Dr Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing therapy is predicated upon the idea that the disturbing symptoms of PTSD are substantially caused by the adverse effect our traumatic experiences have had on the way our body and nervous system works.
In essence, Levine contends that if we are suffering from PTSD it means we have become ‘stuck’ in the fight/flight/freeze response.
In order to understand this, consider how wild animals respond to danger; let’s use the example of a zebra :
If a zebra is stalked by a tiger, it will enter the flight/fight state and run away. Whilst running away, it is in the fight/flight state, meaning that it will be highly physiologically aroused (e.g. fast heart rate) in order to provide it with the energy to (hopefully) escape.
If it is lucky enough to escape to safety, the zebra’s level of physiological arousal will quickly return to normal because the immediate danger has passed.
In other words, the zebra only remains in fight/flight mode for a short period of time to deal with immediate danger.
Getting ‘Stuck’ In Fight/Flight/Freeze Mode :
However, in sharp contrast, individuals suffering from PTSD have, like the zebra had their fight/flight response triggered by their traumatic experience but, unlike the zebra, remain stuck in this state of heightened physiological arousal even though the danger has passed; it is this, according to Levine, that causes the distressing symptoms of PTSD.
The Root Cause Of The Symptoms Of Trauma: Trapped ‘Survival Energy’ :
Levine states that, in those suffering from PTSD, the initial great stress caused by our traumatic experience, whatever this may have been (including the complex, cumulative effects of childhood trauma such as emotional abuse) leads to the production of ‘survival energy’ which is not discharged once the traumatic experience is over but remains bound up and trapped in the body.
It is this trapped survival energy that, according to Levine, is at the root of the debilitating symptoms of traumas
The Need To Discharge The Trapped ‘Survival Energy.’
Levine suggests that discharging the trapped survival energy held in our bodies will allow our heightened physiological state and the operation of our nervous systems to return to normal and thus alleviate our symptoms of trauma.
Levine’s somatic experiencing therapy is designed to help us achieve this therapeutic discharge of survival energy.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)