Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing

By Peter Levine and Victor Yalom and Marie-Helene Yalom

We’re delighted to invite you to attend a LIVE somatic training event, Working With Attachment Injury Embedded in Complex Trauma hosted by our partner Dr. Diane Poole Heller, featuring Dr. Peter Levine.

Complex trauma is often rooted in unresolved experiences from the past, where memories feel like they’re happening “in the now” —making it particularly difficult to engage the logical mind when the body remains dysregulated.

If the brain can’t find a way to down-regulate this automatic response, it can get trapped in a “default setting,” where it continues to repeat the same unhealthy responses and patterns time and again.

With the right training and proven somatic techniques, it’s possible to detect physical and behavioral signs of attachment injury embedded within complex trauma, tap into the body’s innate wisdom, calm the nervous system and unlock a greater capacity for healing.

This LIVE training is for therapists and clinicians who want to recommit to strengthening their understanding of trauma and learn additional ways to restore presence, aliveness and connection. You will have a unique opportunity to learn practical strategies and interventions directly from two major experts in the field, Dr. Diane Poole-Heller and Dr. Peter Levine.

Working With Attachment Injury Embedded in Complex Trauma 
Thursday, January 19th, 2023
11AM PT Los Angeles / 12PM MT Denver / 2PM ET New York, NY

Register Now

Below is an excerpt interview with Peter Levine by Victor Yalom and Marie-Helene Yalom posted on psychotherapy.net

The Polyvagal Theory

Peter Levine: Yes, the tiger image. At that time, I was taking a graduate seminar, and some brief mention was made of a phenomenon called tonic immobility. If animals were physically restrained and frightened, they would go into a profoundly altered state of consciousness where they were frozen and immobilized, unable to move. And it turns out that this is one of the key survival features that animals use to protect themselves from threat—in this case from extreme threat. Actually there are three basic neural energy subsystems. These three systems underpin the overall state of the nervous system as well as the correlative behaviors and emotions, leading to three defensive strategies to threat.

MY: That's the polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges?

PL: Yes. These systems are orchestrated by the primitive structures in our brainstem—the upper part of the brainstem. They're instinctive and they're almost reflexive. The tonic immobility is the most primitive system, and it spans probably over 500 million years. It is a combination of freezing and collapsing—the muscles go limp, the person is left without any energy. The next in evolutionary development is the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response. And this system evolved from the reptilian period which was about 300 million years ago. And its function is enhanced action, and, as I said, fight-or-flight. Finally the third and most recent system is the social engagement system, and this occurs only in mammals. Its purpose is to drive social engagement—making friends—in order to defuse the aggression or tension.

VY: So this is when we're feeling threatened or stressed we want to talk to our friends and family?

PL: Yeah, exactly. Or if somebody's really angry at us, we want to explain what happened so they don't strike out at us. Obviously most people won't strike out, but we're still hardwired for those kinds of expectations.

VY: Most people have a general sense of the fight-or-flight, but would you just say a few words on it?

PL: Basically, in the fight-or-flight response, the objective is to get away from the source of threat. All of our muscles prepare for this escape by increasing their tension level, our heart rate and respiration increase, and our whole basic metabolic system is flooded with adrenaline. Blood is diverted to the muscles, away from the viscera. The goal is to run away, or if we feel that we can't escape or if we perceive that the individual that's trying to attack us is less strong than we are, to attack them. Or if we're cornered by a predator—in other words, if there's no way to escape—then we'll fight back. Now, if none of those procedures are effective, and it looks like we're going to be killed, we go into the shock state, the tonic immobility. Now the key is that when people get into this immobility state, they do it in a state of fear. And as they come out of the immobility state, they also enter a state of fear, and actually a state in which they are prepared for what sometimes is called rage counterattack.

MY: Can you say more about that?

PL: For example, you see a cat chasing a mouse. The cat catches the mouse and has it in its paws, and the mouse goes into this immobility response. And sometimes you'll actually see the cat bat the mouse around a little bit until it comes out of the immobility, because it wants the chase to go on. Now, what can happen is that the mouse, when it comes out of the immobility state, goes into what is called nondirective flight. It doesn't even look for where it can run. It just runs as fast as it can in any direction. Sometimes that's right into the cat. Other times, it will actually attack, in a counterattack of rage. I've actually seen a mouse who was captured by a cat come out of the immobility and attack the cat's nose. The cat was so startled it remained there in that state while the mouse scurried away. When people come out of this immobility response, their potential for rage is so strong and the associated sensations are so intense that they are afraid of their own impulse to strike out and to defend themselves by killing the predator. Again, this all goes back to our animal heritage.So the key I found was in helping people come out of this immobility response without fear. Now, with Nancy, I was lucky. If it were not for that image, I could just as easily have retraumatized her. As a matter of fact, some of the therapies that were being developed around that time frequently retraumatized people. I think particularly of Arthur Janov's Primal Therapy, where people would be yelling and screaming out, supposedly getting out all of their locked-in emotions, but a lot of times they were actually terrorizing themselves with the rage and then they would go back into a shutdown, and then be encouraged to "relive" another memory, and then this cycle would continue.

MY: It becomes addictive sometimes, right?

PL: That's correct. It literally becomes addictive. And one of the reasons is that when you do these kinds of relivings, there's a tremendous release of adrenaline. There's also a release of endorphins, which is the brain's internal opiate system. In animals, these endorphins allow the prey to go into a state of shock-analgesia and not feel the pain of being torn apart. When people relive the trauma, they recreate a similar neurochemical system that occurred at the time of the trauma, the release of adrenaline and endorphins. Now, adrenaline is addictive, it is like getting a speed high. And they get addicted not only to the adrenaline but to the endorphins; it's like having a drug cocktail of amphetamines and morphine. So when I was at Esalen I actually noticed that people would come to these groups, they would yell and scream, tear a pillow apart that was their mother or their father, and they would feel high. They would feel really great. But then when they would come back a few weeks later, they would go through exactly the same thing again. And that's what gave me a clue to the fact that this might be addictive.

Releasing Trauma from the Body

VY: So getting back to Nancy, from what you observed and what you learned from the animals' various responses, what was your understanding of what happened with Nancy and what you did that was actually helpful?

PL: What was helpful is that her body learned that in that time of overwhelming threat she could not defend herself. She lost all of her power. Her muscles were all tight. She was struggling to get away—this was the flight response—to get out of that, to get away from those people who were holding her down and to run out of the room and back to her parents. I mean, that's what her body wanted to do, her body needed to do—to get out of there and get back to where she could be protected. So what happened is all of this activation, this "energy" that was locked into her body when she was trying to escape and then was overwhelmed, was still there in a latent form. When we're overwhelmed like that, the energy just doesn't go away—it gets locked very deeply in the body. That's the key. It gets locked in the muscles.

MY: And that's the foundation of your understanding of trauma—this locking of energy?

PL: That's right, exactly. How the energy, how this activation gets locked in the body and in the nervous system.

MY: And so your objective is to help the person release that energy?

PL: Yes, to release that energy, but also to re-channel that energy into an active response, so then the body has a response of power, of its own capacity to regulate, and the person comes out of this shutdown state into a process in which they re-own their own vital energy—we use the term "life energy." It's not generally used in psychology but I think it's a term that is profound in people's health, that people feel that they have the energy to live their life fully, and that they have the capacity to direct this energy in powerful and productive ways.

VY: Now obviously you're just giving a snapshot of the case and we can't capture the depth and the nuances of it. But someone who doesn't know about this could think it sounds a little simplistic. This woman had a tonsillectomy decades ago, and you're having this one session with her and somehow you're freeing up some energy that was trapped back then. How would you respond to that?

PL: Well, it was simplistic, and of course I was to learn that one-time cures were not always the case. However, over the years I started to develop a systematic approach where the person could gradually access these energies and these body sensations—not all at once, but one little bit at a time. It's a process that I call titration. I borrowed that term from chemistry. The image that I use is that of mixing an acid and a base together. If you put them together, there can be an explosion. But if you take it one drop at a time, there is a little fizzle and eventually the system neutralizes. Not only does it neutralize but after you do this titration a certain number of times, you get an end result of salt and water. So instead of having these toxic substances, you have the basic building blocks of life, I use this analogy to describe one of the techniques I use in my work with trauma patients.

You're not actually exposing the person to a trauma—you're restoring the responses that were overwhelmed, which is what led to the trauma in the first place.

VY: And you're doing it very slowly, one little step at a time.

PL: Very slowly.

VY: Would you say that is the key?

PL: That's the key. So you get a little bit of discharge, you get a little bit of a person's body, like their hands and arms, feeling like they want to hold something away from them, that they want to push something away. So they feel that energy, that power into the muscles in their arms. If they want to run they feel the energy, the aliveness in their legs. The ideas are extremely simple, but the execution of them is much more complex. Actually we have a training program and the training program is a three-year program.


Peter A Levine, PhD, is the developer of Somatic Experiencing®, a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to healing trauma, which he has developed over the past 50 years.

He is the Founder of the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute/Foundation for Human Enrichment and the Founder and President of the Ergos Institute of Somatic Education™. His work has been taught to over 50,000 therapists in over 45 countries.

Dr. Levine served as a stress consultant for NASA in the early space shuttle development and has served on the American Psychological Association task force for responding to the trauma of large-scale disasters and ethno-political warfare.

He holds doctorates in both Biophysics and Psychology and is the author of several best-selling books on trauma, including Waking the Tiger, which is published in over 29 languages. He is currently a Senior Fellow and consultant at The Meadows Addiction and Trauma Treatment Center in Wickenburg, Arizona and continues to teach trauma healing workshops internationally.