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Oct 23 2014

What I See is New, What I See is Safe – A Look Inside A Somatic Experiencing Therapy Session for PTSD

After 3 years hiatus, I am finally continuing Somatic Experiencing (SE) therapy and the first session was amazing.

Takeaways — In this article you will:

  • Learn 2 ways to re-associate triggers – the first I call Brain Reprogramming Via 2 Lists and the second, the way used during the SE Session, I call Exploring The Felt Sense of “It’s Over Now.”
  • Read about how SE constitutes a brain workout – rewiring, rearranging and training the brain, learning dual awareness, making new synaptic connections.
  • Find out how much can change with just one SE session.
  • See the power of the felt sense in action.
  • Read a first-hand account of an SE session from the client’s perspective.

Post-Session Spaciness Means – It’s Working! My Brain is Getting Rewired!

I’ve just returned home from the session and I have that familiar strained, warm and slightly dizzy sensation in my brain from challenging how my synaptic connections link between old and new life experiences. Actually, I think that after my next session I will walk around for at least 15 minutes before driving due to this post-session spaciness effect.

I drove home fine, but the whole time I was distracted because I was practicing observing things using my new synaptic connections. “This is new. This is a new road. This is a new fall season. And these are new leaves blowing across the street in front of the car. This is new asphalt.”

While waiting at the light at Deaverview and Bear Creek, the last light before getting home, I was staring across the intersection at a big yellow tree. Its large yellow-green leaves were twisting and turning in the wind. The sun filtered through the leaves creating brilliant yellows mixed with greens and browns.

I thought, “Those leaves look exactly like the ones I saw when I was driving home after the traumatic experience (we discussed today in therapy). It was fall then too. The trees had the same yellow leaves. And the sky was blue and it was sunny just like today. But these are new leaves. This is a different tree in a different place. It’s a brand-new tree and a brand-new fall. It has nothing to do with then. This is new because it’s over now. So it’s a new tree, a different tree.”

My mind twirled out into the leaves and blue sky, grappling with the dual awareness of the old tree and the new tree when I noticed that the traffic light had already turned green a few moments ago and I was holding up the people behind me. Which is what prompted me to create a new custom of walking for at least 15 minutes after each Somatic Experiencing session.

So now I’m home. I truly feel like we gently rearranged connections inside my brain. I literally can feel a dull ache in the reptilian brain area and in my brain as a whole to a lesser degree.

Here is a painting I did of the yellow tree and sky, and the words I was repeating to myself to try to get my brain to release the link between the tree and the past trauma and see it as a new object.

Healing Words for PTSD

The Session – Triggers and More Triggers

So let me tell you about the session. The first 30 minutes consisted of a status update and unloading of everything going on. After this felt complete, the therapist asked me what it was I wanted to get out of the session.

I said that my goal for this session was that I wanted to know how to handle triggers. I reached into my backpack and pulled out my list of 22 Ways my Boyfriend Triggers Me. I read a few lines from the list — hearing eating noises, hearing snoring, the circumstance of being in a relationship versus being single, etc. The list contained a lot of random things that on the surface do not appear dangerous. In fact, sometimes I’m a bit baffled at how these things would cause me to feel stark terror. And although they sound mundane, the triggers have been so constant and so powerful I’ve really been going crazy. They wear me out. I have been suicidal, exhausted, and barely able to cope with them. So it’s pretty important to get a handle on it ASAP.

Looking over the list I said, “When I look at this list of triggers they all seem to point back to a year of traumatic experiences in this bizarre living situation I was in.” I told her about what had happened.

At the end of the story, I said that I was proud of myself because I had found the strength to leave a crazy scenario of powerful layers of psychological and emotional manipulation.

Exploring The Felt Sense of “It’s Over Now”

She asked me to try to feel this feeling of pride-in-having-left in my body. That was very difficult to do but I could sense some uplifting energy making me sit up a bit taller, and some energy of inner strength.

Then she asked about the very end of the experience when I had gotten away from the situation and knew it was over. She asked what that feeling, the feeling of really knowing it was over and knowing that I was safe, felt like in my body. She used the phrase, “It’s Over Now” to encapsulate that moment in time that holds all the potentials of the experience of having escaped such as relief, safety, pride, hope, gratitude, anger etc.

I said that I felt warm, more solid and heavy, and more together inside my body. I said I felt some pain in my chest and shoulders, from knowing what had happened, but my body also felt calmer and more relaxed. I felt like I could begin again, have a renaissance of sorts, like I could grow once more. I felt hope.

Looking Slowly At Objects Helped My Brain Process and Open Up

The therapist repeated the phrase, “It’s Over Now.” She told me that I could take my time and helped me slow down this process even more. I tend to speed through everything during therapy because I know that there is a limit on time. So I slowed myself down as best I could and was just looking around from one object to the next in the room.

The therapist said that looking at all the things in the room slowly, examining the shapes and textures, is really helpful at this point when the brain is shifting its perceptions of reality. She suggested that as I was exploring the idea and the felt sense of “It’s Over Now,” I could also notice how the objects in the room are brand-new and unrelated to the past.

This was kind of the peak moment of the session because my brain shifted its awareness suddenly. It felt like a shaft of light went from the sunlit hem of the curtain into my brain, a clear message that this curtain material is of another time actually, a new time. My brain is actually completely unfamiliar with “now” or “new.” My brain views reality almost 100% as it relates to old trauma, so this moment felt unusual.

After this momentary sense of clarity I began to feel like I was struggling to keep looking at the objects and see them in this new way. I looked at the long folds of the curtain and the beige weave of the lampshade. I looked at the watercolor of blue shapes. My brain felt confused, searching and curious, caught in-between different ways of perceiving.

Here is a poem I wrote along with a painting I created about the “peak” moment:

Newness - Somatic Experiencing - Learning to Handle Triggers

Couldn’t Look Out the Window; Discovered a New Trigger

At a certain moment I became aware of the fact that I was fine with looking at the objects inside the room, although it felt like a struggle, but some part of me did not want to look outside at all.

I said, “I don’t like looking outside. Oh, it’s because it’s fall! All those major traumas were in the months of October and November. No wonder I can’t look at the trees and I hate the fall so much!”

I had always thought I hated fall because I hate the cold, but suddenly it made sense that my mind was reacting to seeing all these reminders in the colored leaves, the temperature of the air, the clear blue sky. I had just discovered a new trigger that had previously been unconscious, but still had been making me miserable. Another advantage of putting the effort in to slowing down and attempting to do the felt sense is that in this space one can make discoveries.

Phenomenon of Skill Transfer. The therapist said that once the brain catches on to how to perceive the nonthreatening things in the room as new, it can transfer this skill onto the more difficult areas like the trees outside. So she had me practice on the trees outside the window. It was really hard! I didn’t know if I could do it.

Afraid I Might Do it Wrong. I started to become frightened that maybe instead of reversing the association with the trees to the trauma, I would instead start associating the things in the room with the trees and therefore with the trauma. I was afraid that if I wasn’t careful, I could end up adding negative associations rather than taking them away.

This fear makes sense given my history. Because I left Somatic Experiencing therapy in the middle 3 years ago without really internalizing any of it, I have mostly experienced my brain taking NEW things and adding them to the filing cabinet in my head entitled, “BAD DANGER — FEAR IT!” I never experience my brain taking things out of that filing cabinet and moving them to the filing cabinet entitled “GOOD SAFE NEW.”

But the therapist expressed confidence that we will be able work together to make sure this doesn’t happen.

When the session was over I said I would practice, thanked her and walked out into the wind whipped, bright, warm fall afternoon. Whether it was a new fall or an old fall my brain was not quite sure.

On the Re-association of Triggers

I consider the re-association of triggers to be the act of un-linking a current day reminder of past trauma from the traumatic experience and linking it instead to the current moment, which is safe. I expect it could even be linked to something in the past or something imaginary, but something safe, healthy and positive. In short, un-linking from danger and linking to safety.

Now, I did do an exercise with my previous therapist over the summer (here in Asheville, a non-Somatic Experiencing therapist) to reprogram my brain to unlink the past trauma from my boyfriend (who had nothing to do with it). That exercise was somewhat effective but the rewiring only lasted for one day.

Re-association of Triggers Exercise – “Brain Reprogramming Via 2 Lists” (non-SE)

The instructions for this exercise are:

1) List all triggers (in fact that’s how I created the list of 22 triggers).

2) Immediately after creating this list, create a new list of all the ways that the current situation and person are different from that past situation and person.

3) Practice going from the first immediately to the second list over and over to make sure the brain learns how to do it.

The objective of this exercise is that in the future, when the brain makes an association, it is trained to always immediately counter that association with, “But he’s different in these ways.”

Mediocre Results of Non-SE Exercise. This exercise removed the triggers for one full day. I perceived my boyfriend as a new person, his own person, unrelated to the past, innocent. When the triggers returned, their intensity was reduced by around 25% for a period of time. Unfortunately the effect wore off and things became just as bad as before the exercise. The one thing it affected permanently seems to be the snoring. My brain somehow learned to apply the technique just to hearing snoring and my reaction seems to be about 75% reduced from terror to slight alarm. I think if I had practiced, it would have worked a lot better (I never did Step 3 – Practice). It does show potential.

The Power of the Felt Sense. I think that the above exercise is great, but it would likely be more powerful if it incorporated the felt sense.

For me right now, the felt sense is simply slowing down and putting attention and awareness on the body, but I know it can potentially go deeper than this. Sometimes it has the qualities of meditative awareness, and probably would get deeper with a regular meditation practice (a kind of meditation that gets you further into the body not one that encourages dissociation).

When doing Somatic Experiencing therapy, one sinks into the felt sense and watches what happens when the brain shifts in and out of making the association. By using the felt sense, the experience is much larger. It encompasses the whole body, brain, and perceptual field. That’s why I expect that the exercises to reprogram the brain using Somatic Experiencing will have a greater impact and last longer. For more about the Felt Sense see this article.

Dual Awareness. Another thing that increases the power of the brain training done by SE is dual awareness. I think of dual awareness as the capacity to hold both the areas of self that are traumatized as well as those that are resources within one’s consciousness simultaneously. The SE therapist may use typical healing tools like sympathy, empathy and compassion in order to be present with the client’s pain, but they also hold the possibility that the part of the client that is whole, unharmed, intact, calm and a good resource is still there and can be taught to be an active part of the therapeutic process. Somatic Experiencing therapists are trained to maintain a grounded emotional place that encourages the client to emerge from the trauma rather than fall into it. They demonstrate an overall sense of confidence in the ability of the system to heal itself when properly guided. The state of health within the client is honored just as much as the state of dysfunction.

The SE therapist I saw today encouraged me to embrace a type of dual awareness during the session. She helped me to hold the perception of both the old and the new at the same time, and this was healing because I didn’t really want to suppress the old (making it more buried and potentially more powerful) so for a time holding both feels like the best thing to do.

It is possible that during the Brain Reprogramming Via 2 Lists exercise, when you go quickly from the list of triggers to the list of ways the two are different, this technique may stimulate the brain to pass through this dual awareness phase. It would be helpful to name this particular goal of having dual awareness as it arises so the client doesn’t try to run away from it, or want to stop the exercise because of feeling too disoriented.

dual awareness during somatic experiencing

What if It’s Not Over? I’m sure there is a lot of complexity to the re-association of triggers and I’ve just scratched the surface here. For example, I have a lot of physical injuries, so while I can train myself to perceive my body as not being harmed right now, my body is not totally unaffected by trauma in this moment either. I’m sure there are techniques to handle this mixed scenario.

What If It’s Too Intense? Given the fact that I had so much trouble seeing benign objects in a very safe environment (therapist’s office) as new, I would guess that learning to handle triggers linked to some of the most severe traumas might take a lot of time and practice. For example, the yellow tree never really became a new tree. The association is very strong between that impactful trauma and the fall leaves, especially yellow leaves. I had glimmers and impressions but the tree never transformed into a new tree, a tree of today. In order to crack my brain open to this perception I obviously need to practice a lot more.

Stubborn Brain. Any exercise we choose to do to re-associate triggers will cause the brain to protest, because our brain is a creature of habit. I believe the best thing is to do all the various exercises available as many times as possible. For example, I could combine the Brain Reprogramming Via 2 Lists Exercise with the Felt Sense of “It’s Over Now” and create a new exercise which would incorporate the healing mechanisms present in both exercises.

Thanks for reading and I wish you the very best on your healing journey.

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Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.