“Angie” Case Study: SE and Dream Analysis

by | Jan 20, 2015 | About Trauma, SE Stories

Editor's note: This entry continues Dr. Abi Blakeslee's previous blog, “Jungian Dream Analysis Blended with SE.” Both entries are adapted from Dr. Blakeslee's master's thesis in counseling and depth psychology for Pacifica Graduate Institute.

A young woman whom we shall call “Angie” had a history of inescapable attack, failure of physical defense, medical trauma, as well as developmental trauma. We were working together during an internship that was part of my graduate work in counseling and depth psychology. One morning she came to our session looking tired, saying she'd had a nightmare. I shared that a prominent psychiatrist and psychotherapist named Carl Jung developed a way of working with dreams; he viewed dreams as images that appear to us from our unconscious and believed that all the characters and images in the dream are really parts of us. Even dreams we might think of as nightmares, I told Angie, can teach us surprising things about ourselves. She seemed curious to explore further.

I explained that Angie could speak about her nightmare and while she did so, we might pause and notice how feelings and sensations moved and changed within her body. We might notice how her body wanted to move in the nightmare, or how it wants to move in the room right now. We also might try some active imagination providing a chance for her conscious mind to change or interact with parts of the nightmare. She nodded her head and began to speak:

“I was frantically running from wild harpies, women with grotesque heads and chicken bodies. I felt alone and vulnerable. My body was injured. I ran into a small cave and pushed my body against the rock, terrified. I saw the harpies' sharp, bloody teeth as they howled, clawing to get in. There was no escape. I woke up with my heart in my throat.”

As Angie spoke I could see the high sympathetic tone or activation in her body. The artery in her neck was pulsing. Her hands were quivering with adrenaline. Through these and other physiological markers, I also observed her body in high arousal with dorsal vagal (freeze) dominance. Her voice seemed constricted. Her torso was muscularly locked and her breathing was fast and shallow. Her skin was very pale and I imagined she felt cold.

As Angie finished talking I noticed her eyes move to the picture on the wall behind me. I invited her to follow this movement and to naturally orient: “Just allow your eyes, head, and neck to move in any way they want to.” As her gaze followed its own impulse, I observed rosy color returning to her face, her heart and respiration slowing, and her torso expanding slightly. The movement was stimulating her vagus nerve and allowing her to emerge from some of her shock. Also the present awareness of the room was cuing her amygdala that no dangerous things were happening in her environment right now. This can lead to a signal to the brain to lower levels of stress hormones.

As her muscles relaxed, I invited her to notice the couch underneath her where she sensed more of her weight. She wanted to push her feet into the floor and as she did this she took a deeper breath and her parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for resting and digesting) engaged more fully. Her body had just made a transition between a state of traumatic shock and returned to an expanded place of restoration. This transition between natural states of contraction and expansion is what is known in Somatic Experiencing® as pendulation.

Now that she was out of a state of terror and constriction, and that one full pendulation had occurred, I encouraged Angie to check in with her emotional state. She found a deep well of sadness. She identified strongly with the “I” and the “Chased One” in the dream. Her body began to curl inward and I invited her to follow this movement (behavior) to curl into a ball. I asked if she would like any support and she asked me if she could rest her forehead in my hand as she folded slowly. This protective posture led to embodied feelings of tears and shaking (discharge). Tightness in her throat softened. Her body took a few deep breaths and she began to uncurl and started to look at the picture in the office again.

Jungian and SE Techniques Complement One Another

After a few minutes of settling, another pendulation in her autonomic nervous system began. Her heart rate began elevating and her breath quickened. I could see her clothing moving with her increased cardiac rhythm; I heard and saw her respiration increase. She also reported this to me as sensory experiences in her body. In my physiological interpretation, she had moved into a state of sympathetic arousal and action potential. I asked her what she saw and she answered that she could see the image of herself running from the harpies again. I asked her to focus on the image of herself running in the dream. Through Jung's technique of active imagination, we titrated (an SE™ term meaning “working slowly within a manageable range”) the image of the imminent threat, in this case the harpies. I asked her if there was something that might stall the harpies, so that she could run into the cave for safety.

“I want a shimmering green force field between me and the harpies,” she said.

“Great,” I replied, then added: “Before you run into the cave, is there any way you would like to change it?”

“Yes, I want a much larger cave to hide inside,” She answered. “I want the walls to be smooth instead of rough. I want a little lantern. Oh, and the ‘me' in the dream liked the harpies behind the force field. But it's making them wail louder now.”

“Even though you can hear them protest, does it feel okay to enter into the image of you running? You have somewhere to run that feels better. You can either watch yourself like you're on TV or you can put yourself in your body in the image. See if you can feel your muscles engaging, here and now, as you see yourself. Feel the power of the need along with the ability to run.” I gave her time to connect to the image and her sensations. Her sympathetic nervous system began to reengage without the dorsal vagal shut down. Her heart rate and breathing rate increased, her hands and feet were moving slightly, and her face was flushed.

Through active imagination she was able to explore the feeling of her flight response with excitement rather than fear. After a few silent minutes a gentle musculoskeletal trembling began throughout her whole body. I noted to her that this was her body releasing stress; it was great that she was letting it move through. This discharge could also be looked at as a neurogenic and physiological state change, from high sympathetic arousal— in preparation for fight and flight— to neuromuscular action and biochemical completion.

The movements in her arms and legs stopped. She informed me: “I am in the cave now. I am safe.” Her body took a deep breath. The trembling subsided. The expansion in her torso was visible. Her body also had much more contact with the couch.

I asked: “Now that you feel safe, what sensations do you notice in your body?”

“I feel smooth and peaceful here,” she said gesturing to her chest and heart.

“Hmmmmm,” I responded, concurrently enjoying a pleasant openness in my own bodily experience. “Take all the time you need to enjoy that.” As she enjoyed the smooth sensation, I took the time to regulate my own body and to feel the openness that I was experiencing. I believe that sensing our own bodies and regulation during sessions greatly increases our own clinical resilience and is imperative to reduce burn out and compassion fatigue.

Revisiting the Dream's Images

After some time she reoriented and was alert. We still had half an hour left in our session. If she were a client with complex PTSD, I would have stopped here, waiting until our next session to reengage the nightmare images. But I knew Angie's nervous system well enough to feel that we could finish exploring the last relevant image in the dream. “Let's become curious about the harpies,” I suggested.

“That's hard,” she said. “I am scared of them. But I guess I am not feeling quite as scared with my force field— and being here in the cave. I guess I can look at them.”

“I wonder what it might be like to put yourself in the position of the harpy,” I offered. “Is she tortured, crazed, or wild? What is her motivation? What does she want? Remember this is a part of you just as much as the ‘you' image in your dream. Let's let this ‘part' express itself.”

Angie thought a moment then said: “Well, she's hungry. And she's desperate. She needs to eat the world. Nothing feels like it will satisfy her. And you know what? She's so angry and desperate.”

I considered this. “Once you realize how angry and desperate she is, and once you pull it apart from chasing ‘you' in the dream, how do you feel about her?”

“I feel kinda sorry for her actually.”

“Have you had times in your life where you felt like the harpy?” We spoke about relevant memories and tracked some elements of SIBAM (SE's principles of sensation, image, behavior, affect, and meaning). We circled around to how angry the harpy felt. I asked: “As you talk about anger how do you experience anger in your body right now?”

“It's not a feeling I know how to feel much,” she admitted.” Sometimes I know I should feel it, but I really don't have much access.”

I tilted my head empathetically (a common gesture for me) and responded: “So, now as you allow yourself to connect with anger in the harpy, what sensations do you notice in your body?”

She paused and went inward with her awareness, feeling comfortable enough to close her eyes. “I feel a knot, like a fist, in my stomach. And some heat upwards. My heart feels tight but fast. It is anger but I also feel like I want to cry.”

“Like the desperation?” I wondered out loud.

“Yeah,” she said quickly.

“This is important, I think,” I told Angie. “Being able to feel anger and know when there is something that doesn't feel right— something that we need to change, or share with others, so that ultimately we can reconnect— this is an important skill to have. Would it be okay to welcome anger? Or welcome what the harpy may be trying to teach you?”

She smiled: “Well, it would be good to be able to tell my boyfriend a few things.”

I smiled back. “So can you just be with the sensations of anger in your body; be welcoming, curious? Can you allow your body to contain and feel it so the next time you notice the tightness in your belly, you can ask yourself: ‘Am I angry right now? Is there something I need that I am not expressing or acting upon?'”

Angie paused and directed her attention inward for quite some time. When she opened her eyes she said: “I am not afraid of the harpies any more. They have become my friends. I think I can come out of the cave.”

“Let yourself imagine that,” I said.

Her breath was deeper and she was feeling an integrative sense of peace.

When the moment seemed right, I said: “I am noticing the time, and we have just a few minutes left. Is there anything you want to say before we come to a close?”

She looked around the room. “No, just thank you. Something feels different.”

“Thank you for sharing,” I answered. And then: “Watch your dreams.”

* * *

Dream work in SE can be transformative. Angie's nightmare might have been connected to any of her past traumas: experiences of inescapable attack, failure of physical defense, medical trauma, developmental trauma, or even to overwhelming experiences she had not yet identified. However, she didn't need to go into her history to feel her body come out of frozen terror into an empowered, protective experience. Her body felt agency and empowerment returning. She was able to access an empathy for her rage and begin to form a felt sense of relationship with affect (feelings and emotions) that had been cut off. Much of our future work focused on Angie's reconnection to healthy aggression. She was able to sense her anger and to respond appropriately rather than freeze or reflexively retreat. Her interpersonal relationships improved and she felt more confident and motivated. When Angie finished counseling we had worked together for a year and she had met her goals.

“Remember the harpies?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“THEY work for ME now.” She smiled and I felt a sense of triumph, a warmth across my heart and torso, beaming outward.

Dr. Abi Blakeslee, CMT, MFT, PhD is a licensed marriage and family therapist and holds a doctorate in clinical and somatic psychology. She has conducted original research on the role of implicit memory in healing trauma. Abi focuses on giving students theoretical and practical experience on how to integrate Somatic Experiencing into various frameworks, such as traditional cognitive based psychology, medical occupations, psychodynamic psychotherapy, the psychobiological principles of attachment, touch and movement based therapies, and mindfulness practices.