming depends on our circumstances at the time, the support we had available, previous experiences that might have left us vulnerable, and many other variables. It is not a sign of weakness if you feel you might have experienced an overwhelming event. Sometimes, we think that it’s really not such a big deal and we should get over it. But as trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk wrote, “the body keeps the score.” It might hold stuck responses to previous overwhelming events that are now surfacing in our lives, sometimes without us recognizing that they are related to a trauma.

What is Somatic Experiencing®?

The work of Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges and other researchers has shown that trauma is not just in the mind, it also affects the body. Tension held in various parts of the body, a sense of bracing against fear, or a feeling of collapse in shame or helplessness all can be consequences of previous overwhelming events. Because these body responses are usually uncomfortable and often include negative emotions such as fear, anger or helplessness, we shy away from them. Often, we split them off from our awareness. We might only have a vague sense of a tension in the shoulders that’s always there, or a slight clenching feeling in the gut that’s familiar, or a sense that our mind goes blank when we have an argument with someone. Likely, we are not aware that these familiar feelings or sensations have anything to do with something difficult we experienced.

To restore wholeness, we need to access these traumatic responses in the body. By moving towards fear, helplessness and other uncomfortable feelings, and letting ourselves be aware of them bit by bit, we release these stuck responses. This helps the body restore its innate rhythm and ability to regulate between phases of stress/activation and relaxation. When this rhythm is restored, we feel a sense of aliveness, choice, freedom and joy returning to our lives.

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a therapeutic modality that can resolve the debilitating impact of trauma by addressing the responses held in the body. It was first developed by Peter Levine when he was working with NASA astronauts on stress management, and was studying the biologic responses animals and humans have to trauma. Somatic Experiencing works directly with the traumatic responses held in the body by exploring associated sensations, feelings, thoughts and images. In an SE therapy session, we proceed slowly in this exploration to allow the body/mind to process step-by-step what was previously overwhelming. This exploration alternates between difficult or uncomfortable aspects related to the trauma, and positive experiences, to help the body restore its natural ability to self-regulate. Excess energy held in the stuck responses is gently released and is then available to support a sense of aliveness and social engagement.

That which we resist persists.

What is an SE session like?

I am often asked what an SE session is like. Do we still talk? Yes, we do, we need to communicate with each other. But the focus of what we talk about is different. Instead of focusing on content, on the story of what happened, we will pay attention to the body and its signals. We might explore a tension in the shoulders, a clenching in the stomach, or a sense of expansion in the chest, noticing sensations, feelings or images associated with it.

At first, paying attention to one’s internal sensations or feelings can be uncomfortable or frightening. We proceed slowly, exploring positive experiences first, maybe just in conversation, until the body becomes a bit more comfortable. Clients are often surprised, why do we focus on something that feels good, isn’t therapy supposed to feel difficult and painful?

In an SE session, we want to help the body restore its rhythm of naturally moving between something that is difficult, and thus feels stressful or activating, and something that feels good, and thus safe and relaxing. Feeling that natural rhythm again allows us to realize that no feeling lasts forever, no matter how painful it is. We can then begin to move towards stronger feelings and sensations that are associated with the trauma, such as fear, rage or helplessness to begin to resolve and release them.

What we can feel, we can heal.

In this process, we move slowly back and forth to allow the body to expand its capacity. When experiences of collapse and helplessness are present, we will work on allowing the natural self-protective responses of the body to come forward. These often include movements, such as running or pushing with the arms. Releasing these natural responses of fight or flight, which are often thwarted in a traumatic experience, provides a sense of empowerment.

When the body has established a basic ability to be in its natural rhythm, we might return to discussing content. Processing the story of an event step-by-step can be helpful to notice self-protective responses the body might have wanted to engage during a traumatic event, and help them complete, thus releasing their energy. Beginning to make sense of an overwhelming event frees a sense of strength and transformation.

During our sessions, we will also engage in natural conversation. As social creatures, we are wired to connect with each other. Activating the nervous system functions necessary for social interactions, including the eyes, face and speech muscles, is a natural antidote to internal collapse and helplessness. As the traumatic responses of fear and immobility are processed, a desire for connection and social engagement will naturally come back online.


From: Peter A. Levine, PhD., In an Unspoken Voice – How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.

Claudia Hartke

3005 47th Street, Suite F4,
Boulder, CO 80301
(408) 997-1866

Got Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.