PTSD: Somatic Experiencing & ACE Study

Through my somatic therapist’s blog, I found some incredible resources and further information to facilitate my understanding and healing. First, Somatic Experiencing, which I first heard about from a PTSD specialist I saw back in TX before the move. Although I only had four sessions with this woman (KH), she provided me with a turning point in my healing. First, by calling the events what they were: rape. Second, by validating I was suffering from PTSD, likely complex PTSD.

She was right.

Due to the cruelty of my former community and the constant hyper-vigilance, I left Austin and moved to Northern CA. KH stayed in touch with me and urged me to find a somatic therapist here. Although I live in a very rural area, after much searching and nearly giving up, I found one (SR).

He has become one of the three people I trust on this planet, the other two being my husband and my best friend.

In the first few months of therapy with SR, I felt rather confused as to why we weren’t doing any somatic work, as KH said my body held information about the rapes and it should be processed while it’s still fresh. Come to find out, we were doing somatic work all along, in small doses. That’s how somatic experiencing works: processing the trauma in small, manageable doses.

What is Somatic Experiencing?

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

A single brief exposure to an overwhelming event can throw a normally functioning individual into an abyss of emotional and physical suffering.

Whether or not a person rebounds from this dark edge of near insanity, or tumbles more deeply into the ”black hole” of trauma (or even exactly what causes it), has been an enigma to modern psychiatry.

Somatic Experiencing®(SE)is a naturalistic approach to the understanding and healing of trauma developed by Peter A Levine over the past 40 years and taught throughout the world. SE®is a clinical methodology based upon an appreciation of why animals in the wild are not traumatized by routine threats to their lives while humans, on the other hand, are readily overwhelmed and traumatized. Fortunately, the very same instincts (and related survival based brain systems) that are involved in the formation of trauma symptoms can be enlisted in the transformation and healing of trauma. Therapeutically, this “instinct to heal” and self-regulate is engaged through the awareness of body sensations that contradict those of paralysis and helplessness, and which restore resilience, equilibrium and wholeness.


The difference is that animals are free to work through the trauma, but humans living in a severely dysfunctional society that shames and silences victims, urging them to “let it go” and “think positively” rather than process their trauma “our bodies cannot complete the natural process.”

One example that hit me really hard in reading over some of Dr. Levine’s work was an analogy of a cheetah hunting an impala, chapter one of his incredible book Waking the Tiger. Here is an excerpt:

A herd of impala grazes peacefully in a lush wadi. Suddenly, the wind shifts, carrying with it a new, but familiar scent. The impala sense danger in the air and become instantly tensed to a hair trigger of alertness. They sniff, look and listen carefully for a few moments, but when no threat appears, the animals return to their grazing, relaxed yet vigilant.

Seizing the moment, a stalking cheetah leaps from its cover of dense shrubbery. As if it was one organism, the herd springs quickly toward a protective thicket at the wadi’s edge. One young impala trips for a split second, then recovers. But it is too late. In a blur, the cheetah lunges toward its intended victim, and the chase is on at a blazing sixty to seventy miles an hour.

At the moment of contact (or just before), the young impala falls to the ground, surrendering to its impending death. Yet, it may be uninjured. The now limp animal is not pretending to be dead. It has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent. Many indigenous peoples view this phenomenon as a surrender of the spirit of the prey to the predator, which, in a manner of speaking, it is.

Physiologists call this altered state the ‘immobility’ or ‘freezing’ response. It is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when faced with an overwhelming threat. The other two, fight and flight, are much more familiar to most of us. Less is known about the ‘immobility response.’ However, my work over the last twenty-five years has led me to believe that it is the single most important factor in uncovering the mystery of human trauma.

Nature has developed the immobility response for two good reasons. One, it serves as a last-ditch survival strategy. You might know it better as ‘playing possum.’ Take the young impala, for instance. There is a possibility that the cheetah may decide to drag its ‘dead’ prey to a place safe from other predators; or to its lair, where the food can be shared later with its cubs. During this time, the impala could awaken from its frozen state and make a hasty escape in an unguarded moment. When it is out of danger, the animal will literally ‘shake off’ the residual effects of the immobility response and gain full control of its body. It will then return to its normal life as if nothing had happened. Secondly, in freezing, the impala (and human) enters an altered state in which no pain is experienced. What that means for the impala is that it will not have to suffer while being torn apart by the cheetah’s sharp teeth and claws.

Most human cultures tend to judge this instinctive surrender in the face of overwhelming threat as a weakness tantamount to cowardice. However, underneath this judgment lies a deep human fear of immobility. We avoid it because it is a state very similar to death. This avoidance is understandable, but we pay dearly for it. The physiological evidence clearly shows that the ability to go into and come out of this natural response is the key to avoiding the debilitating effects of trauma. It is a gift to us from the wild.

I read those words and I broke down crying. Uncontrollably. Freezing is the most common response to trauma, including rape. Through victim blaming and other secondary traumas from this rape culture, people, police, even some horrible therapists blame the victim for not fighting back, for not screaming, for not saying NO, forcefully and loudly. The most common response is to freeze, a mixture between disbelief of what’s happening, the mind’s way to protect itself from the trauma, and a resignation to one’s fate in hopes of survival. It’s instinctual. It’s natural.

Rape victims are habitually blamed for it.

I was.

Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ”triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the ”immobility” or ”freezing” state. However, we can thaw by initiating and encouraging our innate drive to return to a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Let’s cut to the chase. The energy in our young impala’s nervous system as it flees from the pursuing cheetah is charged at seventy miles an hour. The moment the cheetah takes its final lunge, the impala collapses. From the outside, it looks motionless and appears to be dead, but inside, its nervous system is still supercharged at seventy miles an hour. Though it has come to a dead stop, what is now taking place in the impala’s body is similar to what occurs in your car if you floor the accelerator and stomp on the brake simultaneously. The difference between the inner racing of the nervous system (engine) and the outer immobility (brake) of the body creates a forceful turbulence inside the body similar to a tornado.

This tornado of energy is the focal point out of which form the symptoms of traumatic stress. To help visualize the power of this energy, imagine that you are making love with your partner, you are on the verge of climax, when suddenly, some outside force stops you. Now, multiply that feeling of withholding by one hundred, and you may come close to the amount of energy aroused by a life-threatening experience.

A threatened human (or impala) must discharge all the energy mobilized to negotiate that threat or it will become a victim of trauma. This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body, and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms; i.e., anxiety, depression, psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism’s way of containing (or corralling) the undischarged residual energy.

Animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy and seldom develop adverse symptoms. We humans are not as adept in this arena. When we are unable liberate these powerful forces, we become victims of trauma. In our often unsuccessful attempts to discharge these energies, we may become fixated on them. Like a moth drawn to a flame, we may unknowingly and repeatedly create situations in which the possibility to release ourselves from the trauma trap exists, but without the proper tools and resources most of us fail. The result, sadly, is that many of us become riddled with fear and anxiety and are never fully able to feel at home with ourselves or our world.

Many war veterans and victims of rape know this scenario only too well. They may spend months or even years talking about their experiences, reliving them, expressing their anger, fear and sorrow but without passing through the primitive ”immobility responses” and releasing the residual energy, they will often remain stuck in the traumatic maze and continue to experience distress.

Fortunately, the same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform the trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery, and even wisdom. Trauma resolved is a great gift, returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love and compassion. Having spent the last twenty-five years working with people who have been traumatized in almost every conceivable fashion, I believe that we humans have the innate capacity not only to heal ourselves, but our world, from the debilitating effects of trauma.

Dr. Levine demonstrates how PTSD is created with his famous slinky metaphor, showing us how the energy created by the trauma is contained inside us, wreaking havoc on our nervous system. This creates what we’ve come to know as PTSD.

Find out more information about SE and healing from a variety of traumas from Beyond Trauma. Get your copy of Waking the Tiger or other works by Peter Levine, like Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, from Amazon.

ACE Study and Scores

The second link from SR’s blog that really touched and validated my experience was to the ACE Study. What I thought for 30+ years was just normal child rearing was, in fact, child abuse. It has been identified as such by more than one therapist in the past year, and this ACE Study confirms it as well. It explains why my experience with PTSD is chronic and complex.

ACE stands for The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, conduced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente. It shows, among other things, how childhood abuse contributes (may be the sole cause of) social, emotional, and cognitive impairment; choosing an unhealthy lifestyle; disease, disability, and social problems; and even early death.

You can take a little test to discover your ACE score, to which many of their articles refer. The questions are as follows:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…
    Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?
    Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…
    Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?
    Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever…
    Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way?
    Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
  4. Did you often or very often feel that …
    No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?
    Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

They continue through ten questions from there.

They have many publications linked from their site, like “The ACE Study: Depression and Suicide” and “The Hidden Epidemic: The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease.”

If you or someone you know experiences symptoms of PTSD, please research these things further and find the help you or they need.

What was done to us was not our fault; however, our healing is our responsibility.

May you find peace.

~ by omgrey on May 15, 2013.

6 Responses to “PTSD: Somatic Experiencing & ACE Study”

  1. Interesting info from a veteran of the scene

    • Excellent! Thank you for sharing!!!

      This topic seems to be gaining awareness and understanding in the professional field. I’m so happy to hear it.

  2. Dr. Ellen Lacter, also interesting, different angle.

  3. […] PTSD: Somatic Experiencing & ACE Study ( […]

  4. is there any clear steps to do somatic experiencing by my self

    • Not that I’m aware. People are trained for that specifically; however, it would be beneficial for you to read Peter Levine’s and Lawrence Heller’s books. May you find peace.

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