An Interview with George Lough, Ph.D., on Somatic Experiencing
David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: May 30th 2012
Clinical psychologist Dr. George Lough talks about an approach to trauma known as Somatic Experiencing. He says that trauma is really any experience, a life experience, that overwhelms the nervous system's capacity to deal with it. In the healthy nervous system throughout the day, there's kind of a cycle of arousal and relaxation. It looks like a gentle wave going throughout the day. And when you get kind of activated, the sympathetic nervous division of the autonomic nervous system's sympathetic comes into play and gives you energy and makes you responsive and able to do what you need to do. And then the parasympathetic takes over and you go into rest, digestion, sleep. And so that's the normal kind of way the nervous system is acting. If there's a traumatic experience or even just a difficult life experience -- even a child falling off of a bicycle or something like that can count in this. It can cause disruption in the nervous system regulation. So from the healthy regulation nervous system, this traumatic event comes in and it creates fear and anxiety, fear, and a sense that things are not okay, that you have to be on guard, you have to be careful, you have to be worried. And it can create a hyperviligance and a constriction, a feeling of helplessness like you talked about with the dogs. And so your nervous system tends to be stuck on or stuck off. People are in a freeze, and they can't respond. He believes this is a problem with traditional talk therapy because the therapist brings someone in who's in a freeze state, and then tries to make a relationship with them. They're not at the point where they can respond to empathy. The therapist thinks that insight, empathy are the most important aspects of a therapeutic relationship. And they're not even at the place where they can develop a relationship because they're stuck in this freeze state, and they are not in a trusting frame of mind. Dr. Lough says that Somatic Experiencing is not therapy, as it's not really talk oriented. He explains that you do talk, but it's not story oriented, where you're telling the linear narrative of what happened to you in a particular experience and because you back off as soon as there are signs of emotional arousal, and to bring the client back into their body, back into their breath, and to let their nervous system calm down. There's a release of tension and the psychologist lets them have that experience.
David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.
On today's show, we'll be talking with clinical psychologist Dr. George Lough about an approach to trauma known as Somatic Experiencing. George Lough, Ph.D., has been doing psychotherapy for over 40 years. He's a licensed psychologist and somatic experiencing practitioner in Studio City, California, seeing adults, families, and couples. He's been a lecture in psychology at California State University Northridge for 25 years, where he's taught large lecture classes and introduction to gerontology, motivation, industrial organizational psychology, parenting and child, adolescent, and lifespan development.
Dr. George coauthored the 1988 book, What Men Are Like, with Jungian analyst and Episcopal priest, John A. Sanford. Dr. George's psychotherapy interests, education, and training include Jungian, humanistic, object relations, life coaching, and most recently somatic experiencing. He's particularly interested in helping people heal their early developmental traumas and attachment wounds. Dr. George is a long-time surfer and enjoys the spiritual experience of raw nature provided by that challenging and invigorating sport. Now, here's the interview.
Dr. George Lough, welcome to Wise Counsel.
George Lough: Thank you.
David: Well, I'm particularly happy for us to get together here because you're one of those clinical psychologists who've been listening to my podcast interviews for some time, and that's always a thrill for me, so it's nice to have you on the other side of the MP3 player, if you will.
George Lough: It's nice to be here, and I will say I'm a little bit star struck after listening to so many of your podcasts and admiring the way you handle the questions with your guests and the information and your wide-ranging psychological interests.
David: Well, thank you very much for that. I'm blushing. Fortunately we're not on camera. Actually, I have such a dark complexion that I don't think anybody could see me blush. And speaking of podcasts, actually I listen to -- you've got some podcasts, or at least lectures, that you've put up on iTunes, and so I was able to listen to a presentation that you did on the topic that we're going to be discussing today, somatic experiencing. And so that was very useful to me in terms of being able to conceptualize our interview today. And beyond that, you and I are brothers of a sort because we both taught for many years in the California State University system. And you sent me a list of classes that you've taught over the years, and it's quite long and diverse.
George Lough: Yes. The reason it's quite long and diverse is I'm a part-time lecturer, and I've filled in on classes that they need to have taught, so it's been a tremendous opportunity to learn things I didn't even study in graduate school and then teach them.
David: Yeah, excellent. That is how we learn. And up here we refer to those part-timers as "freeway flyers," because often they're commuting between two or three colleges or universities, kind of putting together a teaching career. It's kind of a sad aspect of what academic life is these days.
George Lough: Yeah. I've got mine narrowed down to one place at Cal State Northridge now, but I know that routine, where I taught at four places in one day one semester.
David: Oh, boy.
George Lough: I'd go from place to place.
David: Yeah. Oh, boy. And as you know from listening to my podcast interviews, I do have wide-ranging interests, and so my résumé would look something like yours, also showing a very long list of classes taught over the years, not because I was teaching in different institutions, but just because I was able to kind of follow my nose and learn about different areas. But it led to sort of a constant state of high anxiety because I always felt like, "Oh, I could have been better prepared for this."
George Lough: Yes. I know what you're talking about, yeah.
David: Okay, well, we're going to be talking today about an approach to dealing with trauma that you've become very excited about. But before we go there, I know you, as we've just indicated, have a very rich background not only in terms of your teaching, but also with a number of therapeutic modalities. Maybe you can take us through those.
George Lough: Okay. Let me just tell you briefly my early history developmentally, because it connects to my learning these psychological theories.
George Lough: I grew up in a severely dysfunctional family. My parents weren't alcoholics. They were as close as you can get. And by the time I was a teenager, I'd kind of identified with what the Jungians call the shadow, and I was watching The Untouchables on television, and I was trying to -- you know, there weren't really gangs at the time in suburban Los Angeles in that -- where I lived, but I kind of connected up with some of the wrong people, and my father and I got in a big argument, and it turned out that I drove my car straight at him and then turned at the last second and missed him.
David: Oh, boy.
George Lough: And scared -- just scared him. He turned white as a sheet. Well, he called the police, and so I went through the juvenile system. I went to Juvenile Hall, and I was still identified with this character in The Untouchables you know, like kind of Al Capone kind of characters. And I thought, well, I'll just go to prison then. I'll show them. I'll show my parents. I'll show everybody.
And then while I was in Juvenile Hall, I had a kind of a -- now, as a psychologist, I know it was an anxiety attack, but at the time it just felt like the roof was caving in on me. And I realized, wait a minute, this isn't the life I'm destined to live. And so I talked to the probation officer and said, "I want to get an education. I want to do something with myself. And regardless of my family and their problems, I'm going to make something of myself."
He sent me to Boys Republic in Chino. I was only 17, I think, at the time. And there I was able to meet some tremendous teachers and people, and there was one fellow there who came on Sunday evenings and gave talks. And I thought, "I'd like to be like him." You know, he'd talk about philosophy, psychology, Buddhism, everything under the sun. And he was a professor at a junior college near by.
And after I got out of the institution there, I realized my family was still the same dysfunctional mess and I had changed. And so I started to -- I realized I've got to do something; I've got to call somebody, so I called our minister, who was an Episcopal priest. And I did not know this, but a few years before, he'd gone to Switzerland and had sessions with Carl Jung, and then he developed a little counseling center there in his church in Monrovia. In fact, one of your other guests, Richard Chachere, I think?
George Lough: I actually knew him also.
David: Chachere. Richard Chachere.
George Lough: Chachere, yes.
David: I always have trouble with that name.
George Lough: Yeah, me too, yeah. And I don't know him, but I know he knew Morton Kelsey. And so I started a counseling relationship with him. And he had me -- I was 18. He started -- had me reading Jung very early, and learning all about it. Then I went to college and graduate school in psychology, and at my graduate school, you could not mention anything about Jung.
David: Right. Same here.
George Lough: He was a mystic. He was crazy. He was unscientific, you know. They didn't think that he'd created the word association test, that he did some experimental research, but anyway -- so I didn't do that much there. I was mostly humanistic. So then I went into a formal Jungian analysis later and had that with John Sanford in San Diego.
David: Yeah, he's a big name in Jungian psychology.
George Lough: We ended up writing a book together late in my analysis with him, a book on masculine psychology, which was a real good experience. And then I realized, though, that that Jungian training and experience didn't address those early developmental issues enough. It was more about archetypal symbols, my dreams, and I had many issues from a very early age that needed to be worked through.
And so I went to object relations analysis with a person who really worked with the transference. It was a female therapist, so it helped me deal with my issues with my mother. That was very useful. Then, after that, I went to life coaching seminars with the person who did life coaching for Fortune 500 companies. And this was not therapy at all. You'd get in a group of 25 people, and he'd point at you and tell you what was wrong with you, you know? Almost like EST. I didn't ever go to EST, but something like that. But it was very useful for me, very helpful.
And then I discovered somatic experiencing, and the way I discovered it was -- well, my wife is kind of a catalyst for my psychological development. I'm characteristically pretty resistant to developing myself. I think, "I already know enough. I don't need that." So one of our friends brought this up, somatic experiencing, and she started talking about it. I thought, well, these people are body workers. They're not really psychologists, so why would I be interested in something like that?
Some of them were even former dancers, so I can't see how this is going to -- and she said, "No, no. I think this is really something for us." And she'd been reading Peter Levine, Dr. Peter Levine's book, Waking the Tiger. She started telling me about it, and then I started to get interested. So we went to the Skirball, and Peter Levine, the founder of this theory, was there giving a all-day lecture. And usually these MCEEP, Mandatory Continuing Ed for Psychologists courses just bore me tears.
David: Yeah. I've been to some of those.
George Lough: Yeah. I get so tired, and it's just a drain. But I sat there listening to him, and he's showing films of animals in the wild and their reactions to being threatened. And then he started talking about how this relates to trauma in human beings, and I just got totally -- I don't know -- just like fixated on it. I just thought, "My gosh, this is something I never thought about. It's fascinating." And the day went by; I wasn't even tired at the end of the day at all. And it was a totally different experience.
So my wife said, "Well, why don't we take the training?" And the training involves about three years, two-and-a-half years. It's four -- I'm sorry, no -- three weekends, three four-day weekends per year for three years. So you're basically 36 days of immersion in this training. And it's not all cognitive at all. It's a combination of lecture, experiential -- where you actually practice the techniques of somatic experiencing, which I'll refer to from now on as SE, if that's okay.
David: Okay. And before you go further into the training and so on, I just want to pause for a second to tell you how much I appreciate your sharing your early life experience, that background that I wasn't aware of. And it adds a dimension to our whole conversation that I really appreciate. So, really appreciate learning about your journey. What a journey it's been.
George Lough: Yeah. Well, I just really -- you get to be like in your mid-60s and it seems like there's no reason keeping things like this a secret. So it's important because it helps other people.
David: I think it does. I mean just to -- you know, it's inspirational to hear the challenging situation for you as a teenager, and how your life could have gone much differently if you had hit your father or --
George Lough: Yes.
David: Boy, that would have been a very different story.
George Lough: A different story. And, by the way, my father is 91-and-a-half years old right now, and we hang out and pal around together.
George Lough: And I have a very good relationship, so that's really all been healed.
David: Yeah, wonderful. So it really puts the inspirational message out there to listeners that healing and change is possible.
George Lough: It is.
David: Okay, well, back to the story of somatic experiencing.
George Lough: So my wife said, "Why don't we take the training?" I said, "Well, it's very expensive. It's very involved. Why don't we just take the first four days and see what it's like?" So I went there with her and one of our friends. And, again, from just the beginning -- the lecturer didn't just start lecturing; he had us ground ourselves, sit there, notice our feet on the floor, notice our hands on our thighs, our back in the chair, notice our breath, in a very kind of relaxing [unclear].
And then we got together in small groups. We talked about our sensations in our body. And then it seemed to connect with my feelings, and I was able to talk about my feelings. Again, the day went by very quickly. And I watched him do a demonstration of one of the group members who'd had a car accident, a very serious one. And he was able to work her through many of the traumatic feelings she had connected to it, in a very gradual titrated way, by keeping her grounded and resourced throughout.
And I thought, "My gosh, this is an entirely different paradigm than everything I've learned in graduate school, everything I've learned in every other prior training before this." It's a nontraditional -- it's not therapy. It's not really talk oriented. I mean, you do talk, but it's not story oriented, where you're telling the linear narrative of what happened to you in a particular experience.
David: And it's much more directive, you said, in the lecture that I heard you give online.
George Lough: Yeah, it is. Let's say, for example, I had a client who could only take the bus to the office, and for years, so I didn't really investigate that. And then one day I just asked, "Well, why is it that you take the bus? You're able to drive, aren't you?" She said, "Well, I can drive, but I don't like to drive." So I started asking her, "Well, why not? What's the issue?" She said she'd been in multiple car accidents when she was a child, and nobody was killed or severely injured, but they were enough to frighten her.
So we started working on just one accident. And the way to do it, I've discovered, is the first thing you do is you get the person grounded, and then you ask them -- you don't let them tell -- you don't allow them to just jump to the moment of impact as most people want to do. When most people are telling a traumatic experience, they just want to tell the whole thing and get it out, as though if they'd got it out of their system, if they get it out verbally, they'll get it out of their system, get it out of their body. But they won't. It doesn't work that way. So I would have her very gradually talk about things.
But, first, the question I'd ask her is, "When did you first know after the accident that you were safe?" I wouldn't even say "the accident," probably. I would probably say "the event," because "accident" could be an activating word. So I'd say, "When did you first know that you were safe?" Because then she gets -- she'll tell me an experience. In this particular case, she said, "Well, a man came up and got me out of the car, was able to open the door that was crushed and get me out of the car. And then put his arm around me and walk me away. And I knew at that moment I was okay."
And then I'll have her get in touch with the sensations in her body that she feels in that very moment. So she's not in the trauma vortex right there. She's in the healing vortex as she talks about this experience. So, starting out there, the person doesn't overwhelm themselves with the traumatic experience.
David: So, just to make sure that I'm following you here: you're very careful to back off as soon as there are signs of emotional arousal, and to bring them back into their body, back into their breath, and to let their nervous system calm down. Is that right?
George Lough: That's exactly, yes, right. And you actually use specific -- you say things like, "Take all the time you need." "We don't need to get through the whole story." "That's not important. It's important for you to stay in touch with what is happening in your body." And then you'll have them notice an area in their body of tension. And they'll just notice it for a moment, and let themselves settle, and then see what happens next. And, usually, you'll notice a discharge. There's a release of tension. They'll take a deep breath. They might tremble a little bit. And you let them have that experience. They might even burp. They might laugh. They might cry. All these things are evidences that the tension that stuck in their bodies is being released.
You know, this is one of the amazing things that Dr. Peter Levine discovered. By the way, he's a very interesting person. He's kind of a combination of a research scientist and a shaman. I don't know him personally, but I went to his all-day workshop, and I've seen films. They're available on YouTube, as you know, of him doing therapy sessions.
David: Yeah, I went on YouTube. You had mentioned that to me. I found a couple things where he was talking about theory, but I wasn't able to find any of the ones showing him with someone.
George Lough: Oh, you weren't. Well, it's very strange. It looks like he's reading a newspaper, and he's looking at the notes from the person, and he's kind of staring off into space. And then the person's sitting there, and he's talking to them kind of obliquely, not even facing them. And he's hitting exactly what they need to hear in the moment. It's astounding. So he's a very interesting combination of clinical intuition, psychic intuition kind of, and a scientific base. Let me explain a little bit about what I learned about the science of it.
David: Yeah, good.
George Lough: That is, that Peter Levine discovered that -- he was studying ethology, the science of animals, wild animals in their natural environments. And he found out that animals in the wild actually do not suffer from the symptoms of PTSD. They don't get traumatized, generally. Their nervous system goes into a fight-or-flight-or-freeze reaction when they're threatened, when their survival is threatened. And then they complete that -- I mean, if they survive. They escape or they fight back, or they freeze and the other animal doesn't notice them or assumes they're dead and leaves them alone, and then they might flee.
After this sequence of events -- whichever they do, whichever they choose -- then they'll go through a period of trembling and shaking. They might go hide under a bush. And they'll go through a tremendous kind of shaking, trembling. In fact, those people who anesthetize polar bears to tag them up in Alaska, they find that once they've shot the polar bear with the tranquilizer dart and they've gone through the procedures and the polar bear's waking up, if it shivers and shakes and trembles, then it will have no lingering symptoms. But if it isn't able to complete that, then it may have some symptoms.
So it's just a natural process. And Levine connects this to the theory of the triune brain -- which is in that wonderful book by Carl Sagan, Dragons of Eden -- MacLean's triune brain theory, in which the brain -- if you held your hand up like the fist, the wrist and the base of your palm would be the brain stem or the reptilian brain, which is responsible for survival.
George Lough: Heart beat and everything, consciousness. And then the middle of your palm is the mammalian complex or the part of the brain that's responsible for social and emotional things. And then the top, your fingers, the top of your hand, are the cerebral cortex or the neocortex. And this has an evolutionary history. The reptilian complex was the earliest part of the brain to develop, and then the other parts later. So human beings end up with this highly developed neocortex which actually -- although it's very useful for executive functions, decision making, and future time perspective planning, everything -- it can inhibit our access to the lower centers of the brain, so where the trauma is stuck.
The trauma is a fight/flight response, and that gets -- the tension from that can get stuck in those deeper parts of the brain. So the sensations, tracking the sensations in somatic experiencing is a way to get in touch with - is to let that tension out from those deeper layers of the brain. Now, this is pretty theoretical, and this is an area that I don't think is totally scientifically proven. There's not a lot of research on this particular thing, but it's a way to explain it. And it isn't so important to me, the research part of it, because I've experienced it myself, and I've worked with clients so much with it now that I've seen them experience it.
David: Yeah, I have all kinds of thoughts racing through my head, comparing it to other approaches and so on. And one thought that came to me as you were talking about animals in the wild, and this is not in the wild, but I'm thinking of the work that Martin Seligman did early on, on shocking dogs.
George Lough: Learned helplessness?
David: Yeah. This led to his whole development of learned helplessness, which has been morphed into studies of optimism and then morphed into positive psychology. But it began with -- he was working with Richard Soloman, and they would place dogs in an untenable situation of getting shocked, from which there was no escape. They learned that there was no escape. And then when they created a situation where escape was possible, the dogs who had experienced an inability to escape, they would cease to look for a way out. And so they would just sit there shivering and urinating and defecating and, obviously, in total fear. I don't know if they had any treatment for those traumatized dogs later, to undo that or not. I don't remember that, but it would seem to be relevant to what we're talking about now in some sort of way.
George Lough: I think it is. That's a creation of experimental neurosis in an animal, and that's something that animals in the wild don't have. But, see, I think the relevance here partly is that these animals were unable to complete the flight response or a fight response. There was nothing they could do, and so they gave up. You might say their nervous system kind of shut down, and some of those symptoms you mentioned were examples of that. They went into a freeze state kind of, and they were shut down.
And as far as -- you know, the great thing about human beings, you can do therapy like this. You can talk with them, and those animals -- and I've rescued a number of dogs who had been abused in the past, and it seems to stay with them. Even though they do make bonds and attachments and their lives can be better, they still have some of the symptoms from the earlier abuse.
David: Right. And I guess with animals, you can sort of gentle them, if you will, and that's a place where I guess it would relate, if you can calm them down. I'm thinking of this guy on TV, the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan.
George Lough: Cesar --
David: Millan? Is that --?
George Lough: Millan, that's right. Yes.
David: Yeah. And he says that a lot of the bad behavior of dogs is because they're nervous and high strung and fearful, and that what he does is to nonverbally reassure them in a number of ways. Kind of interesting.
George Lough: Yeah, it is. He takes a dominant leadership role, and then they'll follow, you know, kind of thing. Yeah.
David: Yeah. Which they're reassured by, which makes me think of the whole business of setting boundaries with kids and the ways in which that can be reassuring.
George Lough: Yes. Although I do have some problems with some of his theories, and I read his books, and I read a book called The Mind of a Dog by Horowitz, I think it is. And that book has a little different approach. It's a more gentle, interactive approach. She doesn't really believe in dog training. She thinks a dog needs to know how to come and that's it.
David: Yeah. Well, talk a bit about the definition of trauma, since that's a lot of our focus. And I was able to download for free the introductory chapter to two of Peter Levine's books. So talk a little bit about what trauma is, and then he distinguished between shock trauma and developmental trauma, and I know you've covered that in the lecture you gave that I heard. So take us through that.
George Lough: Okay. Well, trauma is really any experience, a life experience, that overwhelms the nervous system's capacity to deal with it. And what I mean by that is that, in the healthy nervous system throughout the day, there's kind of a cycle of arousal and relaxation. It looks like a gentle wave going throughout the day. And when you get kind of activated, the sympathetic nervous division of the autonomic nervous system's sympathetic comes into play and gives you energy and makes you responsive and able to do what you need to do. And then the parasympathetic takes over and you go into rest, digestion, sleep. And so that's the normal kind of way the nervous system is acting.
If there's a traumatic experience or even just a difficult life experience -- even a child falling off of a bicycle or something like that can count in this. It can cause disruption in the nervous system regulation. So from the healthy regulation nervous system, this traumatic event comes in and it creates fear and anxiety, fear, and a sense that things are not okay, that you have to be on guard, you have to be careful, you have to be worried. And it can create a hyperviligance and a constriction, a feeling of helplessness like you talked about with the dogs. And so your nervous system tends to go in a shut -- it can be shut on all the time or shut off. I should say stuck on or stuck off.
David: Yeah, I think that's an interesting paradigm right there. Yeah. Stuck on or stuck off. So you tend to see, as a result of trauma, one extreme or the other.
George Lough: Right, exactly. Yeah, people are in a freeze, and they can't respond. In fact, that's one problem with traditional talk therapy too. You bring someone in who's in a freeze state, and then you try to make a relationship with them. They're not at the point where they can respond to empathy. The therapist thinks that insight, empathy are the most important aspects of a therapeutic relationship. And they're not even at the place where they can develop a relationship because they're stuck in this freeze state, and they are not in a trusting frame of mind. So you'd want them to, first of all, you might -- it might be a very nonverbal session for a while, where they just get in touch with the sensations they're having, and not a lot of explanation and cognitive understanding going on.
David: Okay. I had raised the distinction between shock trauma and developmental trauma --
George Lough: Oh, yeah.
David: And, actually, I think you've given us an example of both because you told us about your growing up in an alcoholic family.
George Lough: That's right.
David: And so that, I take it, would be an example of developmental trauma. And then you told us about the client that you worked with who suffered from the multiple car accidents. And would those be examples of shock trauma?
George Lough: Yes. Shock trauma would be a single incident, a single event that overwhelms the nervous system's capacity, like a war, a victim of a crime, an accident, a natural disaster, or something as simple as a fall, slipping on the ice or falling. You lose your sense of control and of regulation from something like that.
And there's something called "emotional first aid." And one of our first trainers said that if you do have a fall -- let's you fall on some steps -- don't try to get up immediately. You know, the first thing is you're embarrassed that other people may have seen you. You want to just pop up, act like everything's okay. She said don't do that. Let yourself just wait and let yourself get connected to what you're feeling in your body. And then feel the tension, feel the fear, feel whatever there is, and wait for a discharge. Wait for yourself to tremble or sweat or have a deep breath, and it will release the trauma. In Peter's book, I guess -- did you read the first chapter of In Another Voice? I mean, I'm sorry; in In an Unspoken Voice?
David: No. No, that wasn't one of the two.
George Lough: Okay. Well, he has his personal story in that, where he is actually -- a perfectly beautiful day, and he's walking across a crosswalk, and he is hit by car. A teenage driver hits him, and he hits the windshield and he falls into the street, and he doesn't really know what happened to him. And he's in this state of just almost paralysis where he doesn't know if he's going to live or die or anything. And a man runs up to him as he's lying on the ground and says, "I'm an off-duty paramedic. I know just what to do," and starts directing and yelling, "Don't move your head. Don't do this. Don't do that." And so Peter Levine says, "Look, back off, back off. I need time." And so the guy backs off.
And then I think it's a woman comes -- and I think she's a pediatrician -- on the scene. And she's just walking by and she sits down next to him and puts her hand on his shoulder and says, "Just what do you need? What do you need now?" And just this comfort and just has a totally comforting presence. He takes a deep breath and starts to just settle himself.
They take him in the ambulance, and in the ambulance he realizes he can move, and he has this impulse -- and she goes with him, I think, in the ambulance -- and he has this impulse to lift his arm up in front of his face. And so he lets himself do it very slowly, to lift his arm up, and then he experiences trembling and shaking throughout his body. And he describes -- then he says to this woman pediatrician, he says, "I'm so grateful that you provided me with this opportunity. And now I know I'm not gonna have PTSD." And she says, "Well, how do you know that?" And he said, "Well, because I've allowed myself to discharge all this tension that's in my body from this thing."
And then he also -- he felt some anger, too, a fight response at this. He saw the face of this teenage girl who had been driving carelessly through this crosswalk, and he had some -- I forget exactly what motions he made, but they were angry kind of motions. He let himself experience those. So he did this all in a -- and this is somebody who's been spending his life studying this -- 40 years studying this whole area, so he knew what to do. Most of us would just -- wouldn't have any clue of what emotional first aid might be in that kind of situation.
David: Yeah. Speaking of emotional first aid, I've been reading an article -- or I finished it actually -- in Wired Magazine, and I think I'll talk about it maybe at greater length further in. It starts off talking about what had been the dominant method for teaching people to deal with trauma, something called critical incident -- I'm trying to remember the whole thing.
George Lough: Critical incident debriefing.
George Lough: And there's another one too: prolonged exposure therapy.
David: Yeah, and the theory there, which was very widespread and evidently has been taught to people across the nation, was when something like 9/11 occurs or whatever, to have people relive the trauma, in a way, by telling it, telling their story right away. And the theory was that they would abreact; or, that is, they would release a lot of energy in the process of telling the story.
George Lough: Catharsis.
David: Yeah, catharsis. But what people have learned over time who've really studied this is that that approach doesn't work and that, in fact, it's just kind of re-traumatizing them by having them sort of really re-experience all of those emotions.
George Lough: Yes, that's a view of somatic experiencing therapists. And I went to the VA hospital, Sepulveda VA -- no, the Northridge VA hospital and gave a lecture to the psychiatrists and psychological interns there on somatic experiencing, which they had not really -- didn't know much about. A couple of them had heard of it, but no one had studied it, and they said they had been trained in the prolonged exposure and critical incidence debriefing. And one of them confided in me after the lecture that one of his patients had told him, "I don't want to continue the therapy because it's making me go through everything all over again, and I don't want to do that. I don't want to."
So the difference here in somatic experiencing is that the patient is going to have to go through some of the trauma, but that's necessary. They have to bring in some of the experience they had, like for my developmental trauma. I mean, I've had to go through many, many sessions of working through the fear, the anger, the problems I had with my family. But it's brought in in a way that your nervous system and your body is the guide. These other therapies tend not to use the body so much. I know in your email to me you mentioned a number of other approaches; that you wanted me to explain the distinction between gestalt, behavior mod, and memory consolidation, some of the other ones.
George Lough: And I think that the essential difference is that SE is using the body first, going to the body first and saying, well, let's use the body as the guide. Let's see what your sensations are, track them, and then we'll see what emerges from that. And then as it emerges, we'll stay with the body. So if the person starts to get drawn into a recounting, step by step, of some tragic thing that happened, you'll want to stop them, slow them down, make it a gradual titration like a chemistry experiment kind of, so they bring in the traumatic images and things very slowly and carefully while their body stays calm and relaxed. But there's going to be some activation, but then you want to deactivate. Activation is, in a sense, the way you get the cure. They can't just forget about it.
David: Yeah, but it certainly does sound like some aspects of behavior modification, of the approach to working, for example, with phobias, where they will, by successive -- they start off with Jacobsonian progressive relaxation and then in imagination have people progressively kind of get closer in their mind, in their visualization, or in their telling, to the feared object. And as soon as they begin to get activated, to pull them back into that relaxation.
George Lough: It is similar to that, yeah. Progressive desensitization -- is that what --?
David: Yeah. I think so.
George Lough: Yeah. And it is connected to the stimulus response thing in classical conditioning, where if your accident involved a white car, then you might have an association with that, so you --
David: Yeah, and there's another nontraditional technique out there, that I'm not aware of it having in particular research validation, called EFT, emotional freedom technique, that involves tapping supposedly on acupuncture points and all as a person is visualizing. So there are a number of approaches that seem to me everybody's kind of sensing something that's kind of needed here, which is to have people focus on their body. They have different rationales, but I see a kind of commonality there.
George Lough: I think that's true. My wife has done -- my wife Cheryl is a psychotherapist also, and she's done the tapping herself. And there's a website, I think, www.tapping.com. You can go there and learn the technique. And we were in an over stimulating pizza parlor, and I was just so stressed out from just the whole day's work and everything. I'd had a bunch of difficult client experiences. And I was sitting there just wiped out, and she said, "Why don't we try the tapping?" So in the middle of this pizza place, I did the tapping. And in just a few seconds I was yawning and relaxing and discharging, and just felt totally calm. And I said, "Wow. There's something to this." But she tells me that it's mostly this kind of superficial or surface -- not superficial, but surface kind of relaxation. It doesn't get to the depth that SE gets to. So that's what she's -- I don't have much more experience than that with it.
David: Yeah. And you mentioned how many sessions it took you working you through your developmental trauma, and when we were talking about shock versus developmental trauma, I was wondering, well -- I was speculating that maybe developmental trauma would take longer to work through. Has that been your experience?
George Lough: It has been, absolutely. It has been, yeah, because for one thing, there's the relational aspect that's so important, because your trust in people gets damaged when you have neglect, abuse early in your life. And so that needs to be rebuilt through the transference relationship. And just the relationship with the therapist becomes the mirroring you need from them. Like that Alice Miller -- the stuff with the false self gets built up. You have this whole idea of who you are, and then you need to be mirrored for who you really are.
David: Yeah, and plus it took so long to develop it, to develop the problems, that I could see that it would take a while to untangle it.
George Lough: Yeah, exactly.
David: Now, there's a whole new line of research on memory, and they're starting to understand memory really at the molecular level. And I don't know whether Peter Levine has gotten into this research. It sounds like he studies widely, but I don't know if he's kept up with this or not. And I mentioned I've actually done a couple of interviews where we've touched on this, and then in the current issue of Wired Magazine -- I find my scientific journals these days are things like Wired Magazine and The New Yorker, and I find these really great stories, this one by Jonah Lehrer, who's one of my favorite journalists because he's written a number of really great things. And so there's this article in Wired Magazine, the title of which has got something to do with would you be willing to take a pill if it would cause you to forget the unpleasant experiences in your life. And so to just -- and I'll send you a copy of this article.
George Lough: Oh, yeah. I'd like to see it.
David: And everybody else, I just would say, find the issue that's got that. That's the cover story, and it would be the -- what month are we in? So it's either going to be the February or the March, because sometimes magazines are ahead. Wired Magazine, and it's the cover story.
So, at any rate, part of what's been going on is learning about a phenomenon known as memory reconsolidation. And this is at the cellular and the molecular level. And what they've found out is that, in the process of establishing a memory, that process is called memory consolidation, and it involves all kinds of exchanges of chemicals and so on. A lot of this is way over my head. And every time that we access a memory, there is a brief period in which that memory is "reconsolidated." In other words, it becomes -- it kind of opens up. It's almost like a critical imprinting period, a very brief period, in which it can be more or less reshaped.
And so in the telling of the story of a memory, we know how memories change over time and how unreliable witness reports are in the legal system and so on. And it has something to do with the plasticity of these memories and the fact that they change when -- every time we access the memory, it gets changed somewhat, and there's a critical period.
And there are several therapies now, talk kinds of therapies and maybe body therapies, that can be reconceptualized as taking advantage -- and this sounds like one of them -- that takes advantage of that ability to reconstitute the memory and to, in this case that we've been talking about, to separate the emotional content from the verbal and visual, and so from the other, from the cognitive content.
George Lough: Right. Yeah, I really would be interested in reading that. I'm not familiar with it, but it does sound -- one area of similarity might be in that, in the somatic work, when you're working with a person and they come to the moment of impact, before they talk about it, you might -- one of the techniques is to ask them, "How would you --? If you could imagine anything else happening, what would you have happen? What would you want to have happen?" For instance, in the case of the woman with the car accidents, I asked her this and she said she'd want a traffic policeman to come up and put his hand out and then stop the other car from hitting her car, and just have it stop. So they get a sense of -- and when she does this, she puts her hand out, puts her hand out forcefully. And that's, in a sense, a completion of that fight-flight response in her nervous system, because she's letting herself feel what it would be like for the -- I guess that --
David: Interesting enough, that's also a hypnotic technique.
George Lough: Oh, really?
David: There are hypnotists since the time of Milton Erickson who will have a person relive an experience in a different way. And so, again, it's this idea of kind of reshaping the memory and giving it a happy ending instead of -- and there are people who work with dreams that way as well.
George Lough: Yeah, and I think it's -- in SE, it's not a question of then eliminating the memory itself. I think you still need to get to the point where you can think about those things that happened without getting activated, as long as it might take that to happen. It's like kind of Paul Ekman's work, you know, in Emotions Revealed, where he's saying that there are triggers all around, which trigger past difficult experiences. So you want to be able to deal with those things. And I think, for me, it involves knowing kind of what triggers me, for my history. I mean I had a problem with anger, a major problem with anger, and there are certain things in life that just are my triggers. Going into a store and having people cut in front of the line -- that's a particular trigger.
David: Right. For me, it's people who litter.
George Lough: Yes.
David: If I see somebody throw something out the window or throw a candy wrapper on the ground, I just want to throttle them. But, unfortunately -- or fortunately -- I don't have the physical build to back that up.
George Lough: Well, that's why we become psychologists.
David: Yeah, right.
George Lough: Yes, that's the standard [?].
David: For me, the proof of the pudding here, to some degree, would be that we have all these soldiers returning who are suffering from PTSD. The VA system is being flooded, will be flooded, and so I'm just wondering to what extent is this somatic experiencing being introduced into the VA, and is there any research going on to validate it? Because if it really works the way that you and Peter Levine say, then it should be, it really should be rolled out in a big way.
George Lough: It should, and I think it will be, actually. I mean, I think the training -- many more people are getting trained every year here. And in the training there weren't as many psychologists as you'd like to see, but I think that's going to change. As far as research, I know there's a big move now towards evidence-based psychotherapies, and this has -- there's a few research articles, but they're not really experimental in the strictly scientific sense as far as I can tell, so that needs to be done.
I've got a couple ideas myself, and I think that will start happening. Graduate schools, they'll be people who are teaching graduate students who then will start to do some -- get together and do some of the research. But just on a case study basis, the evidence is building up that it really works. And the VA -- I hope that -- I mean I gave this talk there and I'll probably give another one, although it's difficult a talk at the VA. I don't know if you've ever done this, but the psychiatrists are getting beeped every second, and you start talking about a case, and then they leave the room and come back in ten minutes.
David: Oh, wow.
George Lough: They don't know what happened [unclear], so --
David: Makes it hard. You need continuity to build your case.
George Lough: You do, you know. And even to do a case study. So I think it's going to be a major big thing coming up for therapy. And you can use it as a body therapist. You can use it as a psychologist. Some people use touch with it. I don't do the touch part of it. I'm not trained that way; I'm just a psychologist. But body workers use it, and I think it will be an amazingly effective and valuable technique. [Phone rings]
David: Okay, well, there's your phone ringing, and we're right --
George Lough: Right on cue.
David: Yeah, we're right at the end here. Do you need to answer that?
George Lough: No. My wife got that.
David: Well, that was our cue I guess. So, as we wind down here, is there anything else that you'd like to add?
George Lough: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this and somatic experiencing, and also it's -- your openness and everything to it, anything I wanted to talk about. It's been really nice, really. It's really a genuine conversation. That's a nice experience.
David: I enjoy that aspect of it too, and I'll refer people to your podcast and to your website in my commentary after it. So we'll wind it down. Dr. George Lough, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.
George Lough: You're welcome. Thank you.
David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with my new friend and colleague, Dr. George Lough. I appreciate him opening me and us up to this alternative approach to dealing with trauma. It will probably motivate additional exploration on my part, and maybe on yours too. In the meanwhile, you can listen to other presentations by Dr. George by going to his podcast on iTunes, which fittingly enough is named Ask Dr. George. And you might wish to explore his website at www.askdoctorgeorge.com. And "doctor" is spelled out.
You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit Mentalhelp.net, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the Mentalhelp.net home page.
If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.
Dr. George Lough has been doing psychotherapy for over forty years. He is a licensed psychologist and Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner in Studio City, California, seeing adults, families and couples. He has been a lecturer in Psychology at California State University, Northridge for twenty-five years where he has taught large lecture classes in Introduction to Gerontology, Motivation, Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Parenting and Child, Adolescent and Lifespan Development.
Dr. George co-authored the 1988 book What Men Are Like with Jungian Analyst and Episcopal Priest John A. Sanford.
Dr. George's psychotherapy interests, education and training include Jungian, Humanistic, Object Relations, Life-Coaching and most recently, Somatic Experiencing®. He is particularly interested in helping people heal their early developmental traumas and attachment wounds.
Dr. George is a long-time surfer and enjoys the spiritual experience of raw nature provided by that challenging and invigorating sport.