“I came from a psychoanalytic background,” Maureen Gallagher, an S.E. practitioner, trainer and client, told me, recalling her doctoral education, her early practice and the 13 years of Jungian analysis she herself went through. “My analysis was very, very successful. I understood myself better, I understood my upbringing. But I still had anxiety, I still had panic attacks.” She sensed something missing in her treatment. “I regularly asked my analyst, ‘What about this body that I live in?’ And being a good analyst, he would say, ‘Why don’t you talk about it?’” She came to believe that because he worked in the realm of words and the intellect, he couldn’t take her where she needed to go. “The neocortex” — the frontal area of our brains associated with complex cognition — “can disconnect us from the primacy of being,” Gallagher says. From S.E., she learned that her body contains harbors of calm and can manage her anxiety, that “I am the space that is big enough for all of this.”
The basic ideas behind somatic therapy have become most widely known, nowadays, through the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score.” After a few years in the Top 15 on The Times’s paperback best-seller list, it soared to No. 1 during the pandemic and has stayed around there ever since. It has sold over three million copies globally and teaches that our “trauma is encoded in the viscera.” The book features van der Kolk’s work with capital-T trauma sufferers — combat veterans, rape victims, people severely abused in childhood — yet it seems to have caught on among readers whose trauma is lowercase and more universal: the failings of parents, the emotional batterings, the fears and feelings of isolation that life inevitably brings. In explaining our psychological troubles, van der Kolk highlights the role of what can loosely be labeled the primal regions of the brain, along with that of the body. Elaborate human responses are linked to underlying, animalistic fight-or-flight instincts. The book has a certain kind of romantic appeal; it restores us to the natural world, to the animal kingdom.
But while van der Kolk’s readership is vast, he is probably not the most essential figure in the somatic therapy movement. Peter Levine is the founder of Somatic Experiencing International, a training institute that, along with its affiliates, has graduated tens of thousands of practitioners, who have come from fields as diverse as addiction treatment, acupuncture and the clergy, as well as traditional therapy. Levine, who has doctorates in medical biophysics and psychology, began to develop S.E. in the late 1960s, as he pursued his biophysics Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, and as he taught at the Esalen Institute, a New Age retreat center in Big Sur. (Pat Ogden, who started out as a yoga and dance teacher, and whose sensorimotor psychotherapy technique is similar to Levine’s approach, also has claim to the movement’s formative ideas. And beyond modern credit for its concepts, somatic therapy owes a debt to timeless practices like mindfulness and meditation.) Each year, rising numbers of students complete S.E.’s program. Based on first-quarter figures for this year, annual applicants for training have more than doubled since 2020. Van der Kolk’s best-seller-dom and Levine’s legion of new practitioners speak to a current yearning for the holistic.
Levine, who has feathery silver hair and, at 81, a voice at once resonant and slightly frail, told me about a series of revelations early in his career. One realization was inspired in part by Nikolaas Tinbergen, a Dutch biologist, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his study of the relationship between external stimuli and innate animal behavior. In his Nobel speech, he veered toward human topics. He spoke of “psychosocial stress” and inadequate “adjustability.” Levine soon sought out Tinbergen’s counsel and then hit upon what became one of S.E.’s crucial lessons, derived from innate animal responses.
Under extreme threat, some animal species will freeze, playing dead. It’s their final ploy as a predator is about to kill them. And if somehow, as occasionally happens, the prey is passed over and survives, if, say, the cheetah becomes distracted from the gazelle lying immobile on the ground and leaves the scene, the gazelle quivers violently for a short while before getting to its feet, its body quaking spasmodically before it bounds away.
We watched an example of this quaking in a video during the training I participated in. Biologists had taken the video from their helicopter as they chased a polar bear, who fled in terror across the snow. From the chopper, the bear was shot with an anesthetic so the biologists could examine it, and when the animal woke, it contorted for long seconds before running off into its white habitat. To my unexpert eyes, the writhing looked excruciating, but according to Levine, such contortions are the animal’s healthy way of expelling the dire stress of being stalked. The animal shudders and returns to a perfectly functional life. As for us humans, our bodies store plenty of fear and despair, rage and helplessness, shame and a host of other debilitating emotions, whether stemming from capital-T or quotidian trauma, but we lack the reflexive outlet. Our trauma gets stuck within. S.E. is about giving us the means of release.
Levine’s foundational logic contains a major leap. He assumes that the animal shakes off mortal trouble and hurries away in good health. But for all we know, it has terrible PTSD and its health is merely our wishful projection. There’s also a much bigger imaginative leap within S.E.’s origin story. As Levine worked on his biophysics dissertation about stress and on his formulation of S.E., he was encouraged, in Berkeley, by Albert Einstein. Though Einstein had been dead for almost 20 years, he sat down with Levine and engaged him in weekly Socratic dialogues, helping him develop his thoughts over the course of a year, at Levine’s favorite restaurant, the Beggar’s Banquet. There, Levine insisted that the waitress bring Einstein a bowl of the same soup Levine was having, always “a green vegetable purée,” he recalled nostalgically.