Psychotherapy Networker: To many therapists, Somatic Experiencing (SE) still seems a bit mysterious, even mystical. Can you concretely describe what a first session of SE looks like?
Peter Levine: When we feel overwhelmed by trauma, talk alone isn’t going to do very much. We have to go to the unspoken voice of our bodies: one that doesn’t use words to create experiences that contradict those of fear and helplessness. 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.
PN: So give me an idea of how you work with sensations to help cut-off clients get in touch with their anger.
Levine: With suppressed anger, the underlying sensation is often a particular tension in the jaw, neck, and arms. So I might start by having someone feel that tension in their jaw and fist and then allow the jaw and fist to open just a teeny bit, until they feel an increase in tension. From there, I might have them then focus on closing and then opening the mouth and hand a little bit more. Then I might say, “And how about your neck? Are you still feeling the constriction there?”
“Yes, I feel it, but it’s not quite as bad,” they might say.
“Okay, would you be willing to do an experiment? I’m going to offer you my arm, and I’d like you to put both your hands on my arm. Just take the tension in your neck and chest, and move it into my forearm. Let my arm know how that tightness in your neck and chest feels.”
At this point, the person might report, “As I do this, I can feel the tension letting go. It’s like it’s going into your arm. Is that okay? It’s not hurting you?”
“No,” I’d say, “not at all.”
Or the person might say, “Oh my God, I can’t express this inner tension because I might do something violent.” So I’d assure them that I can handle whatever sensations arise for them and will tell them to stop if I need to. Then as they squeeze my forearm, I’d ask them to feel what’s going on in their arms, their hands, and their chest. As they continue, they’ll likely feel a release in the neck and chest, along with a burst of energy. Here, my job is to help them contain that energy so the anger doesn’t feel overwhelming.
In some of the older models of body therapy, you might have the person scream and hit on a pillow or twist a towel to get in touch with the anger. But the problem with those cathartic approaches is that they don’t actually release or dissolve the anger. I’ve found that a much better way is to proceed more slowly, layer by layer, using the principle of titration to find a path to discovering the strength and power that reside within (or beneath) the anger. When that happens, the emotion often shifts, or at least loosens its grip, and the person feels more freedom. In this way, rage can transform into strength and purpose—what I call healthy aggression.
PN: What special skills does an SE therapist need to have?
Levine: To be sure, SE therapists need to be able to read bodies—postures, facial expression, color changes, micromovements. But beyond that, to do body-oriented work, you need to learn 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.
One of the primary tools in SE is open-ended, or “clean,” questions that help focus people on their immediate bodily experience. So let’s say a client is struggling with an uncomfortable heart sensation. I might start with, “As you feel your heartbeat, I want you just to notice if it increases, decreases, or remains the same, or if something else happens.” I’m encouraging the person’s curiosity about what’s going on in their body. If the person responds, “I feel my hands beginning to tremble,” I might just say something like, “And as you notice that, what else happens, does it seem to spread or move around in any way?”
In trauma, people’s bodies are continually replaying things that have happened to them years and even decades before. It’s as if time has gotten stuck inside them. The purpose of open-ended questions and body sensing is to help bring time forward, into the present.
PN: What does SE offer that conventional talk therapy doesn’t?
Levine: Too often talk therapy alone can devolve into a kind of a flat, devitalized conversation; it can be a way of trying to explain to ourselves what we feel. Talk is certainly a part of SE, but the goal is to add another dimension to that conversation, to root it in the person’s immediate bodily experience, in a way that brings them more fully and vitally into the present.
A French term, élan vital, describes the essential energy that animates us and moves us through life. I believe most people come into therapy, ultimately, in search of that sense of vitality. Because it’s so alien and frightening to them, it may initially be difficult for many people to feel this aliveness. But as they become more familiar with the world of enlivening sensations and the eidetic images that live inside of them, they learn to experience a living, “knowing” body as an ally, not as a persecutor.
PN: What’s the hardest thing for your students to learn about doing SE?
Levine: To not talk too much and to keep reminding themselves that they need to be in contact and present within their own bodies first. In SE, we’re always bringing students back to their own internal body experience. I think most people are probably like me when I first started; they don’t have a very good sense of their own body, an interoceptive awareness. But when they develop that somatic sensitivity and literacy, it can really be life changing.
There’s a Sufi saying: “The body is the shore of the ocean of being.” Learning how to tune into the subtle shifts that are going on inside us all the time can open us to the experience of wholeness and what I call the Authentic Self.
This blog is excerpted from "An Interview with Peter Levine," which appears in the March/April 2019 issue, The Missing Piece: Embracing a More Embodied Psychotherapy.
Photo © Peter Levine
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