Peter Levine on Somatic Experiencing

Peter Levine on Somatic Experiencing

by Victor Yalom and Marie-Helene Yalom
Master somatic therapist Peter Levine discusses the physiological origins of trauma, and how his Somatic Experiencing approach provides effective treatment.


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An Unconscious Image

Victor Yalom: So Peter, you've spent most of your life working with trauma and traumatized patients, and have developed an approach called Somatic Experiencing® that focuses on including, and putting emphasis, on the physiological aspects of trauma. You believe that working with the trauma through the body is necessary to any trauma resolution and a required step before addressing emotional and cognitive issues. We'll get into this in more detail, but let's first start with: What got you there? How did you get interested in trauma in the first place?
Peter Levine: My career began somewhat accidentally. In the 1960s I started a practice in the fledgling field of mind-body healing. Around that time it was completely in its infancy. I had been developing a protocol to use body awareness as a tool for stress reduction. I would teach people how to relax different parts of their body and they would have a very deep relaxation that was much deeper than I had expected. And so I was referred a patient—I'll use the name Nancy—by a psychiatrist, and she had been suffering from a host of physical symptoms including migraines, severe PMS, what would now be called fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, pain in most of her body. And the psychiatrist reasoned that if I could help her with some of my relaxation techniques, it could help with her anxiety or at least with her pain.
VY: Now, were you a psychologist at that point, Peter?
PL: At that time I was finishing a degree in medical biophysics. And again, there was not a field of bodywork at that time, but I had met some influential people including Ida Rolf and Fritz Perls, and I was hanging out at Esalen—I took a leave of absence—and that's where I really got exposed to these different mind-body approaches.

VY: And this was a heyday where all sorts of things and discoveries were happening?
PL: Crazy stuff. Yeah, exactly. It was both exciting and a chaotic free-for-all in some ways. So anyhow, this psychiatrist sent this woman, Nancy, to see me, and she was extremely anxious. And she was with her husband because she couldn't go out of the house alone. She had, again what would be called now, severe agoraphobia. So anyhow, she came into my office and I noticed her heart rate was really quite high—it was probably about 90, 100 beats per minute. So I did some work with her breathing and then with the tension in her neck. And her heart rate started to go down. And I thought, "Oh, okay, this is great." And it went down and then all of a sudden, it shot up to, I don't know, 140-150 beats per minute. I could see this from her carotid pulse.
VY: Not what you were going after.
PL: Not exactly. I had gone from success to abject failure and, really, fear of putting her into extreme panic attack. So I said something, probably the most stupid thing anybody could say. I said something like, "Nancy, just relax. You need to relax." And her heart rate started going down. And it went down and down and down. And it went to a very low level, probably in the mid-50s. And she looked at me. She turned white, and she looked at me, and she said, "I'm dying, I'm dying. Doctor, don't let me die. Help me, help me, help me." And
at that moment of stress, I kind of was prompted by an unconscious image, a vision of a tiger crouching at the other side of the room and getting ready to spring.
at that moment of stress, I kind of was prompted by an unconscious image, a vision of a tiger crouching at the other side of the room and getting ready to spring. And I said, "Nancy, Nancy, there's a tiger, a tiger's chasing you. Run, climb those rocks, and escape."
VY: And this was just a spontaneous kind of image that came from your imagination or unconscious?
PL: This was a spontaneous image. My unconscious. Yeah, because I had really, truly no idea what to do. I was in a state of, well, near panic myself. So to my amazement, to both of our amazement, her legs started moving as though she were running. And her whole body started to shake and to tremble. And this occurred in waves. And she went from being very very hot to extremely cold. Her fingers turned almost blue. And the shaking and the trembling and the waves of coldness and heat went on for almost 30-40 minutes, maybe. And after that, her breathing was free and spontaneous. She opened her eyes and she looked at me and she said, "Do you want to know what happened, Doctor? Do you want to know what happened to me?" And I said, "Yes, please."

This was one of the first patients. This was certainly the first one where something like this had happened. I worked with a lot of people in getting them to relax, and there were some kinds of things like that, but never anything nearly as dramatic. So anyhow, she reported how during the session she remembered a long forgotten event: as a four year old child, she was given ether for a tonsillectomy—at that time, ether was routinely used for tonsillectomies—and she remembered feeling suffocated and completely overpowered by the doctors and nurses who were holding her down to put on the ether mask while she was trying to scream and get away. As I discovered later, many people who had anxiety disorders had also had tonsillectomies as children with ether. So anyhow, that was the last panic attack that she had. And many of her symptoms abated. Others disappeared completely. We did a few sessions after that where I was actually able to do different relaxation procedures with different muscles and different parts of her body. So of course I was curious about the image—where did that come from?
Marie-Helene Yalom: The tiger image?

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.
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.

Working with an Iraq Vet

VY: I think this is really nicely demonstrated in the video that we're just releasing at the time of this interview, where you demonstrate five sessions with Ray, who's an Iraq vet, who was in an IED explosion. And when he first presents, his body is visibly twitching every few seconds, and you came up with an explanation that he's actually trying to reorient himself to the original trauma, that he was never able to face the trauma.
PL: Yes, well, exactly. This was a young Marine. While he was on patrol two explosive devices blew up right near him and he was thrown into the air, and woke up two weeks later in Landstuhl, at the military hospital in Germany. Afterwards he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and PTSD and also Tourette syndrome, and this was, I think, because of this extreme twitching. You saw this kind of twitching, these neurological presentations in the World War I soldiers. Some of them could barely walk, and they were twitching and in near convulsion. And I think these people who are exposed to these bombs actually have similar presentations. But let's go back to the day when he's on patrol. The bomb blows up. Now what happens whenever there's a loud sound is that it startles us, right? And we arrest what we're doing and we try to localize that sound because that sound could be a threat. That's something that's hard-wired in our bodies. These responses were actually discovered by Pavlov in the 1920s. So there's an explosion and what we do is we turn toward the source of the explosion.
VY: That's how we know where it's coming form.
PL: Exactly. And so what we do is we start to turn our eyes, our neck and head, turn towards that source to try to localize it. In Ray's case, as soon as his eyes and head began to orient, in milliseconds, he was thrown up into the air and this defensive response, this orienting response became completely disorganized and kept repeating itself. It's what many psychologists see in people who are perseverating. They'll go over something...
VY: So your understanding of his constant visible twitching which presented in the first few sessions was that he was still trying to orient himself to the trauma. He'd never been able to complete that orienting response.
PL: Exactly. Because as soon as he began to orient, as soon there was that pre-motor impulse and before that orientation could be felt—much less executed—he was thrown into the air, and in the air his whole body was trying to say, "What can I do?" And so all of his muscles contracted together. Again, this is an archaic response that we've inherited from monkeys. For example, if a monkey falls out of a tree, its whole body flexes. And it does that to protect the vital organs. So in a situation like this, if we're thrown into the air, or even with extreme startle, all the muscles in the front part of our body, the abdomen and the leg flexors and so forth, go into this protective response. So that also contributed to Ray's symptoms, to his chronic pain, because his whole body was locked to protect himself from falling. And of course there were also many emotional issues, such as a tremendous amount of loss and survivor's guilt—he saw many of his best friends killed—that grafted themselves onto the physical trauma.
VY: So in terms of titration that you were talking about, your goal initially in therapy, in the treatment, is to do what?
PL: The goal is to very gradually help him get in touch with the sensations that precede the twitching and that will eventually enable him to complete the orienting responses that were interrupted. It wouldn't have worked if I had said: "We're going to work on controlling the tics." If you tell somebody with Tourette, for example, to not twitch, they may be able to control it for a while, and they do it generally, because in social situations they don't want it to happen. But then the more they try to control it the more explosive it becomes. It is similar to glowing embers—if you blow on the embers, it ignites into a flame. So the key is to cool the embers before they ignite into flame. The flame is this convulsive response.

This is a concept that exists in migraines or epilepsy. Before a seizure, a person experiences prodromal symptoms. So for example, before they get the migraine attack, they may see flickering lights or they may have a particular smell or a body sensation. And they know when they experience those symptoms that they will go into a seizure or a migraine or even an anxiety attack. I focus on something I call the pre-prodromal, because once the person experiences the prodromal, then they go into the attack, the paroxysm. So if you are able to get them to just feel before that—in the pre-prodomal stage, they can redirect that energy, and as they do so they begin to complete the orienting responses that were overwhelmed by the trauma. And in the video, you see Ray little by little begin to reestablish his orienting responses, and this triggers very profound sensations of cold and heat, coolness and warmth, tingling and relaxation.
MY: And that's the energy being released.
PL: Yes, that's the energy being released that's shifting from one system to another.
VY: And you gradually help him to spread that energy, rather than just being in the neck or head, so he experiences it going through the rest of his body.
PL: Exactly, exactly. At first these sensations are only local, mostly in the head or the neck. Then as we do this repeated times, and you'll see this is done several times in each of the first four sessions, gradually the convulsive reaction attenuates and then almost disappears. And in its place he feels pleasure in his body. I was able to invite him to Esalen at one of the workshops I give once a year titled "Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing." By then he had been able to resolve the physiological aspect of the trauma, he was able there to address the emotional aspects of it. Two things happened in that workshop. First of all, he dealt with the different emotions—his loss, his anger, and his guilt that he survived and that many of his comrades did not. But he was also able to reenter and engage with a group of people around feelings of goodness and of social engagement, of hunger for being able to relate to people in a non-aroused....
MY: In a nonviolent way.
PL: In a nonviolent way, exactly. And you see so many vets now—when they come back, they go into maybe not complete convulsions like he did, but into an exaggerated fight-flight-freeze response which can lead to attacks on their children or their spouses. And they do it in an involuntary way, and are helpless to change that. And unfortunately there's little help available for these soldiers to resolve their trauma reactions and be able to reintegrate....

Emotional Processing with Trauma Survivors

MY: Peter, you talked about how it's only in session five that Ray started expressing his emotions. You approach trauma in a very different way than most traditional psychotherapists would, where they would focus probably sooner on dealing with emotions.
PL: Yes.
MY: And you have strong feelings about that.
PL: Actually, what you are alluding to is the whole idea of bottom-up processing. So maybe let's get back to that, okay? In top-down processing, which is normally what we do in psychotherapy, we talk about our problems, our symptoms, or our relationships. And then the therapist often tries to get the client to feel what they're feeling when they talk about those kinds of things. Or they try to work with them to become more aware of their thoughts so that they can change their thoughts. In this model the language that you're talking with the client is in the realm of symbols, of thoughts, of perceptions. The language of the emotions is the language of the emotional brain—the limbic system. And in order to change emotions, people have to be able to touch into the emotions, to express the emotions.

In the case of trauma patients, we have a person who is locked in the fight-or-flight response and as I explained earlier in the Polyvagal theory, a person who is functioning primarily in the brainstem, and the language of the brainstem is the language of sensations. So if you are trying to help the person work with the core of the trauma response, you have to talk to that level of the nervous system.
MY: So what you're saying is a person who has been traumatized cannot really process emotions if they are in the early stages after the trauma until they have dealt with their physiological traumatization.
PL: Right,
until the person has dealt with and sufficiently resolved the physiological shock, they really can't deal with the emotions
until the person has dealt with and sufficiently resolved the physiological shock, they really can't deal with the emotions because the emotions actually will throw them further back into the shock, if the emotions occur at all. Many of these people are so shut down that it's very difficult to get at any emotion. But if some kind of therapy forces them into the emotions, that can have a deleterious effect. That can cause them to further withdraw into the immobility, into the shock reaction. So you have to dissolve the shock first.
VY: What you're saying, though, flies in the face of most of conventional therapy, which goes straight for the emotions. Do you think that most therapies are actually not helpful, or is something else happening during that time?
PL: Many therapists are doing something different from what they think they're doing. And if you're working with emotions in a very titrated way, then you can actually go from the emotions to the sensation, and begin to resolve things at a sensation level. But therapies that really work to provoke emotions or the exposure therapies... I know that they do get some results, but I think that they can easily lead to retraumatization.
VY: How so?
PL: One of the things that Bessel van der Kolk showed when he first started to do trauma research with functional MRIs is that when people are in the trauma state, they actually shut down the frontal parts of their brain and particularly the area on the left cortex called Broca's area, which is responsible for speech. When the person is in the traumatic state, those brain regions are literally shut down, they're taken offline. When the therapist encourages the client to talk about their trauma, asking questions such as, "Okay, so this is what happened to you. Now, let's talk about it," or, "What are you feeling about that?" The client tries to talk about it. And if they try to talk about it, they become more activated. Their brainstem and limbic system go into a hyperaroused state, which in turns shuts down Broca's area, so they really can't express in words what's going on. They feel more frustrated. Sometimes the therapist is pushing them more and more into the frustration. Eventually the person may have some kind of catharsis, but that kind of catharsis is due frequently to being overloaded and not being able to talk about it, being extremely frustrated. So in a sense, trauma precludes rationality.
MY: So what do you think is the hardest thing for traditional talk therapists to learn when dealing with trauma patients?

Experiencing the Body

PL: I think the most alien is to be able to work with body sensations. And again, because the overwhelm and the fight-or-flight are things that happen in the body, what I would say is the golden route is to be able to help people have experiences in the body that contradict those of the overwhelming helplessness. And my method is not the only way to do that. It's certainly one of the most significant. But many therapists, for example, will recommend that their clients do things like yoga or martial arts.
MY: Or meditation?
PL: The thing about meditation, though…. With some kinds of trauma, meditation is helpful. But the problem is when people go into their inner landscape and they're not prepared and they're not guided, sooner or later they encounter the trauma, and then what do they do? They could be overwhelmed with it, or they find a way to go away from the trauma.
And they go sometimes into something that resembles a bliss state. But it's really an ungrounded bliss state. I call that the bliss bypass.
And they go sometimes into something that resembles a bliss state. But it's really an ungrounded bliss state. I call that the bliss bypass. It's a way of avoiding the trauma. It was very common in the ‘60s when people were taking all of these drugs, and a lot of these people were traumatized from their childhood. And what they would do is they would go into these kinds of dissociated states of bliss and different hallucinatory imageries, but in a way it was avoiding the trauma. So in a way the trauma became even a greater effect, and then often people would then wind up having bad trips in which they would go into the trauma but without the resources to work them through.
MY: I guess that's what I find inspiring about your approach. Ultimately you really want to enable the traumatized person to regain their autonomy, not just find palliative methods of dealing with their trauma.
PL: Yes. One thing therapists are really good at, I think, is they're good at helping people calm. We set up our offices so they're conducive, so they're friendly, they're cheerful, there are things in the room that would evoke interest and curiosity. And many therapists can actually help calm the traumatized person. This is something that's a necessary first step, but if it's the only thing that happens, the clients become more and more dependent on the therapist to give them some sense of refuge, some sense of okayness. But when therapists are helping the clients get mastery of their sensations, of their power in their body, than they are truly helping them develop an authentic autonomy. And from the very beginning, the client is beginning to separate.

So this is a gradual process, where the client really becomes authentically autonomous, authentically self-empowered. And if we don't do this, the client tends to become more and more dependent on the therapist, and this is when you see these transferences where all of a sudden the client depends on the therapist for everything. At this point the therapist can go from being the god or the goddess up on this pedestal to being thrown down and the client having rage about the therapist for not helping them enough. So the key out of these conundrums is through self-empowerment, and I know of no more direct and effective way of doing this than through the body.

A Personal Experience of Trauma

MY: You use an accident that happened to you—you were hit by a car—and your own experience of trauma as a way to demonstrate some of the principles of Somatic Experiencing®. You describe how some people were helpful to you and some were not. It seems like a good example to illustrate what to pay attention to when interacting with a traumatized person. Would you say more about that?
PL: Actually I got a good dose of my own medicine. Thankfully. I was walking a crosswalk five or six years ago, and a teenage driver went through the stop sign. I didn't see her because there was a large truck parked waiting at the stop sign and she didn't see the stop sign and she was passing the truck. So she hit me at about 25 miles an hour, and I was splatted out on the pavement. And in shock, disoriented, I didn't know what had happened. And at that moment, or probably shortly thereafter, an off-duty paramedic came and he sat by my side and said, "Don't move." Now remember how previously I was talking about Ray, and his orientation to the explosion when he heard the blast. Well, similarly my survival response is to orient towards where that command came from. But then he's telling me, "Don't move."
MY: So it's a contradiction.
PL: Exactly, it's a complete contradiction. So I go into a freeze, into a panic. And at that moment, I dissociate from my body—it's like I'm out of my body and I'm looking down and seeing this man kneeling by my side and seeing me in this frozen state. Of course, somebody called on their cell phone for an ambulance. But then after a little while, he kept asking me questions, and I was able to get enough orientation to say, "Please just give me time, I won't move my neck," and I didn't want to answer questions about what my name was, where I was going, what the day was. I needed to collect myself, and all of those things were making things much worse. So I was able to set enough of a boundary to have him back off. Then miraculously, serendipitously, a woman came, much calmer, sat by my side, and she said, "I'm a doctor. I'm a pediatrician. Can I do anything?" And I said, "Please just sit here by my side." And she touched my hand with her hand, and we folded our hands together.
VY: She worked with kids so she probably knew how to calm children down.
PL: Exactly. And that's what we need when we're traumatized. We need that kind of direct contact where we know somebody is protecting us. Because when we're in trauma, we go back to a pretty infantile state of feeling completely unprotected. So it was really, really important, and I know I couldn't have done what I did without her being there. I could have done some of it, but her presence really was very important. And then what I was able to do was recollect myself. I was actually able to experience being hit by the car, being thrown in the air, how my arms and hands went out to protect myself first from the window of the car, and then protect my head from getting smashed on the road.
MY: When you say experience, do you mean mentally, or do you mean literally by moving your arms?
PL: I literally experienced my arms as though they were moving. I mean, you could barely see it. These are what are called micro-movements. But as I felt that, I felt that instead of my body becoming limp, I started to get more strength in my body. As I started to get more strength in my body, my physiological systems started normalizing. When the guy first took my blood pressure it was about 170, and my heart rate was 100 beats per minute. When I was in the ambulance,
by re-experiencing those movements and letting my body shake and tremble and feel the different emotions—one was the rage at this woman, the desire to kill this girl—I was again able to ground these feelings in my body.
by re-experiencing those movements and letting my body shake and tremble and feel the different emotions—one was the rage at this woman, the desire to kill this girl—I was again able to ground these feelings in my body. That was the key. I could ground them in my body. And by doing this, my heart rate and blood pressure went to a normal level when I was in the ambulance—it dropped to 120/72.
MY: And you said to the paramedic "Thank God, I won't be getting PTSD."
PL: There was actually some research done in Israel with people who went into the emergency room. Of course, everybody's heart rate and blood pressure is recorded. And people who had a normal heart rate and blood pressure when they left had a very low likelihood of developing PTSD. Those who left with a high heart rate and blood pressure were very likely to develop PTSD.
MY: So what caused some of them to leave with a lower heart rate versus high?
PL: Well, that's hard to know, and unfortunately this wasn't studied. It could have been that somebody there actually helped them calm down, saying things like, "It's okay, I'm here to help you, we're going to take care of you, we're going to help you." I mean, I don't know that. That's a guess. These people may have been more resilient; the other people may have had more trauma. These variables weren't controlled for. But the basic idea is that if we're able to reset our physiological system, able to reset our nervous system, then we don't develop the symptoms of trauma. That's a little bit of oversimplification, because some people, instead of going into the sympathetic response, go into the shutdown state more directly. That's a little bit more complicated. But in my case, by being able to reestablish that my body knew what to do—to protect itself—I&allowed my body to come back into present time, to re-orient and to get through this unscarred. And I'm sure if I hadn't been able to do that, I would have been highly traumatized from that event. I have no question about that.
VY: You mention in the ambulance trembling and shaking. What's the significance of that?
PL: That was similar to what I described with Nancy, my first client. The shaking and trembling has to do with the resetting of the autonomic nervous system. I was so curious about this that I interviewed a number of people who work with capturing animals and releasing them into the wild. And they described to me very much the kinds of shaking and trembling that I see with my clients and that happened to me. A number of these folks said that they knew that if the animals didn't go through this kind of shaking and trembling when they were captured and put in cages, they were less likely to survive when released into the wild. So it appears to be a way in which the physiological autonomic nervous system resets itself. Very often this shaking and trembling can be so minute that you barely perceive it from the outside. And the client or the person experiencing it, experiences it in a very subtle, nonthreatening way. As a matter of fact, after a short period of time, they often experience it as being pleasurable. Exactly what it is, we don't know, but again, I've talked to Stephen Porges, who is probably the preeminent psychophysiologist working with these kinds of nervous system states, and it does appear that this occurs as the autonomic nervous system shifts, particularly out of the shutdown states into the mobilization states and then into the social engagement states. So it's something that goes on as the nervous system comes out of shock.

PTSD & Medication

MY: Peter, you mentioned PTSD earlier. You've worked with numerous clients who had PTSD. Many of them heavily medicated. Has there been any research done about the impact of somatic therapies versus medication, and what is your experience of the effect of medication in cases of PTSD?
PL: Well, first of all, I'm not against medication.
MY: Sure. And actually, Ray is taking quite a lot.
PL: He was. But he felt like he was just completely blotted out. He was put on an antipsychotic medication and antidepressant medication. Medications that help stabilize clients enough so that you can begin to access and work with them can be important. For example, the SSRIs are sometimes helpful in that regard. However, with many of these people, most of the SSRIs are so activating that it actually makes things worse. But if it works, if it helps a person even a small percentage, that can be of real value.

Benzodiazepines, which are often prescribed, in my experience, interfere with the healing process. Some psychiatrists have prescribed very small doses of the atypical antipsychotic Seroquel to help PTSD people sleep. And that seems to be helpful, —because if the person can get some restorative sleep, then they can begin to process the trauma. But just drugs by themselves—the person will very often have to take the drug basically forever. There's a saying: meds without skills don't do the trick. So the key is for the person to be self-regulating.

Comparison to EMDR

VY: How would you compare Somatic Experiencing® from EMDR?
PL: Well, EMDR basically works with one technique. And actually, many of the people who have studied EMDR have trained with us, and vice versa as well. The key here, and nowadays I think EMDR is doing this more, is to reference things as sensations in the body. Again, I think without the body things are limited. It's really, really key to work with the body, or to reference in the body. I do some work with the eyes, but I do it in a different way from the EMDR movement—it's actually quite different. And EMDR has had research, and they have often had good results. We haven't had the same kind of extensive research that EMDR has. My approach is a much older approach—I developed that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—but we haven't had the extensive research.
VY: We've covered a wide span of your fascinating career. What's exciting you now? What are you working on now?

Current Work

PL: I just completed two books on preventing trauma in kids—one for therapists and medical workers and teachers, and the other for parents. The one for parents is called Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide to Instilling Confidence, Joy, and Resilience. And the book for therapists, teachers and medical people is called Trauma Through a Child's Eyes. And then I am just in the process of completing my main work, really. It will be released in September. It's called In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. So those are my big projects right now, and I'm actually kind of under piles of chapters right now doing the final completion on that book.
MY: Do you still have time for patients?
PL: Not really. Most of my time is with teaching. I do see people… Occasionally people will come from out of town or out of the country and then I work with them for a few days, I do intensive work with them. But I don't have any kind of a regular practice anymore.
MY: I have one more question for you, Peter. You were telling us before this interview that you are coming back from Esalen where you were teaching a group of therapists who were primarily talk therapists with little somatic therapy experience. And you said they were like kids. What was so exciting for them?
PL: Actually this is a class I teach with Bessel van der Kolk, and Bessel is one of the leading researchers in the field of trauma research. He's done some of the main core studies in the neuroscience of trauma. He and I teach a workshop together every year. I think we've done it for ten years. In the group we had this time, there were about 60 to 65 people, and almost all of them were talk therapists of one kind or another. And it was really tremendously exciting and gratifying for both of us, for Bessel and me, and also of course for the students, for them to realize, "Oh my gosh, there's a whole other universe beyond just using talk." And I think we also gave them some simple tools that they could begin to incorporate into their conventional psychotherapy practice. And that's another thing that we're doing with my institute— programs for different kinds therapists where they don't have to have full training for working with trauma, but they begin to get some simple tools that they can incorporate into whatever kind of therapy they do, whether it's cognitive therapy, psychodynamic therapy...
MY: You think it works with most therapies?
PL: Yes. There's no therapy that can't be made better by referencing the body. Actually Eugene Gendlin, who coined the term "the felt sense" in his seminal book, Focusing, did his PhD thesis on what therapies worked best. And he found that there was very little correlation between whether a patient improved and what kind of therapy he had. So he said, "Well, maybe it's the experience of the therapist." Well, there was a small correlation. "Well, maybe it's the relationship between the therapist and the client." And again, there was a small correlation, but really nothing that explained why some clients really got well in therapy and others didn't. And what he discovered was that the single variable that was the most robust was whether clients were able to reference different changes, different experiences they had in their bodies. So
any kind of tools that therapists have to be able to help clients reference their body, and particularly to find the ways that their body experiences power and mastery, are going to dramatically inform the type of therapy they're doing.
any kind of tools that therapists have to be able to help clients reference their body, and particularly to find the ways that their body experiences power and mastery, are going to dramatically inform the type of therapy they're doing.
VY: Well, I understand that talk alone cannot heal all, but certainly our talk has been tremendously informative to us and hopefully to those who have a chance to read this. So thank you very much for taking the time to explain this all to us.
PL: Gladly. I hope it was of value.

Copyright © 2010 All rights reserved. Published April 2010.
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Peter Levine Peter A. Levine, PhD, is the developer of Somatic Experiencing© and founder of the Foundation for Human Enrichment. He teaches trainings in this work throughout the world and in various indigenous cultures. Levine is the author of the best-selling book Waking the Tiger : Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences and he has recently co-published a comprehensive book on childhood trauma, Trauma Through a Child's Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing as well as a guide for parents, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience. He is the recipient of the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the the US Association of Body Psychotherapy.
Victor Yalom Victor Yalom, PhD is the founder and resident cartoonist of He maintained a busy private practice in San Francisco for over 25 years, but now sees only a few clients, devoting the bulk of his time to creating new training videos for He has produced over 100 videos, conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China, and currently leads consultation groups for therapists.  More info on Victor and his artwork and sculpture at

Marie-Helene Yalom Marie-Helene Yalom holds a PhD in physics from University of Paris VI, an MBA from Northwestern University, and has over 15 years experience in corporate strategy and marketing, primarily in technology related industries. She is the Marketing and Strategic Director for and was the co-producer and director of the DVD Resolving Trauma in Psychotherapy: A Somatic Approach.

CE credits: 2

Learning Objectives:

  • List the three subsystems of the nervous system
  • Explain how utilizing bodily sensations can help to resolve trauma
  • Describe how trauma-activated energy becomes locked in the body

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here