Peter Levine’s Approach to Healing Trauma

young girl talking with counselor on her couch

Those of us who are students of trauma focus on learning about approaches that could promote healing. What appears to be true about the notion of healing is that there is no one right, universal approach that is appropriate for all individuals with unresolved trauma. At the same time there are many approaches that have universal principles of healing embedded in them because they are based on neuroscience and knowledge of the nature of trauma.

One of the leading ambassadors for finding ways to help victims of trauma heal is Peter Levine. He has written many powerful books including Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, Trauma through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing.  He has many excellent YouTube entries in which he demonstrates some of his techniques.

In a recent article entitled A Way to Heal Trauma author Jennifer Mulson describes some of the essence of Peter Levine’s approach to healing trauma.

She begins by defining trauma: “Trauma can be defined as any unresolved autonomic nervous system response. It’s about the nervous system’s response to an event, not necessarily the event itself. Events can affect each of us very differently.”  

depressed young man with head in his hand, worried, depressed

In a normal response to a trauma, the body is able to reestablish its equilibrium as a person moves through a process where they can recover their lost power and recognize that the stressful event is in the past. Through the normal physiological responses by the body of shaking and trembling, traumatic energy is released and the autonomic nervous system is able to return to a normal state. Author Mulson quotes Avadhan Larson, a certified somatic experiencing practitioner and craniosacral therapy provider: “What can make people susceptible to trauma is a previous history of trauma that has been unresolved. It’s not the only thing, but one of the main things we see over and over. Traumas tend to stack on one another. And just like any other compensation pattern, we can compensate until we can’t.”

In these cases, when someone is not able to escape or fight back as typically happens when children are abused, the autonomic nervous system does not return to a place of equilibrium. “That creates a perfect storm for symptoms of trauma to emerge, such as pain, anxiety, disturbances of appetite, sleep and sexuality, and easy reactivity to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and whatever reminds us of the trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by a strong set of trauma symptoms that become life-altering.”

She shares that Peter Levine’s main contribution to understanding the nature of trauma and healing is to appreciate that unhealed trauma occurs because the whole survival response is not completed. “Many people stay stuck in automatic survival responses and can stay stuck for years.”

word cloud over distressed black/white image of person

Levine discovered a way to help people complete that trauma response. He entitles this process “Somatic Experiencing.”  Larson says that Levine’s approach, “… is based on the idea that our bodies know perfectly well how to heal from trauma if given the right support.”

In this therapeutic approach, the client is able to focus on where in the body they experience the residual stress from the original trauma and through a special kind of mindfulness, focus on releasing the traumatic energy created by the trauma. By focusing where in the body the unreleased stress is stored, they allow their autonomic nervous system to complete the natural process that occurs in the moments after a trauma. This is a kind of short-term therapy that can resolve many unresolved traumas because once the traumatic energy is released, many of the symptoms of unresolved trauma subside.

Somatic Experiencing is an approach that is important for anyone who is a student of trauma to know about and appreciate. This information can empower us all to consider engaging in the Somatic Experiencing to help ourselves and those who have experienced unresolved trauma by encouraging them to find a qualified therapist who could guide them through this powerful therapeutic approach.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. How does the information about the way the body holds traumatic experiences and cannot complete the normal process of the autonomic nervous system give you a better sense of why it can be difficult for someone to heal from trauma if they don’t have opportunities to release traumatic energy?
  2. What might you do for yourself or others who may have experienced trauma to encourage them to complete this restorative cycle? Consider ways you might help yourself or someone else to release traumatic energy through trembling and shaking.