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Somatic Experiencing, Yoga and Trauma

Being present with the sensations in our body might sound simple and obvious. Nevertheless, many of us are (re)learning this skill after something overly stressful, traumatic, something that exceeded our coping capacity in the given moment, had happened.

Our body has many highly intelligent protective mechanisms, which are saving us in (subjectively) overwhelming experiences, one of these mechanisms can be dissociation from the signals of our body. But what can be saving us in the moment of overwhelm, can make our life more challenging later. In case the energy activated in the occasions of highly stressful or traumatic is not discharged from our system, we might suffer from symptoms of unfinished and unintegrated process of traumatic experience. These symptoms can manifest for example as living through the trauma over and over again, nightmares or insomnia, intrusive frightening thoughts, avoidance, depression, dissociation, hyper-vigilance and agitation, angry outbursts or chronic pain and unbearable fatigue. These symptoms often create considerable disruptions to our life, interfering with our personal relationships, work ability and overall functioning.

From the perspective of our nervous system, trauma does not have to be anything objectively huge. What plays important role is our set-up, our resilience and the width of our window of tolerance in the given moment. All stressful or harsh life events such as an accident, illness, death of a loved one, divorce, and unemployment can lead to many of the above-mentioned symptoms. These experiences can interfere with our ability to enjoy a full and vibrant life. But luckily enough, if we have the right tools, not for ever.

Dr. Peter A. Levine, a pioneering thinker in body aware trauma therapy and author of a bestseller “Waking the Tiger” introduced few decades ago an approach called Somatic Experiencing, which is in many aspects bearing similarities to what yoga has a potential to offer – cultivating connection with the body via working with the sensations, bridging physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self, bringing to the awareness and releasing no longer useful patterns and integrating of unconscious experience. Therefore, many of the techniques of Somatic Experiencing can be successfully incorporated into the yoga sessions and both modalities, whether together or separately can assist us to feel again at home in our own body, be more grounded, centred and live to our full potential.

Historically, treatments for trauma have mainly been verbal psychotherapy, which focused on examining the thoughts and emotions surrounding the event and exploring methods for coping with traumatic stress. The influence of trauma on the body was largely ignored. However, more and more counsellors and psychotherapists are realizing that traumatic experiences are stored in the body as well, and that to be effective, treatments for traumatic stress need to incorporate also the body. Methods as EMDR, Somatic Therapy and Somatic Experiencing are becoming more popular and widespread when dealing with trauma and stress. And also yoga goes to the direction of offering it´s tools to the mental health sphere, for example Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga, which allows people to have titrated experience of potentially challenging physical sensations, and to gain mastery over them and together with invitational language and omnipresent offer of choice, fosters personal empowerment even in the presence of fear-provoking sensations.

Trauma, Dr. Levine says, is a “highly energetic response” in which energy gets “locked down in the system when [it is] traumatized.” Painful symptoms associated with trauma are the result of “fragments of sensory body memory” that become trapped. Somatic Experiencing is a technique that involves discharging this trapped sensory memory and integrating it with present day experience in a “coherent way.” The important feature of Somatic Experiencing is releasing and integrating this energy gradually, rather than going through catharsis, reliving the experience or thinking about it. According to Dr. Levine it takes a great deal of energy to keep the trapped sensory body memory associated with trauma from being released, which often results in fatigue or an inability to engage in pleasurable activities for fear that intense emotions such as fear or rage will emerge. “The approach is not to deny, but not to get swept away” with intense emotions associated with trauma, Levine suggests. Feeling these emotions as “physical sensations in the body,” and releasing these sensations incrementally, he notes, is an important way to safely free stored energy associated with the trauma, and re-channel this energy into pleasurable activities.

Irrespective of whether you are dealing with a traumatic life event, or ‘simply’ high levels of stress, Somatic Experiencing offers important insights into how we can process intense emotions such as anger, grief, and fear in an incremental and healthy way. It recognizes that the experiences of our minds and our bodies are intertwined, allowing for healing at a deeper level.

As such, it is part of the larger mind-body revolution, which continues to deepen our insights into the importance of incorporating both body and mind in healing modalities for both psychological and physical issues. If you practice yoga, you might be familiar with the language of the sensations, as each time we ‘hold space’ for present awareness in our yoga practice—may it be braving the physical challenge of sustaining a posture, or confronting difficult emotions or thought patterns—we learn to accept and embrace sensations in our bodies and minds that may previously have been interpreted as threatening. Yoga allows us to sit mindfully with those feelings, reinterpret them in the present, and release them. And Somatic Experiencing can serve as a great accelerator of these processes as well as more specific tool addressing our concrete issues. Both these modalities, yoga and Somatic Experiencing, are here to pave the path towards healing through our body, so we can experience the richness of life to its fullest.

If you are interested to learn more about Somatic Experiencing, you are invited to check following links:

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