I am from Belgium. My country was unfortunately a battlefield on and off for as long as I have been taught to remember. I am the “holder” of this sad piece of history, without ever having been in the midst of a war zone. I am immensely grateful for every soldier who fought for freedom and peace at the time and for those who continue to perform courageously on the frontlines all over the world.

San Francisco Therapy for Military War VetsThis is a picture of my grandfather who died in 1919 from exposure to the gases in WWI. He is my inspiration. I am committed to work with war veterans of all ages and of all wars as well as their families.

If you have opened this page, you are probably curious about how the trauma of war affects human beings exposed on the battlefield. You are without a doubt familiar with some of the following symptoms or issues:

  • Panic and Anxiety
  • Hypervigilance
  • Depression and Numbness
  • Sleep Issues (nightmares)
  • Illness (migraines, GI disturbances, pain)
  • Trouble Focusing
  • Addiction
  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Disconnection and Isolation
  • Suicide Ideation
  • “Battle Fatigue”
  • Life changes and Transitions
  • Emotion Regulation
  • Relationship Issues
  • Reintegration of Civilian and Family Life
This is normal considering the exposure to war and a result of trauma. Peter Levine has developed an approach to work with issues of trauma, caused by war or other events that produce distress because of their brutal nature and their abrupt interruption of the flow of life. It is called Somatic Experiencing.

Somatic Experiencing® (SE) is geared towards trauma resolution. When an event happens “too fast, too soon and in too large a quantity”, it becomes impossible for the body and the psyche to “digest” it. Many factors contribute to the soldier’s mental vulnerability and can inflict a massive disturbance on his psyche. Some of the most common are: being in the field of war with its chronic demands of hypervigilance or living “on guard”, being exposed to explosions, ducking enemy fire, witnessing the sight of war, the loss of comrades and lacking the time and space to grieve, living in the never ending tension of war and suffering from lack of sleep and from the absence of short term recovery. When this truckload of events and stresses discharges on the human soul, it hits the soldier full force. The two healthiest responses are to tackle it head on (fight) or run away (flight). But these options are not always available on the battlefield! A soldier can’t fight or run away from an explosive device that hits him unexpectedly and he can’t always escape a dangerous situation because it is his job to stay put, to help comrades and to defend.

Generally speaking, when we gear up to deal with the disturbing event (it happens in milliseconds) but can’t fight or flee the threat, we freeze into immobility. The survival energy mobilized for the response to the threat has nowhere to go because we did not complete our fight or flight responses. We get paralyzed in our tracks. This frozen energy mixes with our vital force: we spend exhausting hours trying to hold it in place, and can’t reconnect with our vital energy because it is not directly available to us any longer. Think: pressure cooker on the stove, volcano fueled by boiling earth magma, ready to go off.

Soon symptoms set in for the soldier: anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, a sense of overwhelm and sometimes aggressive behaviors to name a few. It is as if he had one foot on the gas pedal, and one on the brakes at the same time! The car is revved up but goes nowhere. Back home, another challenging layer can add distress to the pervasive symptoms already experienced: the soldier’s body is still in a state of war although he is back on peaceful territory. The soldier’s identity, what has defined him for so many months is at odds with the family life he tries to reintegrate. It can be overwhelming for an individual to sort out the vast amount of stimuli that hit him from all sides and to make sense of his experience as a soldier abroad and back home.

Somatic Experiencing can help: it is a natural body-centered approach that aims at gently discharging the frozen energy that is stuck in the nervous system, complete the fight/flight scenario that were left unfinished and restore mobility, balance and self-regulation. Ultimately, aliveness and wholeness come back to the body as well.

Too often, when a warrior comes back from the front lines, the well-intentioned therapist asks him to tell the story of “what happened”. This can be very re-traumatizing if caution is not used to pay attention to distress that can occur within the client as he relives traumatic material while telling the story. Somatic Experiencing aims at not re-traumatizing the individual during counseling. SE works with the body to help the client build the container to hold the totality of his experience: it promotes nervous system regulation and restores the orientation and self-defensive responses that were thwarted during the event. It helps renegotiate a state of distress by discharging what is stuck in the system. It helps complete was what left unfinished by the traumatic occurrence.

This modality does not mean that the soldier’s story won’t be told. In ancient times, when the warrior re-integrated “the tribe” and was given the opportunity to talk at length about his experience, the village would gather and the men would share the details of their accomplishments. This is a ritual that has unfortunately been lost but that can be recovered partly in counseling when the therapist hears the soldier’s story. That being said, what we have to keep in mind is that before we release our foot from the gas pedal and from the brakes, we have to make sure there is a decent road for the car to drive on.

Many other avenues like retreats for returning war vets are offered nationwide on a regular basis: they can also offer support in the reintegration of civilian life. Visit: www.soldiersheart.net

Read more on Trauma and Somatic Experiencing.

Not wheelchair accessible.