‘Unfreezing’ the trauma response
Reprinted from "Trauma and Victimization" Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (3), pp. 26-27
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is an approach for working with and healing trauma. It was developed by Dr. Peter Levine,1 who holds a doctorate in both medical biophysics and psychology. Dr. Levine took his observations from both these fields and tried a new way of working with people that has had amazing results.
Animal instinct: fight, flee or freeze
Levine researches animals in the wild. Animals have a reptilian brain and act purely out of instinct to survive. When animals feel threatened, they have three choices of action that help them survive: to fight, flee or freeze. All will help the animal stay alive.
For instance, a cat who is being approached by a large dog will evaluate the area and decide if it has an escape route. If it does, it will flee—and burn off all the adrenalin pumping through its body as a result of fear. If there is no escape, the cat may fight. This will also burn off the adrenalin. If the cat decides the dog is far too large to fight, it may freeze. In freezing, there is a surge of chemicals in the animal’s body that slows the respiratory system, the heartbeat and all other functions. The system is basically ‘shut down,’ and the animal is immobilized.
The key with the freeze response is what happens afterward. Let’s say the dog decides not to go after the cat any more and goes away. Since animals naturally know how to discharge the chemicals and energy that has built up, the cat will shake and tremble to effectively burn them off. And then the cat will go on its way, basically no worse from the experience.
Humans, too, have this reptilian brain and the fight, flee and freeze responses. But we also have a rational brain that moderates whether we follow our instinct or ‘thwart’ it. It is the ‘thwarting’ that leads to trauma symptoms.
Trauma as a frozen freeze response
Trauma can result from almost any experience—a fall off a bike at six years old, sexual abuse as a teen, surgery, a car accident or having a death in the family. Trauma is created when a devastating moment is frozen in time. That surge of adrenalin and chemical that was not discharged or let out, stays within us creating havoc. It acts as an ‘internal straightjacket,’ and interferes with our natural ability to heal by somehow blocking or changing normal reactions to the event. Trauma symptoms are not caused by the event itself, but by our reaction to the event.
For example, if the trauma was a result of a non-life-threatening car accident, a normal reaction after the accident may be to cry, shake and have our muscles turn to ‘jello.’ But what if, instead, you pretend everything is okay and ‘be strong’? What if you jump out of the car, tell everyone you are fine, hold back the tears and carry on to work as normal?
After several weeks or months, you may notice that you have a great deal of anxiety when driving. You may also notice that you are extremely irritable around your family, and you have no desire to work. You feel depressed most of the time, and your neck and back are tense and ache constantly. Somatic Experiencing would consider these symptoms to be signs of unresolved trauma.
Somatic Experiencing—releasing the body
As a counsellor, my job is to help people get out of the freeze response and discharge the adrenalin and chemicals that are keeping them stuck. SE helps people become resourced (i.e., strong enough) to handle the energy from the unresolved trauma and to allow the energy to be discharged. Without resourcing, there may be retraumatization.
Since trauma is locked and blocked at a body level, we need to free it at a body level. Body? What’s that? Most people live in their heads, and are unaware that a body is attached. Somatic Experiencing helps people access information not only at a cognitive level, but also at sensation, behavioural, imaginal and emotional levels.
My training has taught me numerous ways to work on various types of trauma, with both children and adults. In a typical SE session, I may ask you to track and describe sensations you are experiencing or images that appear as you talk about the subject. These may be indicators of blocked responses or of resources that could help you move forward. You may spend part of the session with your eyes closed, trying to focus inward as we chat and explore how the body has stored the traumatic event. I may ask you to do some ‘exercises’ to help stimulate various parts of your nervous system, which may be shut down.
I am very excited to have this tool and knowledge—Somatic Experiencing—to share with the people in my community. Often, the result of this way of working is the disappearance of physical or mental symptoms that had no apparent cause previously. Increased joy and liveliness is a frequent result, as people open themselves up again.
About the author
Amanda holds a degree in Psychology, a master’s degree in Counselling, a certificate in Conflict Resolution and is a certified Somatic Experiencing practitioner. She works both in private practice and for Cowichan Lake Community Services.
Levine, P.A. & Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.