Physical and emotional trauma after the quake

Touching into Channels of Healing and Transformation

by Efu Nyaki on April 27, 2012

[Editor’s note: in March we published Dennis Moorman’s account of the amazing work he and a team of SEPs conducted in Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake. Here we share another account of the work, adding further dimension to the positive impact of Somatic Experiencing® worldwide.]

I recently returned from Haiti where I went for trauma healing work with victims of the 2010 earthquake. We were a team of three people: Dennis Moorman, SEP, Father Romane St. Vil, M.M., and me. For the month of our most recent visit to Haiti, we attended 218 persons. Our chosen method was Somatic Experiencing, as developed by Dr. Peter Levine. SE® not only helps to heal trauma, but also empowers each individual to be in touch with self, recognizing one’s own inner power in order to transform and change life situations. The reality for the majority of the Haitian people is one of extreme poverty and desperation for survival. This has created a total dependency on the outside for help. This situation was not just created by the earthquake that hit Haiti over two years ago, but rather has a long and complicated past.

Haiti has a chronic history of misery and poverty that was created, in part, as a result of many years of oppressive slavery, colonization, neo-colonization, a corrupt political system, and destruction of many of the country’s natural resources. Most Haitian people are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence. Many live with communicable diseases like cholera. There is a severe lack of infrastructure, little or no formal education, and poor employment opportunities. It was an especially big challenge for us to meet people who hoped to receive basic needs like water, food, clothing, and medicine— while we lacked means to fulfill those needs.

Our main objective in using Somatic Experiencing was to stay present with each person encouraging her/him to be in touch with her/his own body, feelings, power, and sense of imagination that goes beyond lived reality. Somatic Experiencing is an art of healing that invites individuals to be present to their bodily sensations. By doing so, the traumatic energy trapped in their nervous systems is liberated, allowing it to reorganize itself, and in this way each body finds its own healing. When this process happens, each individual gains the resilience that opens up the channels and possibilities for new life. In other words, individuals begin to recognize the resources within and around them. This, in turn, gives them the confidence that they will be able to overcome their own difficult realities. It is all based upon the conviction that we are a channel for the transformation of our own reality.

Haitian childrenOne good example is the story of a 43 year old woman who had lost her husband in the earthquake. She was left with five kids to care for on her own. She herself was very badly injured— by the crumbling wall of their own house, which they also lost. After the earthquake, she was admitted to the local hospital with two broken knees and two broken collarbones. It was three months before she could walk. The hospital successfully treated her knees and the right collarbone, but her left side could not be treated. She told me that when she sleeps her left collarbone slides from one side to another and covers her throat, interfering with her breathing. So she is limited to sleep on only one side of her body. This traumatic situation has been causing her extreme physical and emotional pain, desperation, and a fear of facing life again.

In our first session, she sat with her body curved over, expressing a lot of fear in her eyes. She looked for ways to run away even though she had no energy to do so. Apart from her frequent severe pain, she also complained of hunger. She had not yet eaten any food that day (we met at 11:00 AM). Since our approach to trauma healing is to encourage people to get in touch with their own will power and other resources within themselves, I had to explain that I did not have any material goods (including money) with which to help her.  I told her that the only resource that we had at this particular moment was her own body plus my active presence with a compassionate heart.

After one session of Somatic Experiencing, encouraging her to be present to her bodily sensations, the healing started to happen through the discharge of the excess survival energy that was trapped in her nervous system. After a few minutes of shaking and energy release, her body started to straighten up and she looked more comfortable in her chair. She also reported that most of the pains that she was experiencing when she entered the room were almost gone. On this note, we spent some time noticing some of the new sensations of feeling good that she was experiencing in her body. When we ended the session I advised her to take with her the good feelings that she discovered within herself. I also used her own experience to remind her that even though there are a lot of painful sensations in her body, there is also room for positive sensations so she should take time to enjoy the sensations of feeling good. We agreed on her coming back to see me again three days later.

When she came back for the second session there was a shift in her body posture, emotions, and thoughts. Apart from her physical body changes, her ways of thinking and behaving had also changed. She told me with a calm voice: “Now I have hope for the future.” She was now able to imagine and dream different possibilities that could change her reality. She moved from being victim-minded to having a hopeful outlook for the future. Interestingly enough, she told me about the day following our first session: she had felt so good that she woke up early, went to the market to buy and resell vegetables, the kind of work that she had done for a living before the earthquake. She was able to earn some extra money and bought enough food for her family that day.

She then said to me: “I really feel good as I know that with my own strong faith I will overcome all of the obstacles.” We ended the session and there was a beautiful smile on her face. The energy continued unfolding as our translator announced that he was also very moved by the healing process. He offered to talk to a doctor friend of his to look into the possibility of getting corrective surgery for her collarbone.

This reminds me of the way Dr. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, describes the healing process. In his study guide he writes:

“Healing trauma can be likened to the process of physical birth. The healing journey drops us into virtual birth canals of consciousness. From these vantage points, we can position ourselves to be propelled into the stream of life. … Transformation looks very different from symptomatic relief. When one successfully heals trauma, a fundamental shift occurs in one’s being as the nervous system regains its capacity for self regulation.” – Healing Trauma: Restoring the Wisdom of the Body, p. 11

We had many other similar examples of healing as we worked in different communities throughout Haiti. We all left with a renewed hope for transformation and a better future, saying good-bye to a group of thirty volunteers whom we had trained to carry forward this work throughout Haiti.

Efu Nyaki

The author, Sister Euphrasia “Efu” Nyaki, MM, SEP, is a Maryknoll Sister and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. She works with AFYA, a women’s holistic healing center in João Pessoa, Brazil, which she helped to found in 2000. She is also a faculty member of the Somatic Experiencing Institute in Brazil.

Photos from the video “Maryknoll in Haiti: The Need Is Greater Than Ever,” courtesy Dennis Moorman

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Eating as a Path to Yoga April 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm

It is so interesting to read about the use of Somatic Experiencing in a variety of contexts. Such powerful work!


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