A head-on motorcycle collision in Thailand sent Corey Costanzo, co-owner of Still Point Wellness, on an unexpected journey. “It was the middle of the night, and another motorcycle veered into my lane. It was really scary,” Costanzo recalls. “The other guy died.”
To make things more frightening, unlike in the United States where one is innocent until proven guilty, in Thailand people must prove their innocence.
This life-changing traumatic event catapulted Costanzo on his personal healing journey and an exploration into the mind-body connection. He earned an Master of Fine Arts in somatic psychology and eventually landed at the Esalen Institute in California, where he worked for six years. There, Costanzo met Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., founder of Somatic Experiencing, a body-awareness approach to healing trauma.
Somatic Experiencing practitioner Malissa Turney first met Levine in 2002, when he came to Asheville to do a workshop in Somatic Experiencing for professionals. As an MFA graduate in psychology, Turney was working in a medical setting at the time, doing behavioral medicine. She was helping patients manage conditions such as chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, diabetes and asthma. But the traditional approaches felt limited. “It wasn’t reaching the depths of what was going on with them,” Turney says.
Impressed with Levine’s technique, she joined the SEP training program the following year. “For many years, the body was left out of psychological treatment, but the mind and body are not separate,” Turney says, “I knew this was what I had to do.”
“I didn’t realize I had trauma when I started the Somatic Experiencing training,” says practitioner Bonnie Freestone. “But I soon realized how much my nervous system was ‘dis-regulated’ and I had to work through it.” According to Freestone, trauma is defined by the nervous system and how the body responds to any given event.
Trauma can mean different things to each individual and is very subjective. “One person may find someone screaming at them to be trauma,” Costanzo says, “whereas another person with what we tend to call ‘thicker skin’ may not think anything of it.”
Part of this lies in our individual resilience; some of us may be pre-disposed to trauma, he explains. How our nervous system was shaped by primary caregivers plays a role. Also, our individual circumstances prior to an event can weaken our resilience. Someone who is already going through a difficult divorce who then gets into an automobile accident may experience more trauma. “Trauma adds up in the system,” Freestone explains. “With trauma, normal defense responses go offline.”
“Levine defined trauma as anything that’s too much too fast,” Turney says, “It can set up a hyper-vigilant response.” Suddenly the client is caught in a loop, feeling there’s a threat and looking for that threat all the time.
Unlike traditional talk therapy, a Somatic Experiencing session may include periods of silence or guided imagery.
“There tends to be a lot more space and quiet because it’s about focusing inward,” Freestone explains, “The practitioner creates the container so clients can feel support, nurturing and comfort as they explore their inner world.”
“When the practitioner is working with someone, they’re looking at what’s actually happening in the person’s nervous system,” Turney explains, “For example, they may be breathing faster when they talk about a certain topic.” The practitioner tracks micromovements in the body, which may be unconscious to the client.
Costanzo explains that Levine studied animals in the wild, noticing that when animals escape from a predator they tremble afterward, their whole body shaking. Then they would walk away. But humans tend to keep that energy locked in their body, he says. In one session Costanzo’s body started shaking as he relived the accident under Levine’s guidance, finally releasing the trapped emotion.
“Somatic Experiencing is a body-centered approach where we slow down the present-moment awareness,” Turney says, “It helps the system remember it can function in a way that’s more engaging of flow circuits, which involves the brain.”
Costanzo explains that Levine would slow the traumatic event down — almost frame by frame going over what happened. But at any sign of disregulation, Levine would then stop and have the client track his body, pausing and regulating before continuing. In this way the nervous system builds resiliency.
“It’s so exciting to see people come out of defensive responses that they may have overridden for years,” Turney says. Those recovering from trauma often assume that hypervigilance, where everything feels threatening, offers them safety. But it’s actually safer to have a relaxed and settled nervous system that can help one differentiate when something is really wrong. Part of Somatic Experiencing is learning to listen to body cues as opposed to the so-called rational mind. “When it comes to survival and healing, the midbrain, or mammalian brain, is a lot smarter than the frontal lobes, or thinking brain,” Turney says.
Costanzo has one more year of training to become an official SEP, but he practices Somatic Work and teaches Somatic Psychology. Often, a therapist will refer a client to him who has hit a wall with talk therapy. “Allowing space for a client to pay attention to anxiety can open up a different relationship with anxiety,” Costanzo says. “Spontaneous insights may arise.”
All of these practitioners admit this technique is not for everyone, but many clients seem to enjoy it. “Trauma is such a scary word,” Freestone says. “But there’s a way in which this work is so gentle and effective. People are surprised by how nice it is to actually be in their bodies.”
Turney agrees: “What I love about this approach is that all bodies have a blueprint for health and want to return to health. It’s more of a curious approach, encouraging one to connect with the world in a more present and aware way.”
For Costanzo, the healing effects are apparent. “My body used to get tense just navigating a curved road, but now I can drive without that happening.”