Somatic Experiencing, Trauma and Wilderness Therapy
Wilderness therapy provides us with a unique opportunity to understand and help people heal from trauma (any overwhelming experience the body and brain cannot successfully integrate and process). As a Somatic Experiencing Therapist, I work in a body-oriented way to help people heal from PTSD, complex PTSD and other physiological symptoms of anxiety, depression and other stress disorders. Somatic Experiencing (SE) draws on research in the areas of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, medical biophysics and 45 years of successful clinical application by the founder, Dr. Peter Levine. Year after year of clinical application of SE among its many practitioners indicates it is one of the most effective forms of trauma treatment that exists today. And while newer to the wilderness therapy community, more and more programs are recognizing the importance of incorporating body-oriented mindfulness in the healing of their clients.
Trauma may begin as acute stress from a perceived life-threat or as the end product of cumulative stress. It gets stored in the body and nervous system if we don’t know how to discharge the energy that results from that overwhelming experience. Let’s say someone was pinned down and wasn’t able to get up. The normal, healthy response would be to want to first flee or run away. If that response doesn’t get their attacker away from them, they will go into a fight mode and try to struggle out of the situation. If that doesn’t work, their bodies will likely shut down and enter a freeze mode, which is an evolutionary safety mechanism for self-preservation. Other animals have these same drives and instincts but they know how to (literally) shake off these states of overwhelm. Humans have a much harder time because of the inhibitory nature of the frontal lobes of their brains - in other words, shame, guilt, and judgment or an event happening too fast can often interfere with our ability to discharge trauma.
Trauma can seriously impair a person’s ability to function with resilience and ease. It may result from a wide variety of stressors such as accidents, invasive medical procedures, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, war, natural disasters, loss, birth trauma, or the corrosive stressors of ongoing fear and conflict. Many different life events can lead to someone entering into a fight/flight/freeze response.
Other animals know how to naturally discharge the energy. Symptoms like hypervigilance, flashbacks, night terrors, anxiety, depression, loss of interest in normally pleasurable experiences, insomnia, hyperactivity, an inability to concentrate, and so on, are all connected to a response to trauma. Many of the clients that come to Evoke show the physical manifestations and consequences of unhealed trauma: anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, anger, defiance, the list is long.
The SE approach facilitates the completion of these self-protective motor responses (fight, flight, freeze) and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms. This is approached by gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions.
Wilderness gives us a unique opportunity to work with these somatic expressions of trauma in the body. How does it do this?
- There is a resonance with the natural unfolding of the world and therefore ourselves while we’re in wilderness: In order to heal trauma, one must become attuned to the changing states and sensations present in the body. This doesn’t require us to relive the story or recount the traumatizing event through words (which can often be re-traumatizing). When we are in wilderness, we are invited to be present with the slower and simpler pace of life, rather than running away with thoughts or avoidance strategies we’ve typically used to not feel our feelings. When clients learn to slow down, simplify, and become more present with their surroundings, they tend to be able to access their body’s wisdom more effectively, equipping them with a deeper resilience and strength to face increasingly deeper layers of trauma, relieving many painful symptoms.
- Natural pendulation (waves) as the path to resilience: SE teaches us to pendulate or titrate our experience of the trauma. We do not rush into it or just tell the story over and over again, a cognitive approach, hoping we’ll feel better. It’s quite the opposite. We read the body’s ability to stay with the feelings of trauma that exist as sensation and only do what we’re capable of. We are continuously adding in more resources and feelings of empowerment that will later allow the client to handle deeper layers of the trauma successfully. This is congruent to the phases clients go through at Evoke: while they can earn Fire, Water, and Air phase, if they are struggling at those levels, they can also go back to Earth, Fire, and Water as a means of re-grouping and reconnecting with why they’re in wilderness. Similarly, the process of wilderness does not appear to be a straight line upward - clients will naturally make progress, reach a new level of consciousness and then appear to regress when new, deeper layers of their story come up. In reality, this is the opposite of regression: they are getting stronger and healthier and as such, their psyche is able to handle and process bigger pieces of their work. These moments can be scary for clients and families because they think their child is backsliding but it is often the opposite. Being immersed in a wilderness environment to do trauma work allows the client to make peace with the natural ebbs and flows of nature, and as an extension of nature, their bodies.
- The slowness (less is more) of the process: One of the keys to healing trauma is going slow and maintaining an open, aware presence with what’s happening in the body as we do so. The slower we go with trauma work, the faster we get there. We do not rush the process of working with trauma as it can be more detrimental than helpful to do so. Parents and even clients often feel at the beginning of their process at Evoke, that we “fix” people or that their time at Evoke should only be six weeks long. This could not be farther from the truth - no one is broken, therefore no one needs fixing. Their painful symptoms, behaviors, and experiences are simply covering up their true nature - one that is whole and healed already. Trauma work and psychotherapy are processes of uncovering that wholeness. Furthermore, the amount of time needed in wilderness is in direct proportion to the length of time these issues have been going on.
Working with trauma can effectively happen while in wilderness and wilderness therapy mirrors much of the process of doing so. As the client learns from their environment, they learn more about themselves, their bodies and their lives. There is deep wisdom in the body that can be used to gently and compassionately direct its own healing.