What Somatic Experiencing (SE) has to offer writers and readers

Ruth Shidlo, PhD

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-based therapy first developed by Dr. Peter Levine in the late seventies. Since then, it has been increasingly refined, and used with great success in many parts of the world, primarily as a trauma therapy. This is because trauma is understood as characterizing the response of one’s nervous system to a specific event (or events), rather than as characterizing the event itself. “The body keeps the score” (Van Der Kolk) and its inherent wisdom can be harnessed to help resolve trauma.

When faced with an imminent threat, certain elective physiological processes are inhibited, in order to free up resources for the Fight or Flight stress response. The amygdala (part of the limbic system that mediates emotion) sends out a distress signal to the hypothalamus, a “command center” that communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomous nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system springs to action, digestive processes are put on hold. Stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are released, and the heart beats faster than before, working hard as it pushes blood to the muscles and limbs, heart and other vital organs. Pulse and heart rate go up, and the person begins to breathe more rapidly. Extra oxygen is directed to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses, necessary for survival, become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

As Peter Levine has pointed out, surplus energy left over from that recruited to deal with threat will have nowhere to go, especially when Fight or Flight were not possible, or we responded with Freeze, a third and equally valid response of the nervous system to threat. Over time, this accumulation of energy may lead to symptom formation, as the body-mind remains in a chronic state of activation and stress. The “all-clear” signal has not yet fully registered.

In SE, we work with one physical sensation at a time, and learn how to release trapped energy in the body. This may require completing Fight or Flight responses, which were not possible at the time (e.g., a car accident, surgery), so that a natural process of releasing or discharging the energy did not occur.

Bottom line:

It pays to become increasingly attuned to our bodily sensations, something one learns and practices during SE. Moreover, all feelings have bodily referents. For example, sadness may be accompanied by one’s eyes tearing, a trembling of the chin, a wavering voice, bursting into tears; a sense of shame may be expressed by averting one’s eyes or looking downwards, joy by smiling or dancing. Being aware of our bodily sensations informs an emergent awareness of our feelings.

In SE, we practice utilizing convergent channels of multimodal information, all of which flow towards and co-create the overall “gestalt” we have of a certain object, person, situation–what Eugene Gendlin has termed, the Felt Sense. These channels are:


Image (whether visual, auditory, tactile)

Behavior (and the impulse toward movement)

Affect (feelings and emotions)

Meaning (thoughts, beliefs)

How is this relevant to the process of writing or reading?

For the writer, this bodily attunement and its expression can bring characters alive, especially when interwoven with additional channels, such as the character’s thoughts, feelings or behavior. This allows the reader to respond in similar vein, tapping into his or her own feelings.

It is not necessary to literally share an actual situation or an event with a character, for the reader to empathize with his or her plight – rather, it’s about conveying enough multimodal information for the reader to be able to understand the shared experience of an emotion e.g., what if feels like to experience the loss of a loved one, to be shamed and humiliated, to overcome what has hitherto seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Reading helps us be in touch with ourselves and work through our feelings.

What’s in a cover?

Cover Art: Assaf Shtilman

Based on feedback by one of my readers, I realized that the original cover (see down), which I absolutely love, does not shout “thriller” to the potential reader. Its impressionistic and mysterious tone (based on a Renoir) and the antiquated font I had chosen, were out-of-character and simply did not align themselves with the covers one tends to see on popular, mass-market thrillers published in the twenty-first century, such as those written by Jonathan Kellerman, his son Jesse Kellerman, or Robin Cook, to name but a few. Thus, the above cover for The Rosebush Murders was born out of a need to match the narrative and the way the story was told (in other words, its genre) to the actual cover.

Over a period of a few weeks or months, I hunted for images that might lend themselves to a new cover, and a seasoned and patient graphic artist showed me what I might achieve with these photos/pictures. Although I did not always know how to formulate what it was I wanted, I trusted I would know when the fit was good-enough. This resulted in our going back to the drawing board time and again, although overall, there were some good mock covers. I also plied my friends and family with different versions of the new cover, and elicited their feedback, to varying degrees.

Finally, I decided to consult with Assaf Shtilman, a friend with a prolific, constantly growing collection of photos of roses and other flowers, many of which I had seen on Facebook, and absolutely loved. He showed me his online collection of paintings as well and told me he had once done a cover for a friend. I was delighted when he agreed to do one for my book, The Rosebush Murders, and most likely the other books in the Helen Mirkin series, time permitting. A software engineer, he has many hobbies, and a vibrant life.

With his keen eye for detail and ability to conceptualize the information conveyed by the visual images used in book covers, my talented friend and colleague, Assaf Shtilman, walked me through several types of covers, including those depicting specific scenes, and the more “symbolic” ones. Together we perused novels I had collected over the years and Googled various authors, to get a sense of what was out there and what might work for me. I suggested various elements that we might use. This led to Assaf’s out-of-the-box offer to paint an original cover, as it was too complicated to either construct it out of existing photographs, or create a scene that could then be photographed.

The result: the idea of a painting of a macabre mobile, one that incorporated some of the elements I wanted to use (e.g., a rose, DNA, a gun, a gloved hand), as well as Assaf’s image of the firing gun, which was based on cartoon-like images of guns and toy guns such as might hang from a mobile.

We hope you like the new cover as much as the old.

Cover Art: Patty Henderson

Helen’s music

Version 2

Towards the publication of the first Helen Mirkin novel, The Rosebush Murders, my dream was to enclose a CD along with the print book, so the reader could actually hear the music alluded to. I even imagined myself singing some of the arias, which at the time, I was preparing for a recital. But given copyright issues it has remained just that – a dream. I had already forked up a considerable sum for merely quoting a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s poems and Leonard Bernstein’s music in my book, and was on a shoestring budget.

I then considered posting Youtube links to my Author Facebook Pages, but, here again, the more I researched it, the more I ran into copyright issues. It seemed as though one needed to be a copyright lawyer to successfully negotiate the “does and don’ts” of linking to Youtube videos of famous artists singing operas referred to in the series, now enriched by the publication of Murder in the Choir. What I managed to do, after sitting up for two frenzied nights, was a Youtube of my own, a trailer for Murder in the ChoirAlthough not technically-minded and hence, finding it quite a challenge, at times exasperatingly so, in the end I can say that, overall, I enjoyed it. It was more fun than paying for a professionally-made one, and in any case, I wouldn’t have known where to start, when faced with preparing a brief. Trained to think in terms of fight-flight-freeze as a body-mind trauma therapist, I applied it to the story I had written, hence the visceral animal imagery. Luckily, I recently had visited the Natural History Museum in London with my godson on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah, so I had loads of pictures readily available in my photo library. The result: the above trailer, which, I may add, I am curious how you will receive. (Drop me a line via my Facebook Page, where I have just posted it. I need your feedback before ever embarking on such an enterprise again!)

Thus, dear reader, I can only urge you to look up what I hereby refer to as “Helen’s music” on your own – you can find it on Youtube directly. I believe that immersing yourself in Helen’s music may bring alive more vividly some of the passages in my books, for example, the Leonard Bernstein song at the beginning of The Rosebush Murders (p. 35), that starts with the words, “My mother says that babies come in bottles …” or even the cave scene with the sorceress and witches (Scene 2) from Dido and Aeneas, to which Helen associates at a specific point during the investigation (p. 227), an association followed by one to Macbeth. Parenthetically, I recommend the recording with Janet Baker as Dido, conducted by Anthony Lewis (English Chamber Orchestra & The St. Anthony Singers). The sorceress is sung by Monica Sinclair.

Music adds a whole other dimension to our experience, and I usually choose the pieces I cite with care. I like to think that music (and poetry) plays an important role in my books, although I would be hard-pressed to formulate precisely what it is, “to spit out all the butt ends of my days and ways” (Eliot). Be it as it may, I trust Helen’s musical associations when they come up from her unconscious (as in the latter scene), and enjoy her forays into the music world, as both singer, detective, and increasingly, as we shall see, in her personal life. I am being deliberately vague here, to leave the reader with an untarnished reading experience.


The detective story – a changing genre?


The detective story – a changing genre?

Reprinted from Pulse, April 30th, 2016



In the not so distant past, especially during what is known today as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (circa, 1910-1930), writers of detective stories observed certain unwritten conventions, many of which seem outdated. if not downright laughable, almost a century later. Thus one can find certain guidelines or conventions that many writers adhered to, whether they had heard of them or not, simply because they characterized the books they themselves read and were influenced by. These include Knox’s ‘Ten Commandments’ (1929) and art-critic-turned-fiction-writer, Van Dine’s ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,’ published in 1928 by The American Magazine. Van Dine (a pseudonym) defined the genre as a kind of ‘intellectual game’ or ‘sporting event,’ and decreed that “there must be no love interest.” However, even during the Golden Age itself, an element of romance creeped in, via such writers as Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Since then, while some of the older forms of the detective story have continued to find their audience, in the 21st century new forms continue to flourish in seemingly infinite variety. Increasingly, female detectives and sleuths have found their voice, and by now we have detectives from various minorities, sub-cultures and persuasions. Some form part of the establishment (e.g, the police) and work within it. They may take characteristic liberties with police procedure in order to solve their cases, on occasion ‘outsourcing’ certain activities, or otherwise failing to identify with the establishment as such. Others may work from the outside, perhaps to prove their innocence, or are simply amateurs endowed with an observing nature and a penchant for detecting crime.

While some stories continue to be traditional ‘whodunits’ where the crime is solved toward the end of the book, others may start from the end, that is, with the reader knowing the villain’s identity, and being invited to backtrack. The detective may work alone, with a sidekick (say a police consultant, such as a psychologist), or with a whole police unit or forensic team. The crime may be minor or major, a one time occurrence or the handiwork of a compulsive serial killer.

What interests me is the extent to which the detective is allowed a private life. Is it static and barebones (as it was historically, in the past conventions of this genre) or can it be fleshed out and develop? Does its progression of necessity interface with the case at hand, or can it simply exist in a parallel world? To what extent does the detective’s past and present inform or dictate how he or she handles cases? Is it part of the motivation to be a detective?

In my Helen Mirkin series (The Rosebush Murders, 2012; Murder in the Choir, 2016) I have chosen an evolving format. Each book in the series presents Detective Inspector Helen Mirkin at a slightly different place in her personal life. Granted, the steps she takes are gradual, but she continues to grow. While it is entirely possible to read each novel as a ‘stand-alone,’ reading the series in chronological order offers a unique perspective regarding the detective’s experience and changing life circumstances, particularly as the chapters where she makes an appearance are written in the first person.


The author is a trauma therapist and social activist in the area of health policy. She has published two detective novels and edited a non-fiction book, The Enigma of Childhood, written by psychoanalyst Dr. Ronnie Solan (Karnac, 2015).

The Psychological Thriller

A previous version of this article appeared in Pulse, July 1st, 2016

cheap thrillsI often see books advertised as psychological thrillers, and have used this term to describe my Helen Mirkin series. I feel that as both a psychologist and writer in the thriller, mystery and suspense genre, I can thus describe my work. But what are psychological thrillers, and how might they differ from “regular” ones? I will attempt to address this, and welcome your thoughts as well. 

For starters, I looked up the definition in Wikipedia:

“Thriller is a broad genre of literature, film and television, having numerous subgenres. Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.”

I am tempted to add that music also performs this function admirably, as does theatre, and would like to highlight what I consider to be the queen of all performing arts – opera. Opera combines elements of storytelling and drama with music and often dance, and it can certainly evoke mood, including one fraught with suspense and anxiety. Consider, for example, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, based on the Henry James novel and libretto by Myfanwy Piper. Does it qualify as a thriller?

So what is a thriller, and what makes it a psychological one?

Again, I first turn to Wikipedia, the modern day encyclopedia of cyberspace, that library of Babel. Among other things, it states that the psychological thriller is “a thriller story which emphasizes the unstable mental and emotional states of its characters.” Moreover, it is described as a sub-genre of the thriller, “with similarities to Gothic and detective fiction in the sense of sometimes having a “dissolving sense of reality”, moral ambiguity, and complex and tortured relationships between obsessive and pathological characters.[2] Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of and overlap with mystery, drama, action, and horror (particularly psychological horror). They are usually books or films.” Examples given of writers and film directors in this genre included Jonathan Kellerman (a psychologist), as well as Alfred Hitchcock, so I am in good company of two “masters” of the genre, am familiar with their work, and have for the most part, enjoyed it. Others cited included Henry James, Patricia Highsmith, and Stephen King. I am surprised Ingmar Bergman was not mentioned.

For the most part, literary fiction deals with characters undergoing emotional ups and downs as they deal with challenging events, as otherwise, we tend to find them unidimensional, uninspiring or even boring. We become emotionally involved and drawn into a story when it somehow touches us, and triggers memory traces of familiar experiences. We may resist reading it when the experiences depicted are completely alien to us, and we are not motivated to befriend them. Generally speaking, via its focus on dramatic action rather than on in-depth revelations of inner states (e.g., thoughts and feelings), the thriller introduces a certain pace or tempo to the unfolding of the story. The sequence of events and the unexpected twists of the plot (e.g., conflict) move the story along so that it achieves page-turning thriller status. Thus, I would be hard-pressed to consider Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Joseph and His Brothers a psychological thriller, although both authors demonstrate outstanding psychological acumen.

When the thriller is characterized by psychological themes that get into the nitty gritty of the protagonist’s sensations, thoughts and feelings (or those of other characters) – the pendulation (moving back and forth, like a pendulum – a word coined by Peter Levine) between trauma and healing vortices (or if you will, between the forces of destruction and the life force) becomes more pronounced. How do we know this? We get activated when our protagonist is challenged i.e., our heart beats more quickly as we hurriedly turn the pages to see how he or she is faring. We breath (exhale) with relief when safety is reached or order is temporarily restored within the fictional world we are immersed in. This “discharge” allows our emotional container to grow, and now we have more room for, and can better withstand the next cycle or twist in the storyline.

The quicker the pace, the greater the rhythm of the pendulation provided by the author, which is matched by the reader’s autonomous nervous system (ANS). This parallel process presumably involves mirror neurons. As we read a thriller, our ANS may work overtime in its efforts to continue to maintain homeostasis between the movements (configured as waves) of the sympathetic (arousal/stress related) and parasympathetic (relaxing) branches of the ANS.

Some readers may be overwhelmed by the events depicted in the book they are reading, which may trigger memory traces of “undischarged” traumatic events from their life experiences. This may result in activation of the autonomous nervous system (e.g., a pounding heart, a pulsating carotid artery, increased blood pressure, shallow/faster/more constricted breathing, clammy hands, tightening of the stomach or chest, etc.) The reader unconsciously attempts to titrate the amount of “trauma vortex” his (or her) nervous system can deal with at that precise moment by rhythmically pendulating back and forth between the “trauma vortex and “healing vortex” (see previous posts that deal with self-regulation.) The earlier readers are able to notice these signs in themselves (or in their partners), the easier it may be to cope with this activation (via discharge of excess survival energy) rather than to be managed by it destructively (e.g., picking a fight with our partner, devouring a bar of chocolate.)

Most, if not all literature, but more so the thriller/psychological thriller – presumably because of its tempo – allows the reader to immerse himself (or herself) in a generally acceptable amount of anxiety – after all, it is the book’s characters, and not the reader proper, who are dealing with the anxiety-provoking themes (e.g., separation anxiety, fear of object loss, fear of loss of love, annihilation anxiety). On the part of the reader, there is a dual awareness (perhaps made possible by a creative dissociation) which provides the transitional space between fantasy and reality. To the extent that the protagonist meets the challenges he or she is faced with and survives, so does the reader – this provides a vicarious sense of mastery. When the challenges the characters are dealing with come too close to comfort, some readers may associatively move on to recall how they dealt with similar situations and survived.

There is usually a spontaneous yet unique branching out of associations – the resonance of these memory traces within each reader may lead to the healing vortex.

Depending on what happens next, the physical act of putting the book down may be another way of initiating the movement from the trauma vortex to the healing vortex, for example when the reader goes off to do something that makes him (or her) feel good and resourced (e.g., go for a swim) and in thus doing, naturally releases some of the activation that was building up in his or her nervous system (body/mind). Alternatively, he or she may move on to a cognitive task that takes them out of the felt sense of sensations altogether – taking a break may be a way of “grounding” by leaving the sensations of the “felt sense” (Gendlin,1982) and immersing oneself in something else that involves the neocortex, such as making a shopping list or deciding which clothes to put in the washer.

Via the linear act of reading, with its potential for putting the book down and taking a break, there occurs a process of “cutting” the literary narrative into tolerable pieces.

In sum, there are various ways to break down the literary narrative into small pieces that can be digested, and we usually do this unconsciously, as we naturally pendulate from the trauma vortex to the healing vortex, or if necessary, simply ground ourselves. If we find ourselves getting activated to such an extent that on our own, we are unable to release the survival energy recruited by our sympathetic system to deal with the vicarious challenges posed by the book we were reading (or other work of art, such as a play, opera, film), then perhaps it is time to reach out for a significant other and share how we are feeling.

When our ANS is overwhelmed and no longer discharges enough on its own, we can help the body/mind resume its innate discharge of excess survival energy. The discharge functions as an “all-clear” sign to the brain’s innate warning system (amygdala) and allows the body to stop pumping out stress hormones and to reset itself (see my body/mind posts for more information.)