Somatic Psychotherapy


Somatic Psychotherapy and Accumulative Stress

“We resolve trauma by moving fluidly between instinct, emotion, and rational thought, becoming whole human animals completely capable of our natural abilities.”
– Peter Levine

Post-traumatic stress ( PTSD ) is a physiological grip caused through a fundamental instinctual preoccupation with an incomplete survival response, a state of non-achievement. In response to an early threat of extreme stress human physiology invokes survival biology to fight, flee, or freeze. If that which is invoked to resolve the stress is truncated, energy becomes locked in the body, and a source of chronic stress (anxiety) and hyper-vigilance remains. When we experience stress later in life, it triggers the earlier unresolved stress response. We become sensitized to ordinary stress rather than built up by it through a sense of agency and accomplishment. Through the process of re-triggering earlier events of post-traumatic stress, it becomes difficult to differentiate, and in perspective, deal with life appropriately. We lose our resiliency to respond.

Somatic Psychotherapy helps us slow down physiological activation enough to differentiate a past from present stress. By identifying and allowing the gradual integration of the dissociated and incomplete somatic sense we bring a natural wholeness to our lives, increasing the stress resilience to benefit from our evolutionary inheritance to successfully navigate challenge.

At the core of post-traumatic experience is the state of nervous system overwhelm. Awareness ‘checks-out’ and sensorial experience becomes fragmented into disparate associated elements, split-off from the highly charged moment. Since the experience is dissociated it may be inaccessible even to our best intellectual puzzling out, making traditional talk psychotherapy modalities less effective, perhaps ineffective, in healing from trauma. These ‘split-off’ fragments of traumatic memories, lost to cognitive awareness, are not lost to the body, and trigger flashback experiences from current associative elements. Somatic Psychotherapy invites the fragments of experience back into awareness at a pace that protects us from overwhelm, allowing for integration and healing.

Past traumatic experiences are very much alive and speaking in the language of the subtle body; sensations, emotions, images, behaviors…all wanting their natural resonance as survival biology impulses to come together and resolve the original threat, returning to safety. For psychotherapy to be effective we have to include the language of the body. Somatic psychotherapy does just that.

Somatic Psychotherapy and the Repetition Compulsion

Until this return to safety, our implicit survival biology keeps trying to complete the procedural instinctual actions mobilized to kept us safe. This powerful instinctual drive to complete may place us in similar situations over and over, attempting to master the experience. Without enough resources however, we only further embed the disempowering sense of ‘not enoughness’ deeper into the system.

Somatic Psychotherapy brings our attention carefully to the somatic re-experiencing of trauma related sensations, affects, and cognition which begins the process of slowing down, spreading out, and integrating conscious awareness with dissociated memory states. With the careful guidance through this process we are free to dissolve patterns that keep us striving to repeat, and instead rest in a sense of completion, agency, and empowerment.

Somatic Psychotherapy and Nervous System Resiliency

As we increase our capacity for tracking and experiencing these shifts in physiology, we increase our capacity to be in the here-and-now without replaying internal stories created by past traumatic experiences. This increase in the interoception of safety, helps distinguish and resolve emotional triggers, reactive behaviors, and negative self-talk. ‘Interoception’ is a term coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, as the capacity to sense into the stimuli and conditions arising within the landscape of the body.

When we feel tension, stress, or a difficult feeling we often try to avoid it, to get rid of it through self-medicating, isolating, or some other invention of our own self-led therapy. We stretch out neck tension, take a hot bath, have a glass of wine, get a massage, a pain killer, antacid, or try to control those around us.

But the pain or tension keeps coming back, so we have to keep managing it with compensatory strategies. Our range of motion decreases, quality of life decreases, resiliency (our capacity to return to baseline after or even during stress) decreases, and more importantly, our awareness of embodiment decreases.

Until we learn to explore the nuances inside of the ache, tension, pressure, burning, or churning sensations, we are unable to allow the instinctual energies at the root of our pain the space and time to resolve.

Somatic Psychotherapy and Memory

With somatic therapy we enter into these remnants from incomplete past traumas, into the sensation of incomplete muscle memory actions, and follow them through subsequent unfolding sensations – moving energy from the core of the body to the periphery, and out! We do this through introducing gradual exposure of awareness to the highly charged sensations, commonly referred to as titration, and balance the activation with the reality of your resources, the external environment, and the here-and-now safety of the therapist’s genuine caring presence.

As we inhabit more deliberately the felt-sensations of the body, we digest bit by bit the layers of stress physiology, helping to curve the whole organism towards a state of calm and away from stress, anxiety, and the quickly escalating sympathetic triggers that lead to panic.

As we increase our capacity to balance internal trauma-based stress signatures with external orientation to the here-and-now, we feel our sense of aliveness increase. As we learn to differentiate these seemingly benign yet chronic tensions from the energetic signatures of movement impulses, we feel a sense of control, excitement, and hope for changing into deeper states of ease, flow, and well being.

With a greater nuanced attention in somatic psychotherapy we learn to make gentle and titrated contact with the stories our body’s carry, discovering that going into difficult experiences does not have to end in the familiar, stuck, overwhelmed, or depressed habitual patterns, but instead liberates us further into our spontaneous aliveness.

Contact Joel Decker, MFT, Somatic Psychotherapy:
510-229-9765 Berkeley/Oakland Office

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