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Somatic Experiencing Trip Report

Center For Urban Horticulture University of Washington Botanic Gardens

Seattle WA September 2013

by

Tim DeSantis LCPC, ACADC

I have been studying Somatic Experiencing for a couple of years and Peter Levine mentions shaking/tingling when released from trauma. This uncontrollable shaking or tingling helps reset the nervous system and helps restore the psyche to wholeness (2010).

 About three months ago I was driving down Myrtle Street slowing down for a red light. My wife Janet screamed “Tim he is not stopping, oh my God, he’s not stopping!” As I looked to my right this kid was looking down at something instead of looking at the red light. He ran right through the light and smashed into an SUV. Janet insisted we pull over immediately and we did. I called 911 and the lady on the other end of the phone walked me through the whole scene until paramedics arrived. She was good at keeping me calm as I was freaking out a bit. The SUV that was hit belonged to an older couple, they were a little dazed but okay. The kid on the other hand was pinned behind the steering wheel and his deployed airbag. My wife went through the passenger window and turned off the ignition. Another man who was coming out of Julie Davis Park was attending to facial bleeding and I was reporting everything to the 911 operator. The operator asked me to look into the car and describe all the injuries. He was bleeding hard from a deep cut in his face and had no short term memory but long term memory seemed to be intact. The guy helping was applying direct pressure to the face when suddenly this kid started to shake uncontrollably. I panicked but the voice on the other end of the phone said “sir remain calm it is okay he is in shock, remain calm and ensure the man keeps direct pressure on the kid.” I remember reading about this state of trauma and the nervous system. He needed to shake as a natural part of the intense trauma he was experiencing in order to recover from this traumatic event.

Trauma comes in many forms, war, accidents, surgery, neglect, abuse and more. Each of these events uniquely affects the limbic systems and the central nervous system. Helping people recovery from these experiences could be key to recovery from PTSD, addictive behaviors and other mental health problems.

 My journey to one of my trainings to Seattle started about 5:30 am on Thursday September 5th at my home in Boise. I wanted an early start with hopes of fitting in time for a good jog before I met my daughter in Seattle. An hour or so passed and I was between Ontario and Baker City Oregon in a gorgeous canyon. Daybreak was approaching as I enjoyed the solitude with mediation and prayer. My senses were in tune with the breathtaking view that I have seen many times before. Thunder storms were in the distance and it looked like I was going to head right into them.  It has been a dry year and I was hoping for a good drenching rain not only for the drive, but also to help lessen the smoke from the fire season we had this year. Within a few minutes I was in the rain and instinctively slowed my speed down to 50mph. The down pour hit me hard and I screamed out loud “Oh Shit!”  The rain water was so deep on the road I suddenly found myself hydroplaning. My knuckles must have been white as my grip was insanely tight on the steering wheel (constriction). My heart rate was pounding and I could feel it in my chest and maybe even hear it. I was terrified as I noticed the car next to me slow down (hyper-vigilance). The water on the road was so deep that the water went out sideways from my wheels but also went directly over the hood of my SUV onto my windshield as I lost total visibility. I had little control as some cars were fast approaching (helplessness). They also slowed down and I was physically in panic mode (return to hyper-vigilance). For the next 30 minutes or so I was slower than most cars until we got out of the storm.

Within a few seconds I went from a calm serine state dominated by the normal functioning of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to an intense fear, freeze, and anxiety of the trauma state of the ANS. Thirty minutes later the fear and anxiety were diminished but it wasn’t until much later that I was in the calm relaxed state again.  I stopped had a good breakfast and continued my journey eventually making it through Snoqualmie Pass just 50 miles or so outside of Seattle. I found a beautiful trail called the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and I changed into my running drab and completed a ten mile run in some beautiful damp country enjoying the mountains, trees, river, and canyon that entrapped my senses. My body sensations fully engaged and the relaxed state felt good. I was grounded with this experience and fully recovered physically and emotionally from the trauma earlier in the day. However, my body memory may never forget the feeling of the hydroplaning.

“Trauma is an internal straitjacket created when a devastating moment is frozen in time. It stifles the unfolding of being, and strangles our attempts to move forward with our lives. It disconnects us from ourselves, others, nature, and spirit. When we are overwhelmed by threat, we are frozen in fear, as though our instinctive survival energies were ‘all dressed up with no place to go’

Somatic Experiencing (SE) offers a new and hopeful perspective on trauma. It views the human animal as a unique being, endowed with an instinctual capacity to heal, as well as the intellectual spirit to harness that innate capacity. In short SE it is a naturalistic approach to the resolution of post-traumatic stress reactions. It is based upon the ethological observation that animals in the wild utilize innate mechanisms which regulate and neutralize the high levels of arousal associated with defensive survival behaviors. SE normalizes the symptoms of trauma, which bind this arousal, and offers the steps needed to resolve activation and heal trauma.” Peter Levine Ph.D 1997

Animals can shake off these traumatic events and move on with life. The problem with us humans is the rational mind. We can ruminate and worry; this can keep us stuck. If in the above example of my traumatic experience driving; if I were stuck in an over activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) my symptoms could look like panic attacks, anxiety, mania, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, chronic pain, muscle tension, or the inability to sleep or relax. If the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) were over activated my symptoms might be depression, dissociation, apathy, disconnected in relationships, low energy, exhaustion, poor digestion and much more as this is not a complete list of symptoms. The point is many people who experience trauma become stuck somewhere in the nervous system. Over activation in SNS is like having the gas pedal floored; over activation in the PNS is like slamming the brakes on. Be over activated in both the SNS and PNS is like bi-polar out of control. Imagine what this would look like from physiological and/or psychological perspective. SE will be a process of therapy that will help people become unstuck and sort of reset the central nervous system.

This training was a little confusing at the start as there were no handouts, directions, or agenda. The first hour was introductions of all the SE staff. There were about twenty or so assistants, two instructors, and about 60 students. Then it was time to break up in groups and have simple friendly conversation. We then went to lunch came back and were taught grounding techniques. We went for walks on the grounds of this large garden like park in pairs and were told to go with your inhibitions, do what you felt like doing without worrying what others think. Each day had an educational component and practice. We broke up into groups or pairs and practiced being clients and therapists. The last day at the end of the training we received our handouts with everything that was discussed. This training was experiential and the facilitators did not want to ruin the experience with the traditional note taking/reading.

The idea of this SE technique is to activate and deactivate the autonomic nervous system and keep it balanced and not over stimulate the individual. This may have been the most educational seminar that I have been to. One thing I noticed is if and when you become engaged in the grounding experience, that is have your sensory system engaged (touch, sight, smell, auditory) your mind and heart become more genuine and sensitive to your surroundings. This opens the door to more emotions and good therapy. Focus is always on the positive when grounding because the natural tendency when not grounding seems to be looking for the negative or something wrong. We would bring the client back to grounding and then allow them to escalate naturally and bring them back again. This was just the beginning of a three year course that enlightened and challenged me as a therapist.

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