Somatic Trauma Healing

October 31, 2017

This past weekend I attended a training in NYC entitled “Trauma and the Performing Artist” co-taught by the originator of Somatic Experiencing, Dr. Peter Levine.  I discovered this cutting-edge approach to trauma over 15 years ago when by grace I was paired with a somatically-informed therapist who handed me Dr. Levine’s seminal first book Waking the Tiger. Receiving this revelation on the nature of trauma changed my life forever. His ground-breaking work synthesizes techniques of healing that indigenous cultures have long known, and reveals how animals -including human animals- have the instinctual capacity to return to a state of homeostasis following a life-threatening event if the process is not disrupted.

Simply put, Dr. Levine’s basic premise is that trauma is not the event per se, but how the body, specifically the nervous system, responds to what it perceives as a life-threatening situation. Trauma results when the body is not able to discharge the energies generated for fight or flight and is locked in a state of hyper-arousal. And when the fight or flight self-preservation mechanism is overwhelmed, as may happen in prolonged and severe abuse, the body may get stuck in the “last resort” freeze (playing dead) response. The instinctual animal body, then, needs to be gently awakened (hence the title “Waking the Tiger”), so that it can regain access to its own empowering ability to survive and ultimately reengage with both the pleasures and pains of life without be overwhelmed.

Durga, the protective warrior mother goddess, riding the tiger

Whether or not a stressful experience results in trauma is highly subjective, and one need not survive a horrific event like war or abuse to have trauma.  It is virtually impossible to get through life without experiencing some shock or wounding, and even so-called “minor” traumas of everyday stresses and defeats and have a lasting impact in both dramatic and subtle ways.

As I sat this past weekend, in a room of professional performing artists, coaches, and therapists, the power of this ground-breaking approach was further reinforced for me as I witnessed the transformation before my eyes of actors, dancers, and musicians increase their performance capacity as they became more able to access their inner resources and personal authenticity, thus allowing them to be more fully present in their performance.  My mind was racing at the potential applications this approach has for healing and personal empowerment, and how it can be brought to different populations.  While stressful circumstances are integral to being human in that, much like stressing a muscle when working out, they allow us to grow and develop resilience, what would this world be like if trauma did not become a chronic reality for so many? How many injustices and abuses that are committed in the world have underlying unresolved trauma at their root?

Trauma tends to be a word we prefer to avoid. This is understandable, because it is connected to things that are upsetting. However, it is time we normalize trauma and recognize how our culture’s general lack of appreciation for the wisdom of the body, coupled with increasing isolation from face-to-face social engagement, contributes to our inability to process stressful experiences.  This is where dance can be incredibly beneficial.

When I first encountered Somatic Experiencing over 15 years ago, it clarified and validated for me one of the reasons I was drawn to the shaking and undulating of Middle-Eastern dance. Having witnessed a parent who suffered from catatonic states (the extreme “freeze” response) my body instinctively knew it needed to discharge that potential within my own body-psyche. My body needed to release through shakes, trembles and rolls. What I found here was a scientifically validated approach, incorporating research of indigenous healing practices and animal behavior, that confirmed beyond question the healing capacity of dance and human connection.