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The 2016 Demo Group: Somatic Experiencing® and group psychotherapy

Thursday, May 26, 2016 6:00 AM | Melissa Kelly

Roger Saint-Laurent and Peter Taylor

Today we are continuing our series on NSGP 2016 Conference presenters, and we are lucky to have a guest post written by Peter Taylor and Roger Saint-Laurent who will be facilitating our full-day demo group experience. Here they are in their own words talking about what Somatic Experiencing® is, and what you can hope to learn from attending the demo group this year:

We’ve been invited to present this year’s NSGP Lecture and Demonstration Group on “SE-Informed Group Psychotherapy:  Moving beyond Trauma to Embodied Relationship.”  We will present a set of principles adapted from Somatic Experiencing (SE) that we find invaluable for deepening the work of group psychotherapy.  Members of the demonstration group will first meet privately with us for a workshop on Saturday, so they can join as a group and begin their exploration of this way of working, and will then continue their group work on Sunday as the demonstration group.

For those of you not familiar with SE, we thought it might be useful to share a little about it and forecast what you might experience if you join us for a taste of its application to group work.  And if what you read below piques your interest enough to consider joining the demonstration group, please contact us at nsgpdemogroup2016@gmail.com so we can talk about it!

About SE

“Trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event," writes Peter Levine, PhD.  Through forty-five years of observation, research, and clinical application, Dr. Levine has developed Somatic Experiencing®, a body-based approach taught throughout the world, which offers a new and hopeful perspective on trauma, recognizing that, like all mammals, human beings have an instinctual capacity to heal.  

Under perceived threat, most mammals react almost identically.  They automatically mobilize a tremendous amount of energy to enhance their chances of survival, releasing chemicals and hormones that increase strength, perception, stamina, and pain tolerance.  Once the threat has passed, or the animal has successfully escaped, the system returns to the pre-threat state.  Wild animals allow this organic process to occur without interruption. They reset the homeostasis in their bodies through gentle shaking or trembling, sweating, panting, or bucking.  Younger animals discharge by replaying the trauma, often many times, by play fighting, tumbling, and chasing.

Although humans possess regulatory mechanisms virtually identical to those in animals, these instinctive responses are often overridden or inhibited by our complex neo-cortices, our developmental histories, and our socialization.  This inhibition keeps the survival arousal trapped in the body, together with normative impulses for specific defensive or protective motor acts.  Since the organism is designed to respond to threat by fighting or fleeing, when these impulses are interrupted, the sympathetic nervous system stays primed and ready to react.  The body responds as if the trauma is still occurring and keeps the person in a state of constant readiness and unnecessary reactivity, leading to a constellation of familiar symptoms, including anxiety, panic, hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, emotional lability, depression, pain, patterns of bracing and collapse, cognitive dysfunction, behavioral problems, addictions, and an ongoing sense of intrusion and overwhelm.

SE offers a variety of gentle, somatically-based techniques designed to re-regulate these deep-seated disturbances in arousal.  Focusing not on content or story but instead starting with awareness of bodily sensation, individuals begin to access restorative action patterns, allowing the highly aroused survival energies to be safely and gradually neutralized in the neuromuscular and central nervous systems.  Thus, rather than changing behavior, SE works with the physiology, accessing the “motor” that drives these debilitating symptoms.  

For more information about Somatic Experiencing, with some treatment vignettes, check out this piece in Psychology Today written by Roger and our colleague Sharlene Bird:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-intelligent-divorce/201503/somatic-experiencing.

SE and Group

Over the last nine years, we’ve conducted many SE-related workshops and Institutes both privately and at AGPA and several of its affiliate societies, including NSGP.  Workshop participants have been uniformly impressed by the power of SE, and we’ve identified three major themes of SE-informed group psychotherapy.

We find that normalizing the inevitability of physiologically-driven survival responses can be enormously healing, even life-altering, for people who previously thought there was something wrong with them for having bodies that inevitably, under threat, do what bodies do—and now discover that help is available when their bodies have gotten “stuck” in patterns that are no longer necessary.

In addition, we notice that one person’s traumatic history can be more easily held and renegotiated in the interpersonal field of a reasonably safe, respectful, and concerned system of fellow group members; that work by individuals on their own traumatic patterns enables vicarious healing of similar patterns in other members; and that the capacity to manage arousal simultaneously increases both in the focused-on member and in others.  

Finally, we are constantly struck by the value of watching, from an SE perspective, as activation and overwhelm ebbs and flows in the here-and-now group interaction, at all levels:  the dyadic, the subgroup, and the group-as-a-whole.  Members come to recognize the immense value of tracking their own internal states and those of others, and of taking these cycles of activation and settling into account prior to attempting a piece of interpersonal work.  Coming out to meet another from a place of increased internal resiliency allows much more deeply-felt “moments of meeting,” of great value both to those directly engaged in the interaction and to those touched by the meeting of others, as can happen in a group.  And as group members practice what can be understood as good autonomic nervous system hygiene (compared to simply “being nice” or “avoiding conflict”), they develop more secure attachment patterns.  

In the SE-informed group, members begin to understand what supports the development of resiliency for each person and to take great satisfaction in each other’s growth—and in discovering that healthy interpersonal engagement can be among the most self-regulating and joyful of all human experiences.  We look forward to offering you the opportunity to discover the healing power of SE at the upcoming NSGP Annual Conference in June!

Peter J. Taylor and Roger Saint-Laurent are clinical psychologists, Certified Group Psychotherapists, and Somatic Experiencing® Practitioners in private practice in New York and Westchester.  They have assisted at thirty-eight SE trainings throughout the US and Canada and they offer ongoing training groups in SE-informed group psychotherapy as well as frequent workshops and Institutes at AGPA and its affiliate societies.  They have both served on the Board of Directors of the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute, and Peter is past-president of EGPS and a Fellow of AGPA.  More information about their work is available at www.drpetertaylor.com and www.drsaintlaurent.com.  Thanks to SETI and to Ariel Giarretto, SETI Senior Faculty, from whom some of the “About SE” part of this article is adapted.

Thanks to Roger and Peter for writing this article.  We look forward to seeing you at the conference! 

To register for this offering, and to see what else we have in store at this year's conference, click here!

Northeastern Society for Group Psychotherapy
P.O.Box 356 | Belmont, MA 02478

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