Editor’s note – July 2020
I wrote out this protocol when I was a squeaky brand new student of Somatic Experiencing. I was really excited about the potential for renegotiating trauma, and excited that I was getting some benefit even working on my own.
I’m leaving this post up but with some comments, as follows:
Shortly after writing this, I was told that this sort of self-processing with SE was not well-advised. Really that any sort of self-processing with SE – where I deliberately walk myself into interaction with my distress – is ill-advised.
After this many years, I can’t say I agree with that caution, at least not for myself. If I had to wait to sit in front of a provider before doing any sort of rubber meets road or shit hits fan uncomfortable emotional work, I think I would still be semi-paralyzed as I was in 2015 when I wrote this. But some cautions are in order.
Somatic Experiencing is much more complex than was reflected by my understanding after taking the first module. There is more to it than just pendulating. In fact, pendulation between the trauma vortex (red) and the healing vortex (blue) can’t happen until the person first is able to experience a reasonable level of safety in present time and space, and with the facilitator. For some people, getting to that place of safety is a long journey.
For some people, attempting to follow this protocol could lead to destabilization rather than forward movement. One of the keys to self work is an the ability to sense what is good for me and what is not. That’s tricky because those discernments are part of what get’s knocked all wonky when we experience developmental trauma. So it’s always a good idea to start small and see what happens.
Eradicating Trauma Zombies
Friends and family, I am training to become a Transformational Life Coach and I am also training in the practice of Somatic Experiencing.
This document is my first pass at a written instruction guide for self-processing using somatic experiencing methodology.
Defining Trauma Zombies
We all carry the remnants of unresolved trauma.
When I remain consciously or unconsciously braced and vigilant, even when I am in the safest of places, then I am experiencing the impact of unresolved trauma.
When I react to a real experience with a level of activation that is out of proportion to the incident, I am experiencing the impact of unresolved trauma.
I’m labeling as “trauma zombies” the remaining impacts of traumatic experiences that I experienced in the past.
What is a trauma zombie? When I experience trauma – that is, when I am in a situation where I am experiencing or witnessing some kind of perceived threat of harm or actual harm and where I am helpless to effectively act to prevent or mitigate the situation – and if my nervous system is not able to come to resolution, then the neurological experience of the trauma persists – it runs continuously. In this case, I have the constant experience of remaining under threat. However, since this can be debilitating, my system may come up with ways to hide this experience from myself, so I may be unaware that I am experiencing this threat. But even if I am unaware, there is still an impact on my nervous system. And then when something happens in the present that may be similar to the original trauma, and that triggers the experience, my nervous system moves to high alert, and I experience stress, fear, anger, distress, and/or other similar symptoms. I may or may not have any conscious awareness that I have been triggered. Even if I notice that I have been triggered, I may or may not have any idea what the original trauma was that has me vulnerable to these reactions.
Trauma zombies are the undead past experiences where I felt under threat and powerless to act. We all have trauma zombies. Some of us have hundreds or thousands of them.
Trauma zombies get in the way of us fully relaxing into our lives and into our close relationships.
Trauma zombies prevent us from experiencing holistic joy and pleasure.
Trauma zombies keeps us in a state of constriction and limitation, and possibly helplessness, depression, hopelessness, desperation, rage, or terror.
Based on scientific studies of the nervous system, and based on years of practice with real humans, a theory and protocol have been developed that neutralizes trauma zombies, sending them to the grave, sending them to an existence where they exist firmly in the past where past events belong.
Somatic Experiencing is a trauma treatment method that was developed by Peter Levine and that is used and practiced throughout the world.
I am going to describe the theory behind this method – in a simplified form as I understand it, and a method by which you can use this method to incrementally neutralize your own trauma zombies at your own pace in a way that is relatively safe. Note that living with trauma zombies is inherently unsafe. Any course of action that you take to deal with your trauma zombies comes with risks. Alcohol, prescription medications, non-prescription legal and illegal medications, various compulsive behaviors, dissociation – these are all actions/behaviors that are frequently utilized (consciously or unconsciously) to manage the effects of living with trauma zombies. Using any of these approaches can potentially lead to harm to oneself or others.
This method that I am offering might lead to your finding yourself in an activated state when you otherwise might have remained numb, and that activation will be uncomfortable. Depending on the level of discomfort, you will take further actions that could involve risk. The risk is in the trauma zombies themselves, but using this method could open things up.
I feel that simply reading this document that describes the method should not be risky. But I encourage you to monitor yourself.
The Quick Summary of the Somatic Experiencing Method and the Science
Somatic Experiencing involves facilitating in the client the experience of pendulation between “red” – meaning visceral experiences associated with trauma zombies and “blue” – meaning experiencing of self in the present and safe, ok, or neutral. In the process I describe below, you will be both the facilitator and the client.
As I understand it, the nervous system thinks the years- or decades-old threat is still real and present. And normally when I get triggered I go into a state of activation/arousal/alert/distress. I follow the trigger into a neurological physical state that revisits the trauma, that brings it alive again to some degree.
The pendulation, that is, consciously shifting my awareness back and forth between the subjective neurological experience of present danger and the visceral experience of actual safety or neutrality, provides evidence to the nervous system that the threat is not current and active. If I was under threat, about to be hit or shamed or raped or violated in some other way – if that were actually happening, then I would not be able to feel the chair underneath me matter of fact-ly supporting me. I would not be able to feel my arms or legs in a relaxed state. I would not be able to look around and observe the space around me as calm and safe. I would not be able to make a choice about where to place my attention, or what to do in the moment.
So, by alternating between the visceral experiences associated with the trauma zombies and the visceral experiences of present safety or neutrality, the trauma zombie is automatically deconstructed by the nervous system. The nervous system is faced with evidence that the trauma has ended, and the neuro-chemical actions that should normally take place at the time that the actual trauma abated in the past, now finally are executed.
Because each of us carries many trauma zombies, engaging in this process is unlikely to produce sudden dramatic changes in our experience. But based on my personal experience, the process is producing noticeable immediate incremental changes. I am finding that over time as I use this process, my nervous system, which is synonymous with my psychological experience, is becoming more stable.
The Method: Self-Neutralizing Trauma Zombies
This method involves the following aspects:
- Cultivating continued awareness of visceral experiences of Good, Safe, or Neutral (blue)
- Using an anchor statement to experience blue
- When a trauma zombie is active, practice experiencing visceral sensations associated with the activation (red)
- Consciously move back and forth between the red and blue sensations
- If you are not aware of a trauma zombie being active but want to use the method, you can simply become aware of whatever visceral sensations you are having, as doing that practice often leads to red just showing up.
I have been using this method in 3 ways:
- Periodically throughout the day, I notice blue. I notice that my breathing is calm. I notice that my knees are relaxed. I notice the chair or bed supporting me. When I do this, I often notice that as a result of this attention, my shoulders drop and I will involuntarily and automatically take a deep comfortable breath.
- When something happens that upsets me, I make a point of noticing the physical sensations that I am experiencing, and I continue to notice those sensations, consciously also noticing the blue sensations at regular intervals.
- When I want to get some work done but I am not already activated, I think of things that are upsetting or triggering to me, past or present, and follow the sensations that arise in my body, and also noticing blue sensations at regular intervals.
Here is some more detail on the four aspects of the practice:
Cultivating awareness of Blue
The key here is body sensations that are pleasurable, positive, ok, or neutral. These can be accompanied by thoughts or ideas that are positive or neutral.
So one way in is to ask myself: “What do I feel good or neutral about?” I might answer “Even though it is cold outside, I am in a warm house.” Then I will ask, “Where in my body do I experience this good or neutral reality of being in a warm house?” And I can answer, “I have bare feet and they are comfortable, not cold.”
So I can experience blue by noticing that my feet are a comfortable temperature.
Another way in is to ask myself, “Where in my body do I feel good, ok, or neutral?” I might answer, “In my thighs.” Then I will ask, “What are the sensations that I experience in my thighs that tell me that they feel good, ok, or neutral?” And I could answer, “The muscles in my left thigh feel relaxed.”
I also like to notice the support of the chair, and when I feel the support of the chair I know it is a metaphor for the support that I have in my life from my communities. I feel the visceral sensation of my buttocks pressing into the chair and I remember that I am supported by people as well as by the chair. This kind of abstraction is not necessary for the process, but it is acceptable.
Basically, what you are looking for is a way to feel specific sensations in your body, accompanied by the experience that you are safe, ok, or neutral.
I am finding that this is a useful practice to do throughout the day, regardless of whether I am consciously working with trauma zombies.
Using an Anchor Statement
One thing I did with myself was to come up with what I call an anchor statement. My first anchor statement was “Support, Breath, Resilience.” “Support” reminds me to feel the seat under my buttocks and to remember that I am also supported by my communities. “Breath” reminds me to notice my breathing, and to feel and remember that my breathing supports me constantly, it is something I am doing well for myself. “Resilience” reminds me that I have survived this long and that I am continually learning and adapting in ways that allow me to become incrementally more comfortable and effective in my life.
So when I think “Support, Breath, Resilience” I immediately have a blue experience, where I am viscerally connecting with my body, and I am aware that I am essentially safe and functional despite any stresses, and that there is something that I feel good about in relation to my direction in my life.
If you want to come up with an anchor statement, one key is that this statement should refer to things that you are aware of and automatically easily feel good or neutral about. This is not a place to use an “affirmation” to which you might have some conscious or unconscious objections. For example, if I tried to use the statement, “I am always kind, effective, and aware” I would immediately find myself not in my body, but in my brain analyzing or debating times when I am unkind or ineffective. The intent of the anchor statement is to immediately take me into my body where I can have an experience that is positive or neutral. The purpose is not to make me feel good, or as good as possible; rather, the purpose is to send a signal to the nervous system that any trauma zombie threat message that might show up is in fact inaccurate.
When a Trauma Zombie is Active
When I notice that I have become upset (by the words or actions of someone in the present, or by my thoughts about myself or about the past, or by any thought or stimulus related to myself or the news of the world or anything) and there is no actual current threat that requires my immediate attention and action, then I shift my attention to my body. I notice the sensations in my body that seem to be related to my upset (red). In my mind, I describe the sensations to myself. “In the back of my neck on the right side, it feels like something is pushing or poking into my neck. I feel a tingling and stretching along my right cheek. I just felt my shoulders drop a little bit. Now I feel a pushing or stretching on the left side of my neck further down.” Then I shift to blue. “Breath, support. I feel the chair supporting me. I feel my feet comfortable even though I’m barefoot. I’m noticing that my breath seems relaxed” Then I shift back to red. “It’s like there’s a beam pushing hard against the whole back of my neck. I feel a sharp poke in my right shoulder. My right fist wants to clench, I feel the need to hold up my arm to protect myself.”
I continue moving back and forth between red and blue. Usually after doing this for a while the distress lessens. Sometimes it abates altogether. Sometimes I need to lie down and allow my body to shake. Sometimes I need to allow certain muscles to tense up. I hold and feel the tension and release. There is no exact way that this needs to be done. The key is connecting to the body, feeling the sensations, and making sure to include blue sensations on a regular basis.
As I said, I am experiencing very positive results by using this method. I am interested in hearing about the kinds of challenges or blocks that occur, and about what language in this description works or does not work, and I am interested in knowing what impacts this practice has on you if you choose to and are able to try it out.