Peter Levine on Going Beyond Talk Therapy to Heal Trauma

Using Somatic Experiencing® to Tap into the Unspoken Voice of Our Bodies

Peter Levine

Back in the ’60s, I started developing various kinds of mind–body methods with people who had high blood pressure. But my real breakthrough came in 1969, when I was asked to see a woman named Nancy. It was that experience that changed the course of my work and my life.

Nancy had all kinds of physical complaints, including what would now be called fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel, urinary problems, and migraines—the kinds of chronic conditions that are confounding to conventional medicine.

When Nancy arrived, her heart was pounding frantically. I began by trying to help her relax the muscles in her jaw and neck, and in the process, her heartbeat soon started coming down.

But then suddenly, it shot back up. Not knowing what else to do, I just said, “Nancy, you need to relax. You must relax.”

To my great relief, her heart rate started going down. However, it kept going down and down and down. Nancy turned a deathly shade of pale, and looking at me in terror, she cried out, “Help me! Help me! Don’t let me die!”

As I held my breath, an image somehow came to me. At the far corner of the consulting room, I saw a tiger crouching, ready to spring forth. And without quite knowing why, I commanded, “Nancy, there’s a tiger chasing you. Run, run, climb those rocks, and escape!”

After about 30 minutes, she began to breathe more fully, and her face became rosy and warm. When she finally opened her eyes, she reported that when I gave her the image of the tiger, she saw herself starting to run, though her legs felt like lead at first.

But then she began to imagine—and feel—herself climbing the rocks and escaping. From that vantage point, she could look down at the tiger and feel safe, maybe for the first time in decades.

Indeed, not only did her anxiety resolve, but after a few more sessions, so did many of her physical symptoms.

Peter Levine's Trauma Master Class

Later, as I thought about what had happened with her, I began to think about what happens when horrible things happen to people…

Our guts twist up, our muscles tighten, and our heartbeat starts racing or, conversely, slowing to a low level. Those sensations of twisting and turning in the gut get relayed back to the brain, which reinforces and amplifies the original message of danger and threat.

Traumatized people get stuck in a vicious cycle.

And when someone is overwhelmed by trauma, talk alone isn’t going to do very much. We must go to the unspoken voice of our bodies: one that doesn’t use words to create experiences that contradict those of the fear and helplessness we actually feel.

That is why I developed Somatic Experiencing® (SE®). And after decades of scientific research and successful clinical application, it is regarded as one of the most effective therapies in the field.

It offers techniques that go beyond talk therapy and enhance the clinician’s ability to help heal trauma, pain, anxiety, and a wide range of hard-to-treat conditions.

An SE® therapist may begin engaging with clients in much the same way as a talk therapist: inviting them to speak about the issues or feelings that are haunting them…

…but rather than focus on the content of what’s upsetting them, the therapist might say, “This may seem strange to you but bear with me. I wonder if you would be willing to identify where, in your body, you feel those difficult emotions (or conflicts), and what do they feel like physically.”

As this exploration begins, we try to help them become not only aware of their feelings or hauntings, but curious about the physical sensations that underlie them.

My experience is that chronic negative emotions often don’t change until the underlying sensation patterns change.

And this can only happen through enhanced body awareness.

Beyond that, to do body-oriented work as a therapist, you need to pay close attention to the sensations in your own body. You need to learn to listen to your clients in a different way, so that when a shift happens in a session, you can notice it in their body as well as in your own.

Learning how to tune into the subtle shifts that are going on inside us all the time can open us to a wholeness that I call the Authentic Self.

When given proper support, our clients can bring their body more and more into awareness.

They may not feel a connection between their shoulders and their arms, and their shoulders and their neck initially. But as you help them develop this awareness, an image related to some trauma or to a developmental attachment issue will often appear.

As those memories and associations emerge, you can then work with your clients to develop more expansiveness inside themselves, creating a larger container for their sensations…

…ensuring they no longer feel overwhelmed like they did in their traumatic past.

And now, in this online course, Peter Levine’s Trauma Master Class, you’ll have the opportunity to experience SE® in action for yourself by observing me in-session with three actual clients dealing with deep-rooted trauma, attachment wounds, shame, and chronic pain.

Then take the experience further as I give you an insightful commentary of my moment-to-moment clinical thinking through in-depth conversations about each session—so you can better implement what you’ve learned into your own work.

Whatever your approach, this is your opportunity to discover how Somatic Experiencing® can bring new creativity and enhanced impact into your practice.

Click here for complete details about my transformative online course, Peter Levine’s Trauma Master Class. 

Peter Levine

Dr. Peter Levine holds doctorates in both medical biophysics and psychology. He is the developer of Somatic Experiencing® (SE), a naturalistic body-awareness approach to healing trauma, which he teaches all over the globe. Dr. Levine is also the founder of the Foundation for Human Enrichment and was a stress consultant for NASA during the development of the space shuttle. An accomplished author, Dr. Levine penned Healing Trauma, Sexual Healing and the bestselling book, Waking the Tiger. He also co-authored with Maggie Kline Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes and Trauma-Proofing Your Kids. His latest book, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, is a testament to his lifelong investigation into the connection between evolutionary biology, neuroscience, animal behavior, and more than 40 years of clinical experience in the healing of trauma.