Alive in the Body

Alive in the Body: Healing Trauma and Overwhelm with Somatic Experiencing

This is an excerpt of an article in CAMFT’s January/February 2023 edition of The Therapist Magazine, written by Sergio Ocampo, SEP, B.Eng, EMDRII, MA, LMFT, an SEI board member. The full text is available to members only.

Magazine cover shows a person in shadow with hands up against a blurry glass panel

Much has been written and said in recent years about trauma and being ‘trauma informed.” Countless courses on the topic are now offered for professional development and as part of graduate-level programs. These offerings provide a rudimentary understanding of what trauma is and how it arrives, and they address how the symptoms and signs of trauma often become part of a person’s daily life. But what these educational resources frequently miss are the simple and important questions, such as what specifically can we do about trauma and its looming presence in our world? How can we heal from it? And what is it exactly?

It’s true that we’ve become more informed about trauma, yet we remain puzzled about how to help people fully and effectively recover from their traumatic experiences and achieve wholeness.

How do we fill in this gap? How do we acquire a better understanding of what trauma truly is and how people can heal permanently from its extensive and harmful effects?

As a mental health clinician who specializes in trauma and applies the tools of Somatic Experiencing, the answers begin with acknowledging that trauma lives in the body, in the nervous system. More specifically, it lives in the emotional/autonomic nervous system, the more primitive neural network that we inherited from our ancient ancestors. This system becomes active whenever we face an imminent threat to our physical or emotional safety, resulting in powerful, automatic, unconscious emotions that sometimes get stuck in our body. Here, I am referring to the fight, flight, or freeze response inherent to all mammals. Deeply wired in us, it is strongly connected to many functions in our brain and body.

When this system is fully activated, we experience strong physiological responses. Furthermore, this process can inundate its recipient with intense emotions that are experienced in the body. In other words, they are embodied emotions: We feel them in our body and encounter them in ways that can be entirely overwhelming. These emotions range from sadness to extreme fear, terror, and rage. We may feel our chest or belly constrict and our breath become shallow, we may experience our visual focus blurring, we may be captured by a sense of restlessness, or we may collapse completely. These signs indicate that our more primitive system is facing overdrive–it’s overreacting to a familiar threat or a previous life experience that has not yet been resolved or released from the body.

As we examine issues involving mental health, we find that powerful, unrestrained emotions are frequently part of the client’s therapeutic process. The process of therapy is designed to help the client deactivate these intense emotions and move toward greater agency. As mental health practitioners, we have traditionally helped our emotionally troubled clients by assisting them in the creation of new narratives. In other words, we support them in the process of learning how to use their cognitive minds to frame their experiences differently and thus enhance their ability to navigate the requirements of daily life. I have often found this approach to have its clinical limitations. What I’ve witnessed over and over is clients having overwhelming emotional experiences that never seem to find resolution. Clearly, the true sources of anxiety, depression, and other emotional conditions live more in the body than in the thinking brain.

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Chi è Jacopo Albarello?

Sono Psicologo, Psicoterapeuta, Sessuologo Clinico e terapeuta, Sensorimotor ed EMDR di II° livello, svolgo attività di consulenza psicologica con minori, adulti e coppie.

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