Beyond Sandy Hook: How Somatic Experiencing Can Help Us Heal

by: FHE Admin

The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, remind us of the terror and uncertainty of trauma.

At the SE® Trauma Institute, we believe that with the right techniques and support, children, adults, and communities can begin to heal the effects of trauma. This page describes how the principles of Somatic Experiencing® (SE®) can be applied and how we can begin the healing process.

What Happens During Trauma?
It is important to understand the naturalness of our responses to traumatic experiences. Biologically, we have only a few ways to respond to overwhelming circumstances:

  • We can become hyper-aroused or constricted in our bodies, emotions, and thinking
  • We can dissociate, as if we're just not even there
  • We can numb ourselves to the point of feeling helpless and hopeless

We are born pre-wired with a process for recovering from these symptoms. Think of an animal in the wild: after surviving an attack, the animal may tremble, but will eventually go back about its business. As humans, we have those same circuits; the problem arises when our bodies cannot complete these natural processes. The incident becomes stuck in our wiring and our body.

Example: At Sandy Hook, children and adults had to hide while listening to terrifying sounds of gunshots. It's likely that impulses to run, to shout, to look to see what was happening— all strong, natural survival impulses— had to be contained or overridden, or were in direct opposition to equally natural survival impulses to hide, to freeze, to look away. These powerful impulses bring the body and nervous system into a terrible state of conflict, as if one foot is full on the gas and the other is on the brakes.

Without the chance to complete these intense physical reactions the body locks them in place, and this is when trauma symptoms can begin to develop.

How Somatic Experiencing® Works and How It Helps:
Maggie Kline, MS, LMFT, SE® Practitioner and faculty member, points to the premise of SE®:

“We believe that trauma is not in the event itself; it lies in the resiliency of the nervous system.  In other words, how quickly does the person who experienced the overwhelm bounce back, if at all?  This means that after the event is over, if the children or adults affected are still registering danger signals in their body, they may easily get stuck in a vicious cycle of fight, flight or freeze, become alternately hyper-vigilant or dissociated and aloof.  Either of these states may cascade into a myriad of symptoms, including sleeplessness, aggression, social problems, academic problems, and eventually, if unresolved, PTSD.”

It is important to understand that for many (especially children) talking about the event and re-living it may actually deepen the trauma and further cement it into the system. Watching or listening to media coverage, especially with graphic images, may have the same imprinting effect.

In Somatic Experiencing®, the Practitioner urges us not to follow the overwhelming and horrifying details of the story but instead to listen and watch for what the body needs to do to move out of the state of shock and distress. (Is a leg restless?  Perhaps there is an unfinished instinct to run.  Are the shoulders tight? Perhaps there is a self-protective instinct to push or fight causing tense muscles that need help to relax and let go, returning to the “pre-event normal.”)

The body wants to self-regulate and return to peace and balance. The SE® Practitioner helps us re-inhabit our bodies, often in tiny steps, allowing our bodies to move at their own pace and complete their natural processes. SE® offers the needed support to regain natural nervous system regulation.

What Should I Watch For?
Children of different age groups will show different kinds of symptoms. Children of elementary school age may:

  • Be unable to stop re-living the event
  • Have sleep disturbances or physical complaints
  • Behave in restless, fearful, or aggressive ways
  • Appear numb or “spaced out”
  • Show new academic or social problems
  • Be filled with worries about their friends or parents
  • Have fantasies of revenge

How Do I Learn More about Somatic Experiencing®?
Trauma-Proofing Your Kids by Peter Levine PhD, founder of Somatic Experiencing®, and faculty member Maggie Kline, MS, LMFT, is essential reading for parents, teachers, and caregivers— anyone who hopes to help a child through something like the shooting at Sandy Hook— or any number of other less-dramatic difficulties that children face every day. Peter and Maggie show you how to develop your own calming presence and offer detailed exercises you can use to help children become resilient and confident.

This book and many other resources are available online at the SE® Trauma Institute's bookstore: http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/bookstore_all.html

You can also use our site to locate a professional trained in Somatic Experiencing® and find further information about this gentle and profoundly healing work. You can visit us at: www.traumahealing.com.

click to download PDF formatClick here to download a PDF of this article:

The Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and outreach organization dedicated to the worldwide prevention of trauma. The Institute's mission is to provide outstanding professional development programs to train qualified, compassionate, and caring SE® practitioners. The Institute supports outreach to under-served populations and victims of violence, war, and natural disasters.


Comments (6)
  1. Kris Downing

    The book, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, would be an excellent read for a campus based book-club, for faculty to read a chapter at a time and then come together to discuss it. What an amazing way for a school to support healing for all kinds of trauma in their student body (as well as build essential co-regulation skills for teachers).

  2. Shawna Rudnisky

    I have read Peter Levine’s book, ‘Healing Trauma; A Pioneering Program for restoring the Wisdom of your Body’ and even wrote a blog based on it; http://shawnarudnisky.blogspot.ca/2012/11/what-is-trauma.html His book helped me work through trauma I was experiencing from a car accident I was in with my 4 month old daughter.

    I was an elementary school teacher, but since the end of my mat leave a year and ½ ago I’ve been running a small daycare in my home. I have purchased his book ‘Trauma-Proofing Your Kids’ to educate myself on how trauma can effect children, but I have just begun to read it. I think every teacher, parent, and anyone who has ever been in a traumatic experience would greatly benefit from reading his books!

    S. Rudnisky

  3. “Trauma-Proofing Your Kids” is a must-read for all parents and should be a mandatory read for all teachers. What I loved about the book were all the techniques and exercises that can be applied to adults. As an SEP who work mostly with adults, I constantly find myself returning to it as a great resource book.

  4. Francis Console LMFT

    Some of our returning Marines and Navy Corpsmen, having experienced combat-related traumatic events have transferred their pain onto family members, the most impressionable being their kids. This is complicated by their original familyunresolved issues. We treat the troops and refer out the family members; there are ample choices around here to serve everyone, but, that said it is not easy to keep track of everyone; privacy, sheer volume, etc. We do the best we can. Everyone can be helped.

  5. felicity fernandes

    Wish it was available to body workers in South Africa.

  6. There is no question that trauma involves devastating physical and emotional damage and treating trauma sometimes can be an emotional process.
    A traumatic event is one that is so emotionally or physically stressful that it swamps your coping abilities, leaving you feeling isolated, helpless and vulnerable. However trauma is also a subjective experience which means that each person will be affected to varying degrees. Your reaction to a trauma is what determines how the situation will affect you from a psychological standpoint, as well as from a physical standpoint.

Leave a Reply

In Crisis?