Trauma is the emotional and physiological aftermath of an event; it is not the event itself, it is the individual’s experience of the event. Different individuals are impacted differently by the same traumatic event. This has to do with emotional intelligence, imprinting, past traumatic experiences, brain chemistry (genetics) and coping mechanisms. Surviving natural disasters such hurricanes and earthquakes, witnessing a murder, being involved in a motor vehicle accident, fighting on the font lines in a war or working as a first responder are all examples of traumatic experiences however not every survivor, veteran or first responder has flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety or depression that is associated with past traumas. Unhealthy childhood experiences in the home or at school are also associated with trauma. A simple working definition of trauma is: anything that is too much, too soon, or too fast for our nervous system to handle, especially if we can’t reach a successful resolution. The inability to cope with painful thoughts and emotions could manifest in a multitude of psychiatric issues including depression, anxiety, substance abuse or an eating disorder.

How traumatic events are processed

As a traumatic or distressing event occurs, it may overwhelm normal coping mechanisms and as a result the memory and associated stimuli are inadequately processed and stored in an isolated memory network. It is almost as the brain is re-wired to focus only on the traumatic event and it’s associated emotions as if the event was constantly on repeat in the brain. When this occurs, these memories will have lasting effects and will be repeated over and over as if the individual is re-experiencing the trauma for the first time because the sounds, smells, images and feelings were not adequately processed and stored.

What is somatic experiencing (SE)?

Peter A. Levine PhD. founded somatic experiencing, which is based on the many different disciplines associated with the physiology of stress and trauma. Dr. Levine was curious about the fact that animals in the wild aren’t traumatized by their life-and-death existence, while people can be traumatized by events that seem inconsequential to others. Somatic experiencing focuses on the physiological responses that occur when someone experiences or remembers an overwhelming or traumatic event, in his or her body, rather than only through the thoughts or emotions connected to it. In other words, human emotions can turn into physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, sweating, trembling hands or muscle aches. “The somatic experiencing approach facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms”.

Somatic Experiencing sessions involve the introduction of small amounts of traumatic material and the observation of an individual’s physical responses to that material, such as shallow breathing or a shift in posture. The therapist will frequently check in with the individual to assess and record physical sensations that may be unnoticeable to the therapist, such as feelings of heaviness, tightness, muscle pain or dizziness. The therapist is extremely careful not to re-traumatize the individual therefore this therapy strategy can have a slow onset and duration. The therapist will help the individual find places of safety, whether that be a place in the body that is not activated by the trauma, or a physical place to retreat to in one’s mind. Experiencing the sensations related to the traumatic event in a safe way allows a person to fully process the trauma, become more aware of their physical responses to stress and release the negative survival energy in the body and replace it with positive thoughts and affirmations.

Trauma and eating disorders

When the impact of trauma on an individual is fully understood, it comes as no surprise that an eating disorder may be utilized as a coping strategy. Fortunately, with complete and comprehensive treatment, lifelong healing can be achieved.