A traumatic experience can be reactivated by exposure to a “fight, flight, or freeze” situation. Traumatic stress symptoms in the sympathetic nervous system may manifest as hyperarousal, constriction, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, cold sweats, tingling, muscular tension, chronic pain, inability to sleep or relax, anxiety or panic, mania, rage outbursts, hypervigilance, racing thoughts, and/or worry. Over-activation of the parasympathetic nervous system may manifest as disconnection, low energy, exhaustion, numbness, low muscle tone, poor digestion, low heart rate, low blood pressure, poor immune system function, depression, dissociation, apathy, disconnection in relationships, and/or underresponsive behavior. These symptoms are not ideal, of course, and some may incontrovertibly deter any treatment plan, not to mention make the experience even more miserable for the patient.2,4

In the current model for healing trauma, trauma itself is viewed as a natural and normal part of life, not a mistake, disease, or aberration. Medical professionals can use SE to frame cancer as an internal threat; teach and normalize the fight, flight, or freeze response; and identify potential triggers for the nervous system. Treatments such as radiation or anesthesia are potentially perceived as both medicine and danger, and so patients tend to immobilize and enter freeze states, when they cannot effectively fight or flee their own body.  Clinicians need to help patients destigmatize reactions based in human wiring, for example the desire to run from the doctor’s office, and understand that these reactions are normal.1 SE attempts to connect the patient to their body and bring them back to the “here and now” of where they are located — not in any trauma inducing experience. 


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One example of an SE method is sensation tracking. With sensation tracking, the patient is asked to describe what they are feeling or experiencing at that moment, where in their body they are feeling the sensation, and encourages them to describe the sensation they are experiencing as much as possible. This therapy is informed by these other biologically based, trauma-informed skills:

  • Grounding (sensory)
  • Resourcing (pain calls louder than pleasure; noticing neutral and pleasant sensations)
  • Pausing (slowing, interrupting)
  • Titration
  • Pendulation (between awareness of ease/disease, natural, prompt when “stuck”)

Body-trauma reactivation can be prevented. Some things patients can do to prevent or lessen their re-experiencing of trauma symptoms include:

  • Support oneself through touch
  • Reach out to resources and support services
  • Notice what is normal or pleasant
  • Locate bodily, felt sense sources (eg, Where do you feel the least itchy? or What part of you is most settled right now?) and external ones (eg, a stone in your pocket, a painting on the wall)
  • Practice corrective experiences: competent protectors exercises (eg, focus on “good” doctors/nurses, successful past procedures); utilize support system. 
  • Practice principles that restore balance

Utilizing some of these tools in combination may significantly affect cancer patients’ radiation treatment experiences in a positive way. The effects of SE treatment are far reaching and may be effective in treating other illness that are linked to experience of trauma, as well.1


Author’s note As part of an oncology social worker training event conducted at CancerCare‘s New York City offices, Scott A. Whipple, LCSW, and Valerie Linet, LCSW, gave oral presentations on Somatic Experiencing. They spoke about the relevance of SE in the treatment of cancer. I referred to their oral presentations abundantly in this article. For more information or access to Somatic Experiencing services, oncology nurses can contact Valerie Linet, LCSW-R SEP, at Oncology Support Program, HealthAlliance Hospital (845-339-2071 ext 101). For information regarding her private practice, Ms Linet can reached by phone at 845-418-3118 or by email at [email protected]

Additional information about trauma is available at www.traumahealing.org. 


References

1. Linet V. Finding ease and inner balance: SE tools for cancer support. Oral presentation at: CancerCare Staff Development Training; May 12, 2017; New York, NY.

2. Whipple SA. Intro to Somatic Experiencing. Oral presentation at: CancerCare Staff Development Training; May 12, 2017; New York, NY.

3. Levine PA. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2010.

4. van der Kolk B. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Group; 2014.