Small medium or large–all of us have had at least one traumatic experience. Examples: car accident, fall from a tree or ladder, death of a loved one, assault or sexual abuse, war, getting fired….Some of us “get over it” sooner than others. Many of us get stuck in one way or another in our lives; different functions diminishing, often many years after a traumatic event.
Generally, other mammals do not become traumatized due to their instinctive responses to threat. A gazelle grazing is relaxed. He hears a twig snap, or smells an unfamiliar scent. He freezes, and orients his attention to the entire environment. If no further threatening stimuli are perceived, his whole body twitches (shakes briefly), and returns to his munching. If instead, the sight smell or movement of a potential predator is present, he runs–as fast as needed to survive. If the big cat is about to pounce bite or claw, gazelle “plays dead (freezes).” His complete nervous system shuts down to the point of looking/smelling etc dead.
Why play dead? One: instinctively, he knows he cannot beat the lion. Two: if he’s to be eaten (etc.), he will not experience the pain. Three: if he’s dragged to the lion’s den for dinner for cubs, he will continue to pay attention to the environment. If there is a moment of potential escape, he instantly runs.
During our life-threatening experiences or traumas, we may not be able at all to run or fight. So we freeze to survive. Later, the fight or flight instincts are “locked in,” or occasionally erupt without our conscious choice. When these natural responses are not allowed to complete, they remain in the body. We worry, judge ourselves, don’t know what to do or how to move forward.
As soon as we humans are born, we learn not to run or fight. We learn to keep our fears or hurts, our anger or grief, to ourselves, so that our family and neighbors–our society–does not judge our expressions of these natural responses to uncomfortable life sensations. These realities are survival instincts, and are unavoidable, even if we think we “should not” feel them or act them out.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) guides us to accept what happens to us internally, coaches us to find more productive safe and meaningful ways of allowing our bodies, our bodyminds, to express these energies, without damaging anyone. SE focuses on our nervous systems, movement, sensation, affect, image, and thought; enhancing self-awareness, thus greater choice.