Body-Focused Trauma Therapy: Exploring Somatic Experiencing with Ellen Ledley
Trauma can stay with you long after the threat of harm has passed. It courses through you, buries itself in your flesh, seeps into your bones, and entangles itself in your mind. Sometimes it remains even after you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do after trauma, even after the talk therapy and the self-help books, the yoga retreats and the journaling, the trauma recovery groups and the medication. But there may be another path to recovery.
Ellen Ledley has seen people heal from even the most enduring traumas through an innovative body-focused therapy called Somatic Experiencing (SE), that dramatically reframes our understanding of traumatic experiences and the recovery process. Originally trained as a talk therapist, for the past decade Ellen has devoted herself to helping trauma survivors find relief, tranquility, and renewed strength through SE. Today, she is one of four Somatic Experiencing therapists (who also do EMDR) at Bridges to Recovery, and here she shares her insight into this remarkable therapeutic practice.
The Theory of Somatic Experiencing
“There’s a long history of people making the connection between the body and the mind,” Ellen tells me. “Somatic Experiencing is based on the idea that the traumatic experience is not what causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], but, rather, that the body holds on to the trauma unless it’s given the opportunity to resolve.”
Somatic Experiencing was first introduced by Dr. Peter Levine in 1997. From his observations of animal behavior in natural environments, he developed the theory that PTSD and other trauma-related health conditions are psychological manifestations of physiological phenomena. When we are threatened we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, our survival brains take over, and we experience an enormous surge of energy as our bodies flood with the body chemicals needed to escape or flee. If that energy isn’t used to survive, it stays in the nervous system through physical movements like shaking, yawning, tingling or crying. When that doesn’t happen, it leads to dysregulation of the nervous system and a disruption of our natural ability to heal. In nature, the healthy release of traumatic energy can be seen in animals who shake after escaping a predator. “We have that same ability,” Ellen says, “but we’ve cut it off.” As a result, we may experience physical symptoms such as digestive problems and sleep disturbances along with serious persistent emotional distress.
The inability to complete the survival response can result from a number of causes. Children are particularly vulnerable, as they often have no option to fight or flee. In adults, both the nature of the trauma and the stigmatization of somatic expressions of energy release can keep us from our innate healing abilities.
Our ‘higher’ brain disrupts the process. We tell ourselves, ‘Don’t shake, don’t cry, don’t tremor, don’t yawn, don’t do all the things the body naturally knows how to do to heal itself.’ The body is very elegantly designed; it knows how to heal, but we interfere with it. We say, ‘Have a drink, have a smoke, take a pill,’ because we’re very uncomfortable with the physical signs of release. As a culture, we have tamped down those natural healing abilities we have. SE is about re-accessing the body’s natural healing ability.
Somatic Experiencing is designed around five core elements that may be combined in any way that speaks to the unique needs of each client, allowing for highly personalized treatment experiences. What the elements share is an intent to facilitate the release of traumatic energy by engaging in a process of physical, cognitive, and emotional self-discovery that allows you to disrupt the beliefs and behaviors that keep you locked in a state of trauma, and activate your natural healing impulses. “The body really wants to heal, it really wants to be regulated,” Ellen explains. ”When given the opportunity, it will do that. It’s a lot about trusting the body and not overriding it with our beliefs and our thoughts.”
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The first piece of Somatic Experiencing involves learning about the way the nervous system works and the physiological and psychological effects of trauma to understand not only your current symptoms, but to shed light on your reactions at the time of the traumatic event. The overwhelming nature of traumatic experiences and our involuntary responses during the trauma can lead to great shame and self-blame. Sexual assault survivors, for example, often blame themselves for not fighting back or resisting enough.
During trauma, we don’t necessarily act in a way we want to or wish we had. This is not about human failings or mental problems, it’s really about the body. So many people have so much shame around trauma because we think, ‘I should have done something else,’ but it’s not about that, it’s not about the brain because the brain’s offline. The thinking brain does not need to and doesn’t think when the survival brain is in charge of making sure we survive. It’s about biology. It can be so helpful and healing to understand that that’s why they couldn’t fight back during a rape or an assault.
The body-focused portion of SE begins with noticing our physical sensations and how they relate to our experiences of ourselves. For many, SE is the first time they have experienced themselves in this way and for some, it can be an intimidating experience. “The idea that our body sensations inform who we are is a new concept for most people,” Ellen says. “Sometimes it’s very difficult, especially if they have had a lot of sexual and/or physical trauma. It can be very unsafe to go into the body.” Paying attention to body sensations is like learning a new language that we add to the languages of feelings and thoughts. Ellen’s supportive guidance can allow even those with initial reservations to connect with their somatic selves and learn to recognize their physical experiences. “I find that so many of my clients are so relieved and they can now understand what they’ve been through in a different way.”
Once you allow yourself to notice sensations, you can begin tracking them and learning to disrupt automatic attempts to prevent them by acknowledging the role of physical sensation in healing. Ellen explains:
When someone is remembering a trauma, their breath gets short, their heart will beat faster or harder, they’ll feel clenching in certain muscles; they will sometimes feel that they can’t think. That’s part of the nervous system’s readiness for action. Once their prefrontal cortex understands enough of this, it can be a part of the healing process instead of being the part that says, ‘I need to stop shaking, I shouldn’t be crying,’ and can understand that that’s part of the healing.
Tracking can allow your body and your conscious mind to work in harmony and allow for the release of unresolved energy, giving yourself permission to experience and honor your body’s natural healing ability.
While gaining an awareness of your body’s responses and removing the unconscious barriers to healing, you can also develop strategies to consciously affect the nervous system in a way that is healthy and nurturing rather than dysfunctional. This process is called resourcing, and works to fortify the conscious mind to cope with the overwhelming nervous responses. Resourcing may involve thinking of a person, a place, an animal, or a memory that brings calm, peacefulness or joy and allows you to experience the physical release of energy without producing heightening emotional distress. A resource is anything that you notice helps you to bring your body down from a state of hyperarousal.
For one of Ellen’s clients, that feeling of calm was not available to her in the counseling room, so therapy sessions would take place outside on the steps, allowing her to use the greenery, flowers and the sky as her resources.
We want to help people get back into a resiliency zone that helps them go from a place of stress to a place where all of the adrenaline, the cortisol, all of the body chemicals that have been stored from the trauma can release.
Developing resources is critical within the SE process, to ensure that you are able to meaningfully engage in the therapeutic experience while also giving you an effective coping strategy that you can carry with you far beyond your time in treatment.
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Grounding is really another kind of resource. Grounding is about feeling your connection to something solid, your connection to the earth that supports you.
What grounds each person may be very individual; for you it could be the feeling of your back against a chair or your feet on the floor, while for someone else it may be going for a walk and feeling the ground under your feet, or feeling the water holding you up while swimming in the ocean.
For others, grounding is a physical act, such as pressing your full weight against a wall to use all your muscles that are needed for flight or flight. While the specific elements of grounding vary, Ellen says, “All of these things have to do with allowing and helping the body to become more regulated.” And that’s what SE is ultimately about—removing the barriers that keep our bodies from doing what they intrinsically know how to do and allowing ourselves to heal by working with, not against, our somatic selves.
Transformation and Rejuvenation
In the years that Ellen has been practicing SE, she has seen incredible transformations, but her very first SE client remains her most memorable. It was the power of this experience that awakened her to the possibilities of Somatic Experiencing and allowed her to witness its ability to heal even very early and inaccessible trauma.
My client had a huge trauma when he was four. His house burned to the ground and he had no memories of it except for holding his brother’s hand as they left the house and having to let go of his teddy bear along the way. His primary symptom was life-long debilitating insomnia. He had tried every kind of therapy and drugs—both legal and illegal—tea, yoga, just everything.
Without any memories of the event, Ellen says, “all we could do was focus on where he felt tension or constriction in his body, and then we would track the sensations.” As treatment progressed, he began being able to sleep again, something he had not done in years. Eventually, he was able to sleep well all the time. But that wasn’t the only effect of the treatment.
As we worked, his memories came back. His memories had been stored in his body and he couldn’t access them, but as his body released, he remembered exactly what happened. He remembered the smells, where the fire started, his brother coming in to get him. He remembered leaving the house with his brother and mom. It was an amazing experience.
This extraordinary healing potential of Somatic Experience is the reason Bridges to Recovery has chosen to include it as part of our comprehensive treatment curriculum. For many, the insight and relief gained from SE practices enhance the ability to engage with both themselves and the therapeutic process as a whole, to deepen the healing effects of their treatment experiences. As Ellen says:
There are many people who leave and feel the somatic work was finally the piece that helped them to better deal with their trauma, and therefore to begin to live the life that they want for themselves.
Bridges to Recovery provides comprehensive residential treatment for PTSD and other trauma-related disorders through customized care designed to address your unique needs. Contact us to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one on the journey toward healing.