Behind the Scenes with Depression 

If you work as a therapist, doctor or body worker, you may have had clients struggling depression.  You may have a friend or family member that can't seem to come out of a deep slump.  From the outside,  they appear to passively accept that they will never be happy or that bad things will inevitably happen to them.  


You may feel a little discouraged trying to help.  If you work with clients, you may even start to question your calling as a helper.

  • What if you came to understand the underlying problem that their nervous system was trying to solve?
  • What if you could find a way to cooperate with their innate Organic Intelligence®?
  • What if you could "see behind the curtain," recognizing how the body may be trying to solve an entirely different problem than the one you, your client  or family member are focused on?


Most of us intuitively try to motivate the depressed person. We attempt to add energy,  in the same way that we would attempt to fill up a car that's running on empty.  


Either the client or friend becomes dependent on their weekly "fill up," or we watch them drift away as they get discouraged by our well-intentioned efforts to help them.

  • What if you could attune to the client's nervous system state, and help them create a different outcome by understanding what their physiology is trying to accomplish?


Both of you might feel better with your connection. This feeling better might go beyond just feeling hopeful, or less troubled, but actually be a sustainable physiological state of greater ease and well-being.


Discoveries in Somatic Therapy Research


Dr. Peter Levine's research has uncovered exciting new ways to help our clients.  He created Somatic Experiencing® to share these discoveries which can help transform the way you practice psychotherapy and/or bodywork, and just be with people who struggle with melancholy feelings.  You may be surprised at his discoveries:

  • The Freeze State, which is thought to underlie depression, is actually the highest state of activation in the nervous system, higher than anxiety, panic, or even chronic pain.
  • Paying attention to the "Trauma Vortex," which causes us to strengthen our focus on what's wrong, can limit forward movement
  • Attending primarily to thoughts and emotions, without also seeing the underlying function of the nervous system, misses the origin of the problem. It's a bit like examining the caboose on a train to see what's blocking the train from moving forward.


Read on to learn more about how these three critical shifts in our understanding can support better results for your loved ones, clients or patients.


The Freeze State


Freeze behavior includes death feigning, or "playing dead," a common survival response in the animal kingdom.


For example, when a cat plays with a mouse, the mouse Black cat may become completely limp, and appear to be dead. The cat bats the mouse around for a while, but eventually becomes bored and loses interest. Uninjured, the mouse springs back to life returning to her nest rejoining her family and community. This freeze response gives prey animals an important survival strategy in situations that would otherwise spell certain death.


In the animal kingdom, this time-limited freeze response serves a noble purpose, allowing animals to survive.  


In modern life, however, we face double binds, unsolvable dilemmas which cause our nervous system to respond as if we were in mortal danger when we are not physically at risk. As it was designed to do, when our nervous systems gets a signal of inescapable danger, it shuts down.  It will enter  the potentially lifesaving freeze response.


If we can't get to safety, stop the pain, or find a way through stress, it is possible to get stuck in the shut down state and become chronically depressed.


Freeze Responses in the Dentist's Chair


If you've ever had challenging dental procedures, you may be familiar with this state.


Imagine sitting in a dental chair, having just been injected with epinephrine-laced lidocaine. You're tipped nearly upside down, gripping the armrests while people in masks do things that may hurt you. Your heart may be racing, your muscles may be tense, and yet you feel frozen.  

You know you can't move or the drill might slip.  You may have passing thoughts about escaping to your car or calling out for help, even though you know that you're safe.  


When the procedure finally finishes, you may feel spacey, or out of sync with yourself.  


If you've ever experienced anything like this, then you've felt the influence of the freeze state.


What clients in the freeze need more of is:

  • A lot of space and time for processing, so they can sense inside themselves
  • Respect for the unique needs of their nervous system
  • Fewer questions, suggestions or need for interaction.
  • Support for slowly "thawing out" of their freeze, and the space to finish the incomplete process that may have blocked their physiology from feeling alive.


What clients may receive instead is:

  • Cognitive strategies for managing symptoms
  • Sympathy or pity
  • Motivation or energy added to a system that is already overwhelmed by too much activation
  • Condemnation from family and friends for being "unmotivated"


None of these are helpful for the freeze state.


Cliff Comes Out of Freeze

One of the therapists here at Portland Somatic Therapy had a surprising response when she met depression in a new and different way. Here's a example of a guy we'll call Cliff:


Cliff came in feeling very discouraged and depressed. He was focused on what was wrong, fearing he would lose his job if he couldn't pull out of his downward slide. He had difficulty thinking, formulating plans, or even making simple choices.  


Traditional cognitive therapy had not helped.   He spoke slowly, in a monotonic voice, head down, slumped in the chair. After seeking consultation from another somatic therapy practitioner, I tried what seemed like a crazy idea: I made myself slow down, so slow that it felt like Neo in slow motion shooting scene in the movie The Matrix.


I started to speak in what seemed like an impossibly slow rate.   It felt so odd, I was sure Cliff was going to laugh at me or feel like I was making fun of him. But to my amazement, he took in what I was saying for a few moments, and then he began to speak at twice his normal rate.  He was coming out of his shell for the first time!


It was as if my slowing down allowed his nervous system to feel met, creating a biological sense of safety.  Once he felt safe, his nervous system  could deactivate out of the freeze state. And our therapy sessions improved markedly after this surprising discovery!


The Trauma Vortex


We don't need help to focus on what's wrong!  


Our brains immediately assess dangers and threats in our environment. Trauma primes us to overgeneralize threats, seeing even benign or relatively safe environments as threatening.


Focus on suffering actually disorganizes the nervous system, leaving us vulnerable to further stress and potentially re-traumatization. When clients or loved one head to the heart of their trauma, they may feel more tense and hopeless, which makes it difficult for us to help them create a new outcome. We have all felt at least moments of being pulled into the   downward spiral of hopeless thoughts.


Our training as professionals and cultural norms often reinforce these negative biases and focus on the Trauma Vortex.


What clients need more of from therapy & body work:

  • An embodied experience of ease and freedom from worry
  • The restoration of rhythm in their system, instead of the stuck states of chronic fight, flight or freeze
  • Support for tapping into their own Organic Intelligence®  developed by Steve Hoskinson
  • A strategically gentle engagement, that won't unduly stress their system or prime them for overwhelm
  • Access to the resource of healthy, non-addictive pleasure


What they may receive instead is:

  • Reinforcement for the addictive focus on the Trauma Vortex
  • Analysis of the content of negative thoughts and feelings
  • A focus on prior events; advice to re-experience and retell the "story"
  • Cognitive strategies to deal with overwhelm and thinking errors


John Gets the Biology of New Options

One of our Portland Somatic Therapy practitioners describes a shift that occurred while helping someone redirect their attention away from the single minded focus on  the Trauma Vortex. We'll call this client John.


As we sat down for our first session, I sensed the fear and discomfort John carried. He averted his gaze, and seemed aloof and subtly resentful of my presence.


He began listing the reasons he didn't belong in my office, asserting that he was only there because his wife "made" him make the appointment. "She was actually the problem," he said.


When I told him that I wasn't going to force him to talk about anything he didn't want to talk about, he took a deep sigh of relief.  His body got the message of safety and support.   


This deactivation started a cascade of nervous system settling throughout the session.  We explored topics that alternated between challenging aspects of life and things he liked or enjoyed.

This helps to re-establish the natural rhythm of or Organic Intelliegnce® .


He was relieved that I wasn't going to force him to talk about his relationship stresses.   He left that first session feeling better than he had in ages, prepared to start a new chapter in his life and in his marriage.


His system relaxed and opened up to new possibilities when he was supported to balance his attention between positive and negative.


Working withThe Body: The Missing Piece


If we don't focus on thoughts and emotions, what else is there?


Learning to see the nervous system in action gives us a wealth of information about the underlying state of those we are trying to help. Their underlying state has a strong influence on how they feel and even what they think.


What's happening in the body and autonomic nervous system has a powerful influence on how a person feels about their life.  Thoughts are sometimes the caboose on the train.


Stephen Porges, creator of the influential Polyvagal Theory, speaks of the inverted triangle the brain represents.  


The brain stem, at the bottom of that inverted pyramid that we call the brain, gets less notice than our thinking brain, the cortex.  The brain stem is like the airport, where virtually everything comes in and out. It's the foundation, upon which our conscious and unconscious experience rests.  When the brain stem is happy, everyone else is happy.  When the brain stem is primed for danger, every one is tense. 


Brain stem impulses give rise to a very wide variety of emotions and thoughts. Activation for example could feel like anxiety or excitement, which could trigger very different patterns of thought.   The opposite is not true: One thought, or one emotion, cannot generate a wealth of different physiological states.


Brain stem experiences,largely automatic, conditioned, and unconscious, will determine what's possible for us.   When we have a nervous system in a state of ease and relaxed readiness, we have many more options.  


It's the difference between being on a one-way street headed for one location, compared to a crossroads of richly inviting destinations.


Camelia Our ability to help clients and loved ones restore their intrinsic sense of ease and self-regulating capacity is the greatest gift we can give them. This restored capacity allows new things to happen, rather than the same thing continuing to happen over and over.


Mary Has A New Experience


One of the therapists here at Portland Somatic Therapy reflects on the importance of the body in the healing process. We'll call this client Mary.


Mary, a veteran of therapy, had been seeing therapists for many years. With the best of intentions, she meticulously monitored her troubling symptoms, which dominated her life. It made it difficult for something new to happen.  


She described her trauma history, speaking in disembodied and detached way.


Instead of examining the content of her history and experiences, we stopped to inquire directly into her bodily experience in the here and now.    


Things began to shift! What had previously felt stuck, and understandable only as distressing symptoms of anxiety and fear of abandonment, now began to show up as sensations in her body.


As she tracked these sensations, she started to feel anger., a new experience for her.  This lead to the completion of some of the self-protective responses.  


Empowerment began to replace powerlessness.   The hopelessness of being "too traumatized" to have a good life began to dissipate.




Working with the body and the nervous system can have real and immediate benefits to both our clients, loved ones and ourselves:

  • Clients learn that it's possible to feel better after sessions, and they don't have to feel overwhelmed in therapy
  • Clients can start to experience the sense of ease that comes from a regulated nervous system, rather than the temporary comforts of a managed mind
  • Clients can learn that change does not depend on sufferingSuffering can actually limit new possibilities
  • Helpers may feel energized at the end of the day
  • Helpers can feel the sense of mastery that comes from dialoging with the nervous system, watching as breath returns naturally and color comes back into the client's face
  • Helpers may also enjoy the gift of watching as ease and well-being return to people's lives, particularly those who might be thought to be beyond hope.


Learn More! 


If you'd like to learn more about these ground-breaking discoveries, check out our trainings and workshops.   


Portland will get it's very own  Somatic Experiencing® Training starting on February 27 - March 2, 2015


Is It Freeze?  or Depression? 
Tips To Help You, Your Clients and Loved Ones

Portland Somatic Therapy