by Ariel Giarretto
Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing Approach is brought to life in this in-depth case study of body oriented therapy.
Suzanne a case study
Suzanne, not her real name, arrives in my office due to a long history of anxiety, mild depression, problems sleeping, and relationship issues. She is 43, successful in her marketing career, and divorced, with a child in high school. She is a tall woman, but something about the way she carries herself makes her seem smaller than she is. She is wearing loose, dark clothing that doesn’t reveal much of her body. As she walks into my office for our first session, I am struck by the animation in her upper body, but I notice that she moves awkwardly because of the tightness in her shoulders, neck and upper spine.
As I invite her to sit down, I notice that her eyes shift back and forth as if she’s looking for something. She seems uncomfortable meeting my gaze and looks quickly down at the floor each time our eyes meet. I can see by the way her shirt lies that her solar plexus area is very tight. It is clear that this tightness prevents her from taking a full, deep breath. She seems to be fighting upward against gravity, as if attempting to levitate. At the same time, I see and sense very little connection to her lower body. Her legs are almost completely still; they appear lifeless and detached. This gives her a weak and tenuous connection to the earth.
It’s as if everything from above the waist is surging wildly upward, like a thousand bees swarming skyward, out of a hive, centered above her navel.
She complains of rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, food sensitivities, digestion problems, and difficulty staying asleep. As she talks, I can hear her mouth is dry. It makes sense to me that she is experiencing anxiety—my understanding of how the nervous system works lets me know that her system is stuck in a constant state of fear and readiness. As a Somatic Experiencing® (SE) practitioner, I can tell that Suzanne is in a common feedback loop that occurs in people who are attempting to manage their internal nervous system dysregulation. Shallow breathing and tightness in her chest keep her body in a constant state of oxygen deprivation. This escalates the anxiety, so she tightens the muscles in her chest even more. I take a mental note—I’ll need to address this pattern.
Suzanne begins to tell me about a recent conflict she experienced at work with a male co-worker. As she describes the situation, she cries easily but not comfortably, trying to hold back the tears. When she does begin to cry, she holds her breath and squints her eyes tightly, as if trying to squeeze the tears back into her eyes. She swallows repeatedly and her shoulders tighten even more. She’s working hard to keep the emotions in check. At one point in her description, she chastises herself for being so reactive. “I should be able to handle these types of situations,” she says. “Instead, when there’s conflict, I get totally emotional. Even though my mind is racing with thoughts, I can’t do or say anything. I feel paralyzed. I don’t act like a competent professional. I just sit there and cry like a little girl.”
She looks down, rounds her shoulders, and holds her breath. I listen to her words and make a note of how she describes her experience, but I am especially paying attention to what her body is telling me.
As I listen to her, I’m receiving a lot of information about her by paying attention to my own bodily experience. I feel a little breathless and pulled upward in my own body—I need to keep reminding myself to breathe, soften my belly, and feel my feet and pelvis.
It is obvious from the above description that my attention is heavily focused on the physical presentation of the client. Of course, I am not ignoring the content of her narrative, but I am especially attuned to the story her body is telling. My approach is guided by the principles of Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine from his research into the stress responses of animals in the wild. Physiological responses to stressful situations arise from what is classically called the sympathetic or “fight-or-flight response.” Levine noticed that once an animal was out of danger, its body automatically shifted to “parasympathetic” rest and recovery with gentle trembling, shaking, deep breaths, sweating, and sometimes more aggressive fight-reenacting behaviors—a process called discharge. These behaviors reset the nervous system to a pre-threat level of functioning. This discharge cycle appeared to be essential to recovery: experts repeatedly told Levine that if animals were unable to complete the discharge process, they would die.
Given that humans should be equipped with the same restorative capacities, Levine pondered, what makes us different? What gets in the way of our recovery?
Through hundreds of hours of client sessions, Levine began to witness how clients’ bodies told their stories of trauma, even if the clients had no specific memories. Once Levine guided them into the sensate experience of trauma, the body then took over and finished what was unprocessed, or incomplete, much like the animals he’d observed. Clients receive the added gifts of increased body awareness, a stronger connection to self, a shift in deep-seated patterns, a more regulated nervous system, and a sense of mastery.
Why do humans need to be guided at all? The biggest obstacle is how inattentive and unfamiliar we are with our physical sensations. Our big, sophisticated brains constantly out-think and override our bodily needs. We are trained to ignore signs of hunger, pain, discomfort, injury, danger, as well as pleasure, saturation, and fulfillment. What’s astonishing is how forgiving and responsive the body is. As soon as we tune into it, shifts begin to happen.
Within my framework as an SE practitioner, Suzanne’s symptoms imply something in her system is stuck, unfinished. I can assume that during some traumatic experience in her past, she froze or was overpowered by someone or something bigger, stronger, or faster.
Suzanne’s array of emotional and physical complaints is typical of autonomic dysregulation. Dysregulation shows up in basically two extremes: stuck “on” and stuck “off.” The former can manifest as anxiety, panic, mania, hypervigilance, sleeplessness, dissociation, attention deficit, OCD, emotional flooding, chronic pain, hostility/rage, etc. This is the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, responsible for moving us out of danger. When traumatic material is unprocessed, the residual activation keeps a person locked in a constant state of readiness and reactivity. The client has an ongoing sense that “something bad can happen at any moment.”
Being stuck off shows up as depression, flat affect, lethargy, exhaustion, low impulse/motivation, chronic fatigue, dissociation, many of the complex syndromes, low blood pressure. This is the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. In a healthy state of functioning, it is designed to bring the body back to rest and recovery after surges of sympathetic activity. When it goes awry, the system slows or shuts down too much, or “depresses” itself at the slightest trigger.
Clients may present with one extreme or oscillate between the two. At first glance, Suzanne presents more on the sympathetic scale, excepting her legs. I’ll want to guide her inward so we can begin to sense more deeply into her pattern.The goal of SE is to work through traumatizing events in non-traumatizing ways. If I can ease her through whatever defenses or strategies her body has taken on to manage the dysregulation, her body will take over and complete the necessary response that was not able to occur when she was initially traumatized. It will be part of my treatment plan with her to assist her body in feeling all possible impulses. She may want to cower self-protectively, defend herself, or run from the danger.
SE therapists have to learn to watch, not just listen; to know when to slow down, when to point out and explore a physical response. We must learn how to ask open-ended questions that invite curiosity about one’s experience in the moment. Our job is to support the client in accessing what is happening inside at the physiological level, and then to assist in the return to self-regulation. We are restoring the client’s system back to an organic level of functioning. The client grows in self-mastery, and the therapist is merely the guide.
SE uses a variety of techniques that are presented at a pace that helps the client to stay with every moment of the event without flooding, compensating or dissociating. Slowing everything down and keeping Suzanne focused on her bodily sensations will help us do this. It’s a bit like watching the event on a video, pausing at every single frame, and allowing each detail, emotion, sensation, bodily reaction, impulse, and defensive reaction to be felt and processed. Connecting to the physiological responses also prevents her mind from coming in and doubting or worrying.
In this sense, we can see that, for a traumatized person, going into the body and coming into contact with their physiological experience is the way out of their distressing symptoms. The way in is the way out. Many models of treatment focus on eliminating symptoms and behaviors, but SE takes the client into the symptoms knowing that the symptoms are the key to healing trauma. With Suzanne – as with all of my clients – I will begin my work with her wherever she is and with whatever her body is displaying in the moment. By focusing on one aspect of her physical sensations, we will be led into her body’s memory of the trauma. By moving slowly, and utilizing various techniques that prevent re-traumatization, her body will guide her through her own natural set of experiences, and gradually release the stuck pattern.
The Work: Careful Amplification, Attentiveness
To begin my work with Suzanne, I will want to take her into a direct experience of the physical sensations in her body. I first want to be sure that Suzanne has the capacity to work somatically with the material she is presenting. I will be able to assess Suzanne’s overall nervous system stabilization when I see how her body reacts initially as we begin to explore bodily sensations. I will also be able to get clear information on how she attempts to manage the sensations by watching her response to them. As she begins to feel her body, does she brace, collapse, tighten all over, hold her breath, dissociate, shut down, get angry or become judgemental?
As she is finishing her description of the conflict with the co-worker, she begins to tell me again of her general anxiety, in part, she says, because she can’t trust herself to respond in situations where she needs to. I feel as if this is a good time in the session to begin to tune into her sensations, so I ask her permission to explore her experience a little.
She agrees, a bit hesitantly, and I ask her to notice where in her body at this moment she is sensing the anxiety. She looks down and then says, “In my belly.” As she focuses her awareness on the sensations in her belly, she escalates quickly—her shoulders tighten, she holds her breath. She looks frightened. I remain calm and unalarmed because I have seen this many times. “Can you give me some words to describe the sensations?” I ask her. She puts her hand on her belly, and says, “It’s churning, hot, and it’s moving really quickly.”
At this point, I know that I need to broaden her awareness and to help her know that she can touch into the intensity of her experience without becoming overwhelmed by it, as well as to help her move her attention to areas of less intensity. To do this, I ask Suzanne if she can also notice the chair supporting her thighs, and the floor beneath her feet. My goal here is to build resilience and confidence, and dispel any belief Suzanne may have that she can’t handle this experience.
Secondly, by asking her to feel outside of an energetic hot zone, her body recognizes that there is more square footage for the intensity to inhabit. This naturally makes a little more space for the concentration of the sensations; they spread out. Thirdly, by contacting the periphery of her body, it helps Suzanne feel solid, reliable areas, which provide the sense of a container.
Suzanne closes her eyes and I see her body visibly settle into the chair. Her shoulders drop slightly, the muscles in her face soften and she is breathing more deeply. She seems to allow the chair to hold her a bit more, rather than holding herself up and off it. This is a very important moment and I want to grab it.
Suzanne looks up at me, surprised. I smile at her. “Tell me what you’re experiencing now.”
“Things are relaxing,” she says, her voice is softer and her words come out more slowly.
“What does relaxing feel like in your body?” I ask her.
“My stomach has softened," she tells me. "I feel more air in my belly and I don’t feel as afraid.”
Another important moment. This is the first shift in Suzanne’s breathing pattern—a crucial element in the stuck anxiety pattern in her body. Remember, when breathing is rapid, tight and fast, it actually triggers the body’s fight-or-flight reaction. As the body goes into this reaction, the breathing becomes constricted, fast and shallow—a frustrating chicken-or-egg phenomenon. I want to expand on Suzanne’s feeling of being able to breathe. So I ask her to sense into her belly, noticing how it feels to have more air.
This experience lays the groundwork for Suzanne to be able to enter into intense sensations and then find a way to regulate them. I want her to really have a felt sense of this, so I decide to guide her into it a few times as practice. I ask her to consciously bring up something that triggers her feeling of anxiety, like her co-worker. As she thinks of him, the anxiety begins to rise again and I guide her into the sensations in her belly, then down to her feet. As we do this repeatedly, Suzanne discovers that if she moves into noticing her feet whenever the sensations of anxiety get too intense, she can stay longer and longer with the anxiety and the intensity subsides drastically.
I feel that we have done enough work in this area and I want to check in with Suzanne to see how she is handling this. Her face appears to be shining a bit; there is more blood flow and a pinker color to her cheeks and for the first time in the session. She smiles. I ask her about this. She looks a little sheepish, averting her gaze for a moment. Then she looks back at me and says, “This is cool. I feel so much more in charge.”
I want to anchor her bodily sense of being “in charge” so that she can access this when her anxiety arises.
I am hoping to help change her relationship to this anxiety—to become curious about it.
I am hoping to help change her relationship to this anxiety—to become curious about it. I want her to recognize that when she actually pays attention to it, at the sensation rather than emotional level, it usually subsides, rather than increases as most people fear.
This process of touching into her sensations of the anxiety, then shifting her awareness to the rest of her body, helping her notice any moments of settling or any shift that occurs naturally, is one of the many ways that SE supports the nervous system to re-establish its natural, inherent rhythm—one that flows seamlessly between excitation and relaxation, between contraction and expansion. This is the first step Suzanne and I have taken to restoring regulation in her system.
The second step we’ll need to take is to access what’s unfinished. Many traditional therapies focus on feeling, reliving, and ultimately putting behind many of the bad things that occur in childhood. While this can be an important part of the therapeutic process, and is definitely something I am concerned with, my SE orientation leads me to seek to explore this experience with Suzanne somatically.
By following the body’s wisdom, we are led to what didn’t get to happen in a client’s past. We provide clients with the opportunity of re-doing the event—finding in the present the way that the body would naturally, organically respond if it was left to its own devices. This renegotiation is done almost entirely through visualization, and slow, intentional movements, deeply connected to sensations and procedural movement patterns. This allows the discharge process to complete, and the trauma symptoms are moved out of the body, while the nervous system is allowed to return to pre-trauma functioning.
To get to what is unfinished in Suzanne, I want to access the brainstem and the survival responses. The way in is via sensations, noticing physiological shifts, and sensing impulses. My work with Suzanne so far has tapped into a little (but not too much) of the activation, or the charge of the anxiety. Now it’s time to check in to the rest of her body—in particular her extremities. The extremities naturally spring into readiness and action when we feel threatened. When a person is unable to carry through with the impulse to flee or fight, these thwarted impulses interrupt hard-wired sensorimotor patterns. This is often the place where the system gets stuck.
Capitalizing on Suzanne’s feeling of excitement and mastery, I ask her if she’s willing to explore a bit further. This time, when she gives her assent, she doesn’t hesitate. I ask her to sense into the rest of her body to notice what else is going on.
She immediately reports, “I feel tightness in my legs and shoulders.”
Deciding to bring awareness to the less accessible lower body, I ask her to tell me where she feels the tightness in her legs. She reports feeling tension and tingling in her ankles and thighs. Suzanne’s lifeless legs indicate a parasympathetic orientation in her lower body—a common pattern in clients with a history of physical or sexual abuse, bullying, early surgical procedures, or any events that involve being restrained. Earlier she had described herself as “feeling paralyzed” and “crying like a little girl” in response to the conflict and perceived threat of her co-worker. It’s clear to me that at least some of this sense of paralysis originates in her legs. I encourage her to stay with the sensations and see what happens next as she does that.
“It’s getting tighter,” she says.
Wanting to gently encourage her, I murmur, “Stay with it, if that’s okay.” I see her legs jump and tense slightly and then become very still.
“I’m scared,” Suzanne says. “I want to move my legs, but I can’t.”
This is a very important moment in SE work—an experience that Levine describes as the brake and accelerator both floored at the same time—the core of the freeze response. It is high-level sympathetic mobilization, coupled with parasympathetic shutdown, similar to what happens when a circuit breaker blows when there’s too much charge going through a line. It will be necessary to separate the two impulses so that Suzanne’s defensive response can be completed.
Before I can say anything else, Suzanne says again, “I’m scared. I know this feeling. This is like when my uncle would do things to me in the attic.”
While I am certain that we will need to explore the content that is beginning to naturally arise as a result of feeling into Suzanne’s sensations, at this point I want to stay grounded in her physiological experience. In my experience, if I chose to explore this reference to her uncle by asking her to tell me more about what happened in the attic, Suzanne would likely shift into an intellectual telling of the story. This would take us away from her body and what her body wants to do. In fact, her body has been telling this story from the beginning, now showing us the connection between her anxiety and paralysis in her conflict with her co-worker and her past experience of trauma.
I ask Suzanne if it’s okay to sense the energy in her legs.
She says yes, a little uncertainly. She pauses for a moment and then responds, “It feels very intense, like a strong humming feeling.” My initial impression of her “wild bee” energy seems accurate. I ask her to feel the energy and sense where it wants to go. I also ask if she can feel how she is holding it back. I encourage her to very slowly move her awareness back and forth between the wanting to move and the holding back. This technique helps to separate the conflicting impulses.
Suzanne is alert and somewhat alarmed, but not overwhelmed, mostly because we have done good preliminary work earlier, where she learned to trust her body somewhat, and learned to trust her ability to handle intensity. As Suzanne tunes into the energy wanting to move, the holding begins to ease, and the impulse to move increases. I see her upper body relax slightly, while her legs begin to twitch. I point out the twitching in her legs and invite her to slowly feel that and follow what wants to happen. Her body wants to move in reaction to a threat (her uncle), but it can’t because the threat is larger, stronger and familiar. Several intense, involuntary impulses are happening at the same time: anxiety because of the danger, hormones racing through her system preparing for action, tightness and bracing in many parts of her body, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and shame, to name a few.
I can see underneath Suzanne’s clothes that her thighs are contracting slightly; her feet jerk almost imperceptibly upward. I also feel the readiness in my own body, which I experience as tension in my legs; my heart rate increases. I am feeling a sense of excitement in my body—these impulses are contagious, and many-less experienced practitioners initially make the mistake of getting swept up in the sensations, unintentionally pressuring the client and causing resistance. Not wanting her to feel pushed, I sit back, settle into the chair, and move my attention back slightly, to allow her to experience her own impulses uninfluenced by mine.
I ask her to feel into the tightness of her thighs, and to sense her calves and ankles. They very slowly begin to move on their own, and I encourage her to notice that.
“My legs feel powerful and strong, like they could leap over any mountain,” she says, her voice sounding stronger and more commanding than I’ve heard it yet in this session.
“Stay with those sensations of strength and power,” I suggest to her. I can see that she is enjoying the strength she feels. She pushes her feet down into the floor, her thigh muscles contracting visibly. I see that her feet and legs continue to move very slightly, this time with larger movements. I stay alert for signs of dissociation, bracing, breath-holding—anything that would indicate that too much is happening too fast.
As Suzanne continues to experience the movement of her legs and feet, she says, “It feels great to move them.” Her legs pump slightly beneath her seat. “ I don’t think I’ve felt my legs for years. Its like I’m coming into them.”
I ask her to tell me a little bit more about what she is sensing. “Heat. Waves of heat coursing through my legs.” Her feet and ankles continue to move as she describes this. I know that the release of heat is a sign that her nervous system is coming into a greater degree of equilibrium. To continue to expand on Suzanne’s experience of becoming unfrozen, I ask her, ”What does it feel like your feet are doing?”
“I can walk away. I know I can walk away. I can run away if I need to.”
Her legs begin to tremble very slightly. Her face is flushed, radiating pleasure. I know we have done plenty for one session.
At this point, it's time to process some of what we’ve done. We talk about her experience and I educate her a bit on the SE model I’ve been using, explaining the fight-or-flight process of the nervous system and what happens when those natural reactions are unable to be completed. She shares some memory flashes that arose during the running, and we talk about ways she can play with the process of checking into her belly when she feels anxious—moving between the sensations in her belly and the sensations in her legs.
Future sessions with Suzanne would focus on fine-tuning the newfound skill of sensing the anxiety somatically, and learning how to recognize it, and settle it before it overtakes her. We would look at other situations in which anxiety shows up, such as in the work place or during moments of conflict, and see if we can generalize the skill in other settings. We would explore the abuse by her uncle, concentrating on what is unprocessed physiologically and emotionally, especially incomplete defensive responses. SE therapists learn to trust the body, more than the memory or recall of events. We know not to assign meaning or assume causality to what arises in the therapy session. Details of events change as they are worked out at the somatic level. Memory is unreliable at best, but the body holds the key to what is unfinished and needing to heal. We focus on allowing those physiological responses to unfold, which makes room for the body to organically return to homeostasis.
In the SE model, we consider our work to focus on resolving the strategies for coping with nervous system dysregulation. This dysregulation can occur as the result of trauma, but may occur even in the absence of specific traumatic events—early attachment issues, for example. What is primary to us is to restore the nervous system to a natural state of regulation. To this end, SE is well integrated with many modalities of therapy, adding richness and depth to other methods that may have a more primary focus on the emotional or cognitive aspects of experience. What is most important about the SE way of working with a client is our focus on the physiological, the sensations, the body.
Ariel Giarretto, MFT, is a body-oriented psychotherapist and trauma specialist. Trained in a wide variety of somatic therapies, her work is primarily informed by Somatic Experiencing (SE). She has been using SE with clients and students since 1999 and is known nationally and internationally as an expert trainer and clinician in the trauma field. She is a member of Peter Levine's teaching staff and helps develop curriculum and specialty classes for his Foundation for Human Enrichment. In 2005, motivated by the tsunami in Asia, she and three other colleagues developed a short-term trauma relief and first aid program for natural disaster survivors. It has since been successfully used in Thailand, New Orleans, and most recently in China, following the earthquake. She has a practice in Berkeley and Sebastopol, and frequently utilizes therapeutic touch and SE bodywork in her sessions.
A wealth of information can be found at the Foundation for Human Enrichment web site A comprehensive SE Training program is available for those seeking to learn how to apply this method in their work. A vivid demonstration of SE is seen in Resolving Trauma in Psychotherapy: A Somatic Approach.