My SE Experience: Part 4

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Afternoon at Barefoot Beach

I this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), I’ve been relating my continuing experience of personal transformation through Somatic Experiencing (SE). It’s been a little over 2 years since I learned about SE and started using it with clients, and about a year and a half since I’ve been intermittently engaged in personal work.

At the beginning of this year I started keeping a journal of what I notice as I proceed through the work. Initially I started doing it because I noticed the new, reorganized version of myself seemed so natural I was concerned about being able to remember the “before” version. At the level of absolute/spirit, this is really not a problem, but in terms of wanting to understand the transformation from an experiential perspective aligned with my academic understanding to enhance my clinical application of SE, it seems useful.

The journaling is useful in other ways, as well. I sometimes make an entry after a session about how we worked with a particular issue in session. I also log entries that describe what seems present or at the surface recently: memories, thoughts, dreams, sensations, impulses, judgments, states of mind, emotions, and often after meditation practice. I review recent entries before an SE session so I can remember to share significant progress or challenges with my practitioner. This helps me organize and summarize so I don’t use up session time with stories and long description.

The journaling has also been helpful for noticing that what my mind calls a problem or issue, doesn’t necessarily dictate the content of the work in a session. My thoughts will often say what is most important to work on or how it should go, but it hardly ever winds up being that way. It’s so helpful to have this record of “here’s what my mind thinks is going on and I should be doing” and to witness again and again that what surfaces in session is the right stuff to work on, and bears little correlation to my egoic identification or attempts to plan or control. This is a major support in relaxing the need to control. I now take the thoughts more lightly, rather like I register them, but they don’t dictate anything.

Things I am noticing in addition to the above:

  • Continuing energy increases: both in supply and stability. I’m less attracted to overexertion (overly long or intense exercise, yard work, or any other type of work). Now I take breaks, I don’t really bottom out from exhaustion, and I’m more comfortable and productive during periods of high or low energy. I don’t have a preference for relaxed or meditative states, and no state (relaxed, neutral, active) seems better than another; they’re all necessary.
  • Increased sensitivity to pleasurable sensation: especially touch. Touch has a dimension of satisfaction it didn’t have before, and there’s more curiosity and pleasure in textures, for example, even just noticing the grit of concrete underfoot, or running my tongue along my teeth.
  • Increased interest in play: playing with impulses to make certain alliterative sounds, run my hand over upholstery, tap my feet, play with my hair, talk to the plants or animals in the yard, wander, explore. It’s hard to describe if you’ve always had this. I never saw or was interested in play as such. It had no purpose for me. Now it needs no purpose; it just feels like a fascination with life that expresses itself through me.
  • Easier to seek out social contact when I want it: and easier to cope with not being able to have it at times when I really want it. And definite sensation of the need for it. It used to be more like “I can easily do without it most of the time”.
  • More consistent, productive work toward goals: it happens organically, and this continues to amaze me. My lists are so I don’t forget the items, not a dictate of the day’s activities. Ego/mind still wants to direct and control the activity and judge what’s getting done or not. I just notice the egoic energy, and then do the thing that obviously needs attention next. It’s not always the thing I want to do, and the day rarely goes how I planned, but it continues to be all right. It all gets done when it needs to, and I’m not as exhausted and discouraged as I used to chronically be. I used to spend so much time reading books on procrastination and productivity, and not one of them ever acknowledged the underlying issue of trauma…bummer!

Self help books all seem to remedy the subjects on the list above with willpower or organization strategies. Even though I used to sense that planning and willpower were always going to fall short, I kept trying, kept searching for the right strategy; resolving trauma is like going to a deeper level than that – the cause level. Self-help or behavioral strategies are like trying to find a channel with a brighter picture on your tv while the dimmer is on; resolving trauma is like turning off the dimmer. It sure seems like the energy freed up by not having to manage trauma symptoms just naturally moves out toward life and expresses. I don’t have to even try. It’s really organic and spontaneous. It’s not a struggle. I could not have imagined or anticipated this result. It’s pretty cool.

Contact me if you’d like to learn more about Somatic Experiencing or to schedule a session.

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My SE Experience: Part 3

As my personal work and my work with clients in Somatic Experiencing continues, the significant and dramatic changes also continue to amaze me (also see Part 1 and Part 2). This work includes not only addressing things we might commonly refer to as “trauma”, but also traumatic stress resulting from chronic stress, insufficient support and attunement at a young age and/or following difficult events (sometimes referred to as relational trauma), as well as birth trauma. The resulting changes are difficult to adequately describe, but here’s my attempt:

  • Space between past and present. After working on a specific event, having a distinct felt sense of space between the event and myself, as in, I suddenly clearly FELT that the event was just something that happened, separate from me, not here, not me, but truly back in the past.
  • During and after working on an event: involuntary, spontaneous, lasting thoughts and visceral felt sense that “I’m ok”, and that the actions of others didn’t have anything to do with me or my worth, or anything about me and that is was THEIR STUFF; a distinct felt sense of space or boundary between me and their stuff, and that their stuff was not mine, and never was.
  • A sense of coming into, or “filling up” the legs below the knee, and lots of energy and movement wanting to express through the legs afterward.
  • An influx of energy. Not manic, buzzy, frantic energy, but clear, light, free, open energy. Openness to easy, spontaneous interaction with others, and desire to move my body (walk, run, lift weights, do yard work).
  • An increased access to sense of touch. It’s like touch in color instead of black and white. It’s deeper, more satisfying, more accessible, not so much work. Just incredibly enjoyable to have even the simplest touch, like a hug or holding hands, or even touching my own arms or legs.
  • A sense of brighter colors, clearer vision/detail in the visual field.
  • A felt sense of safety and connection with others who are safe and capable of connection, as well as ability to take in connection where it is available even if inconsistent or not someone I’d want for a best friend.
  • Increased ability to freely ask for and offer support, and to really be able to take in/receive the support, and to feel really good about providing it. Both are difficult to describe. I mean feel really good, like visceral, felt warmth and pleasure, rather than ego benefit from providing support. Receiving feels like a sense of being physically held. It’s pretty incredible to feel that supported, supportive.

These changes are things I could never have imagined. They are feelings I didn’t have access to before, and didn’t even know they existed in order to want them, until I started to do Somatic Experiencing work. My clients all report similar experiences. I think I suspected all along something might be missing, if so many others seemed okay with life’s imperfections, but there was no way for me to know this was it. If you don’t have the capacity for deep connection, you might yearn for it, but it’s elusive because you don’t have the neural networks to recognize and receive it. If you have the capacity for such feelings, you can’t imagine what it’s like to not have it, and you don’t even suspect someone could not have it. Without these connection and support feelings, it’s like being two dimensional, black and white, half alive, out of focus, looking through a curtain or dark glasses. The further I get in the process and the more I work with clients, the more I understand what Peter Levine says:

Trauma is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

For so long, I’ve been only half alive. It doesn’t have to be that way, for me, or for you. Call me for more info or see the directory of Somatic Experiencing practitioners to find someone in your area who does this work.

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My SE Experience: Part 2 (Slow Down to Speed Up)

In the previous post (Part 1), I talked about what it’s like to have completed a significant amount of Somatic Experiencing (SE) work. There’s much less constriction, more freedom of movement physically and in the mind, and less energy output to manage defending against life.

As my SE practitioner training continues, I keep re-learning and having renewed appreciation for the individual human capacity to heal traumatic stress. The way SE works aligns so beautifully with mindfulness and self-compassion approaches. It’s a “let’s wait and see” method that engages curiosity and respects the individual’s own healing mechanism, while compassionately holding space for doubting mind and other things that get in the way of attending to experience.Early_Australian_road_sign_-_Slow_(octagon).svg

I was particularly struck at the most recent training by the power of the practice of tightly and actively keeping the process manageable. In SE we call this “titration”, and it’s about staying in the individual window of tolerance while working with whatever body sensations or other content (thought, emotion, image) is there. Working within the window means keeping the level of subjective distress low enough to be able to remain curious. As soon as the distress level starts to rise above tolerance, pausing is crucial, and then there are all sorts of things that can be done to slow down the speed or intensity of whatever is happening so it can come back down to manageable levels, and the client can stay present.

What is described above is a lot different than tv images and a lot of still popular thought about what happens in therapy to heal from traumatic experiences. Talk therapy (without any attention to the body’s responses) is largely unproductive for addressing the root cause of trauma, and in many cases, harmful – entrenching it even further. And many cultures have a “more is better”, self negation type of self-discipline that encourages overriding physical and emotional needs and limits. If you had coffee today, chances are you ignored a limit – your body’s energy balance – that says how much it can do today. We think nothing of ignoring these limits, along with the future costs of imbalance. Naturally, when we finally get to therapy, we’re motivated – we want to go really fast, have a big, emotional, cathartic experience, to feel like we “got something done”. We think we must feel like we’ve “worked really hard”. I am guilty of this, too!

But this last training showed me something remarkable – not exceeding capacity actually increases capacity. Every time I helped someone stay in their window of tolerance (stopped at signs of activation/nervous system arousal, and titrated or waited for their system to settle again), capacity grew, right before my eyes. With each round of titration, they got stronger. Their window of tolerance grew. And I experienced the same thing as a practice client, multiple times. I promptly took this new approach into the office and watched it work repeatedly, with every client.

We have lots of euphemisms for this idea of going slower, but I notice it’s usually only paid lip service. We don’t pause and can’t notice what happens when we do, and therefore we can’t appreciate the value of it. Sometimes we just notice some vague sense of calm or relief that seems to come after a pause, and then we go right back to mindless busyness.

Here’s your motivation to practice: in paying attention to the experience of the body, it seems to expedite the healing/growth process. But we can’t go in seeking to expedite the process because it always backfires; bypassing is always self-violence and doesn’t work. Just like in developing a self-compassion practice, in SE we attend to experience (mind, body and emotions) in a curious and respectful way that acknowledges our built-in self healing mechanism while attending to the need of our human part to be able to “keep up” with or tolerate what’s happening.

In short, healing is not about forcing ourselves to exceed our tolerance, or re-experiencing trauma. Let me know if you’d like more info about Somatic Experiencing 614.547.2187.

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My SE Experience: Part 1

Some time ago I promised to write about what I have noticed in terms of improvements resulting from my personal work with Somatic Experiencing. There are so many changes that I think I just got stuck trying to figure out which things to share. Today I was struck yet again by something I noticed, and so I decided to just start writing. Perhaps this will be a 20 part series. So be it. I have to share in case others hearing what is possible makes them pursue it for themselves.

I was off work today, at home cleaning and what-not, and making trips up and down the basement stairs. With amazement I continue to notice that I do not need to look down at my feet to feel sure of my step on the stairs. It feels perfectly natural to just go down, and my legs seem to know how to navigate each step without trying. Then I realize I am not looking, and doubt myself, slowing to look at my feet, while still feeling them, realizing that somewhere deep inside I know I won’t actually plummet to the bottom for not looking. I used to always have to look at my feet to not miss any stairs. It’s like I’m connected to my body in a way I wasn’t previously. I am still struck, after 40+ years of not being able to trust my movements, that I now move by feeling, instead of looking.

So much of my life seems to be just like going down the steps now. Effortless and still strangely new, with the shadow of the memory and impulse of former ways of being. The ghost of willpower, my former frenemy, looks over my shoulder as I worry from a habitual place that doesn’t quite feel real, about the undone chores, or the bills, or my diet or sleep or exercise, or any state (boredom, dissatisfaction, bliss, frustration, avoidance) that seems to be occurring. I bring awareness to the worry and it vanishes. The ghost of willpower stares in disbelief as the dust bunnies become just dust, not symbols of inadequacy, or distraction from priorities.

I notice I seem to lack the energy to engage in willpower based strategies anymore, and it doesn’t matter because I find I no longer need them. I am moved to take care of myself well without being obsessive or rationalizing, and the things that aren’t helpful or fulfilling seem to keep falling away effortlessly – people, foods, tv shows, work, possessions. Places in my life where the effortlessness seems absent simply become objects of curiosity, opportunities for self inquiry or attention in meditation, or content for future somatic experiencing sessions.

What an amazing place to live life from! It’s difficult for me to get excited about efforting anymore. It takes too much energy and seems completely unnecessary. Life seems to move naturally when its energy is freed up from managing incomplete defensive responses. The people and solutions I need seem to just keep presenting themselves. Any time I doubt this new natural unfolding process I can just look and easily see how excessive planning, organizing or controlling on my part would have reduced the ability to benefit from such synchronicities.

I remember a long time ago someone first suggested to me the idea of “trusting life” to take care of me, and it sounded like new-aged bullshit. From that place where I heard it first, there just wasn’t any way for me to know what such a thing was like or how it could be possible. I never in a million years thought I could trust life in such a way, even if it was a desirable option.

And here I am. All I can say is “wow”.

 

 

 

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The Rewards of Somatic Experiencing

I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain the changes I notice in myself and in others as a result of somatic experiencing work. It’s difficult to convey the changes because many are visceral, felt sensations: no more perpetual tension in the pit of my stomach, or chest or shoulders, increased ability to feel touch, less tightness in the throat. Other things are more obvious: my eyebrows growing back, no need for alcohol to “unwind”, and husband noticing that I come home smiling, rather than testy and exhausted, after a long day of work. But those things don’t entirely capture how dramatic the internal shift is, and then something happened that really summed it all up…

I was in the local toy store recently with my husband, perusing opposite sides of a display with bins full of cheap pocket-sized toys. I’m always looking for stuff to use as therapeutic tools, and he’s usually up for playing with toys, so it’s a win-win. As I stood there analyzing the selection before me (playing with the toys), a hacky-sack type ball comes flying over the wall from his direction, and I reach up with my left hand and catch it, moving around to the other side to join him and return it to its bin. From the outside, it may not have seemed like a big deal, but in that moment I realized something miraculous had happened.

I am not in the habit of catching anything, let alone one-handed, left-handed, and by surprise. I think the reason I can tell you about it is that I’m in this delicious in-between place right now where I can remember the old response (deflecting, dodging, flinching, bracing, and trying to appear not to do any of that and while wilting in shame over my clumsiness) while experiencing the freedom and spontoneity of this new response. I realized a few moments after catching that ball, that this transition has been happening recently – catching things, balancing, navigating the furniture obstacles – without much thought or effort. My whole life I thought I was tragically uncoordinated, but it turned out I just had a lot of incomplete defensive responses.

I can’t even list all the changes I notice, but here are a few more: eating more appropriate portion sizes and only really for hunger, increased energy levels and stamina, more stable mood, more at ease with others – catching that ball revealed to me even more deeply what somatic experiencing work does. It enables greater responsiveness to life. When our actions are bound up in incomplete defensive responses (aka “traumatic stress”), we keep defending against life. When we don’t have so much of that stress left in the body, then it’s free to respond to life, to fully engage and to flow. This explains how, for a time, I just couldn’t understand why with all of my mindfulness practice and realization, I was still witnessing this pattern of fear and inability to fully express in life – a sort of dark cover over things. Even though I couldn’t believe in the mind’s explanations anymore, I just couldn’t feel that freedom in the way I thought I ought to be able to.

I’m increasingly able to respond to my own needs for nourishment, rest, soothing, activity, and expression in a way that I realize now, no amount of discipline or planning or practice could have achieved. There is no such thing for me anymore as trying to generate “motivation”. Life is already motivated, and it moves through me, and I get to go along for the ride as it unfolds. It’s very hard to explain what that’s like if you haven’t ever experienced it, but I think you can tell when it’s not there.

My unsolicited advice: give it all you’ve got in order to find it, because not matter how much that is, it’s worth it.

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Simple SE You Can Use Right Away

Think of a time when you experienced joy in relationship with another, or a time when you made a significant accomplishment or achievement. As you remember that time, perhaps complete with an image of the moment when you felt the joy of connection or the satisfaction of completion, see if you can notice the internal bodily sense or felt sense of it as you recall it in this moment. What happens if you press the “pause” button on that scene, and just allow all the cells in your body soak up the feeling like they were little sponges, letting your entire body fill up with the sensation of that experience? Just set any judgments or critical thoughts about this exercise to the side while you fully engage in noticing what your body feels like.

Just pause, and take time now to engage in the exercise described above…

As I understand things, if you fully engaged in the exercise above, you just increased your neural connections that allow you to access this type of experience. If that doesn’t seem significant enough, then try this exercise the next time you’re feeling some sort of emotional disturbance or challenge. It’s powerful medicine if you allow yourself to fully engage such positive feelings in times of distress.

The biggest challenge to an exercise like this is the mind. It may want to come in and say all sorts of downer things like:

  • this is stupid, or irrelevant
  • I want proof this will help,
  • I won’t do it unless I know how it works,
  • it’s not real, it’s just make believe,
  • I’d rather hang onto being ______ (sad, angry, whatever) right now

That last one’s a doozy, because we sometimes have a flash of awareness of wanting to continue to suffer when there’s the option to shift out of it, but few of us dare admit it openly. It’s true, though, and I’ve had all of these thoughts at one time or another, and my clients admit that they do, too. My advice is to be curious about the thoughts, set them aside, and do it anyway, as your own personal experiment. What have you got to lose except suffering? This is you being in charge, finding out for yourself on your own authority, what is true, rather than letting the mind bully you or keep you from exploring your own frontiers. You could also just imagine doing both, and remember that no one’s making you stop also feeling sad or angry at the same time as doing this exercise.

Here’s another simple SE exercise you can use right away: pausing. When you notice you’re stressed or in distress of any kind, or rushing from one thing to the next, pause and feel your body. Feel your feet in your shoes, and the solidness of the ground beneath. Feel the chair you’re sitting in, or the clothes on your body. If you can, pause until4274478735_4af18859db_z you feel the worked up feeling settle or come down, even a little bit, before moving on the next thing. Think of it as giving your body a chance to catch up to where your mind is in that moment.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of something so simple. I know I used to. But, think about it. We rush through our days, trying to be as productive as possible, rarely stopping to breathe, and by mid-afternoon, we’re reaching for coffee or some other pick-me-up, and then suddenly we’re too tired to cook and poor choices for dinner seem to make themselves – alcohol, or overeating, fast food, or blowing off exercise or activities we know we want to do, or being cranky or unavailable to connect with loved ones. And no wonder! Our nervous system has never had a chance to digest all the transitions during the day, and finally, it just has had enough and gives out, or we just turn it off by numbing it with our potion of choice. Five days in a row of this, and we’re left wondering why the weekend is rarely enough time to recover.

See what happens if you give a little extra space for transitions, no matter how short. Take in the feeling of having a breather, a tiny break…fully feel the sensation of it, the goodness of it, and let the comfort of it soak in. If you’re really busy and just haven’t reached the point where you can rationalized minutes or seconds of this pausing, then use your walking or driving between places as a way to become really present and just notice what your body feels like, slowing the pace or the driving speed slightly, if at all possible. You’ll be increasing the overall resilience of your system, as a bonus for this effort.

Find out what happens when you give this gift to yourself. If something won’t even let you try, then that just lets you know where you are right now, and that is the place to start, just noticing that. Leave a comment with the results of your experiment below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What is Somatic Experiencing?, Cont’d

In the last post, I gave a very brief, general overview of Somatic Experiencing, and in this post, I wanted to give you a bit more detail about what it looks like.

Somatic Experiencing is a term used to describe a kind of therapy devised by Peter Levine for assisting the stuck energy of incomplete defensive responses to be released from the body in order to restore healthy nervous system functioning. The healthier the nervous system, the more likely it is to “self-regulate”, that is, to effectively manage the ups and downs in energy and stress levels without having to actively help it.

What does that mean in plain english? Well, this is a gross simplification, but your internal system for responding to threats is kind of “stupid”. It doesn’t know toast burning from a house on fire, and it doesn’t have to. It just has to put out the chemicals to mobilize the body for survival activity, whether that’s seeking social connection, fighting, fleeing or freezing up (playing dead). A complex set of internal chemical and electrical interactions sorts through whether it’s toast or house that is on fire, and regulates the response up or down to match the perceived threat.

Trouble is, if there are enough incomplete defensive responses – aka energy stuck in the system – it gums up the works, and the complex set of processes can get stuck on (anxiety, panic), off (severe depression, stuckness), or both (one extreme to the other, and back). Or the system can be oversensitized so the physical reaction is the same size (as big as possible!) no matter the size of the threat. And the more this happens, the more ingrained these patterns of response become, with the mind inventing whatever it needs (ah, the wonder of self-confirmatory bias!) to in order to explain the intensity of the physical feeling/reaction:

  • seeking out situations that are similar in order to relive the pattern
  • blaming, for example: “I must be ______ (lazy, stupid, defective, unworthy)”, or “The world must be ______ (evil, broken, dangerous, hopelessly lost)
  • reacting to others’ reactions to the overreaction (e.g. defensiveness, self-isolating)
  • becoming desensitized to others’ responses when they don’t conform to the overreactions

Enter Somatic Experiencing. Somatic = of or relating to the body. So we’re talking about experiencing the body. The experiencing is guided by a person trained to recognize the patterns of response of the nervous system, who has also done a fair amount of their own work, which is part of being an effective practitioner. The guide helps focus attention in the present, and sometimes directs attention or movement in some particular way that helps the observed internal energy to move or complete. The work could include art, symbolic movement, visualizations, or vocalizations.

The work could also be much more subtle, for example in the case where someone initially cannot tolerate paying attention or perceive any body sensations, which is common in cases of severe trauma. The work is gentle and seeks always to stay within the current capacity of the individual. There is no need to relive the event, as in the traditional psychotherapy approaches, which might overwhelm a person’s system.

The process of being with the internal sensations related to emotions and thoughts could be likened to surfing, where the intensity may initially increase, and then decrease or dissipate. Normal parts of the process of surfing these sensations might include but are not limited to: trembling, involuntary twitching or jerking, sweating, chills, tiredness, tingling, heaviness, vibration, feeling of “buzzing”, laughing, and feelings of friendliness and gratitude. What happens as a result of the release of energy can seem almost magical: the brightened outlook on life, ability to assert with and connect to others, and sudden freedom to be productive, as well as improved physical health and symptoms.

Mindfulness practice that increases the ability to maintain the position of “witnessing” can facilitate Somatic Experiencing work. Sometimes it is implied by well meaning teachers that mindfulness practice by itself can facilitate such a process of energy discharge, and to some extent this is true, but I’ve found from personal experience that SE has created much bigger and quicker shifts than trying to do it alone in meditation. What I understand now is that it is because, alone, I did not initially have the ability to titrate, or stop the overwhelm to the system by introducing small bits of experience at a time until my nervous system developed more resilience. This inability to titrate is a classic symptom of trauma!

I have heard that Peter Levine suggests that we aren’t meant to do this kind of work alone. I tend to agree now, and with good reason. We are wired for connection. It’s what we’re here for. We don’t learn in isolation – not in an experiential way. We can read books and meditate all we want, but in relationship is where the rubber hits the road. Somatic Experiencing is about helping the nervous system learn to self regulate, and it makes perfect sense that we do this in relationship.

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