“I’ll tell you a story,” says Sergio Ocampo, a Marriage and Family Therapist who is passionate about the Somatic Experiencing approach to healing trauma. The story is about Dr. Peter Levine’s discovery of the Somatic Experiencing modality, and it begins “when Peter first started and came up with this idea… He opened a little office in Berkeley, California, back in the ‘70s.” Dr. Levine wanted to work with veterans of the Vietnam War, explains Ocampo, and “the first week it’s only a couple, two or three vets, walked in and did some work. The following week there was a line out the door of all these vets in Berkeley who were like, ‘Oh, this guy is actually really helping heal flashbacks and many PTSD symptoms.’” That immediate, radical success almost half a century ago was how Somatic Experiencing got its start.
Decades later, it was this very promise of healing deeply held trauma that led Ocampo first to engage with this therapy as a patient. It worked so well for him that he changed careers and decided to become a licensed therapist and become a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner himself. This path led him to Antioch Los Angeles to study in the MA in Clinical Psychology program. Now, having graduated, he is working as a psychotherapist in private practice, helping others to process and transcend their traumas as he did. And he’s back at Antioch, teaching courses in the online Continuing Education programs.
But it wasn’t always obvious to Ocampo that he needed help from therapy—or that he would find his life work helping others in that. First, he had to live a few other lives and careers, experiencing trauma and finding his path.
Childhood, Trauma, and Exploration
Ocampo was born in the northern deserts of Mexico to two medical professionals. His father was a doctor and his mother a nurse. From a young age, he knew that he wanted to help other people stay well, too. “For many years. I always wanted to be a doctor,” he says.
But life had other plans for him. Instead of going to medical school, he trained as a civil engineer. And then, as a young man, he moved to Europe. He worked where he could find it. He spent some years in Italy studying art restoration. He also worked as an engineer. These weren’t necessarily the right careers for him, but he enjoyed learning to speak Dutch and Italian. Then he moved to New York City and worked in the financial services industry on Wall Street. But still, he felt unsettled.
Part of the dissatisfaction with his career came from increasingly suffering the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This terrible disorder meant that no matter how much he rested, he was often experiencing extreme fatigue and tiredness. It was miserable.
Now, Ocampo sees that it was “because of the stress on my body, because of the trauma I was carrying [that] I became syndromal.” His experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was merely a sign of this underlying, unresolved trauma that he carried in his body.
Finding a Path of Healing—and a Life Calling
It was in the search for a cure to his debilitating fatigue that Ocampo found Somatic Experiencing. He began working with a practitioner, and the results were immediate. “I healed through that,” he says. “I was able to resolve the trauma within me, and therefore also the syndromes just faded away. My body recuperated.”
Somatic Experiencing is based around the idea that the body (somatic means “of the body”) is the place where trauma is experienced and held. In a Somatic Experiencing session, the therapist organically works with traumatic material that may arise, giving space for the client’s own internal healing mechanisms to engage. “Relying on a person’s own inherent emotional healing potential,” explains Ocampo, is key for them to be able to deactivate the overwhelmed nervous system in which they might be trapped. It is through providing a sense of safety and support, he goes on, that the therapist “allows the more primitive nervous system of fight, flight, and freeze to be deactivated in a paused and humanistic manner.” Ultimately, the opportunity to experience sensations related to a traumatic event in a safe and supportive environment can help a client to fully heal.
For Ocampo, the experience of this therapy was transformative. It gave him back his life in a real way. So in the aftermath of that, he joined professional training in the field. And ultimately, he decided that to bring this work to best benefit other people he needed to become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. As he explains, “I really needed a license to become a practitioner, to practice this beautiful work.”
So he enrolled in the MA in Clinical Psychology at Antioch Los Angeles, with a specialization in Spiritual and Depth Psychology. This specialization allowed him to explore mindfulness-based therapy, Jungian analytic psychology, socio-cultural diversity consciousness—and the places where they intersected. He loved how depth psychology allowed the therapeutic space to become very spiritual as well. “What I mean by that,” he explains, is that “there’s a lot of depth, there’s a lot of realization, there’s a sense of arriving in oneself.”
Through his studies, especially in depth psychology, Ocampo came to see on a deeper level how therapy could address physical and mental issues. This is “because trauma in people’s bodies lives in the body itself—unbeknownst to us—but it’s streaming through our thoughts, streaming through our bodily experiences.” He developed his own therapeutic abilities to be able to heal his clients in mind and body, just as he had been healed.
Once he graduated, Ocampo opened his own private therapy practice in downtown Los Angeles where he helps clients using talk therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and EMDR.
Bringing A Healing Vitality to the World
Ocampo has also become involved professionally in raising the profile of Somatic Experiencing. He sits on the board of directors of Somatic Experiencing International and also serves on its Research Committee. This method is still relatively under-researched—something Ocampo is working to change. As he explains, “We are going to have a lot more research coming online to be spread, so that Somatic Experiencing becomes more of an evidence-based model, wherever it goes.”
He’s also writing a book on generational trauma, linking the mind and body to what our ancestors pass on to us. “My goal is to expand the work worldwide,” he says. To that end, he is working “to become more involved in media, in public media, talking about it, speaking to audiences.”
As part of that attention-raising work, Ocampo has been offering classes through Antioch’s Continuing Education platform. One of these courses, “Trauma and Overwhelm,” is on the basics of trauma and is designed to be useful for therapists and also for individuals who may have their own traumas they are dealing with. He recently finished teaching another course titled “Generational Trauma.”
For next Fall, Ocampo is already designing a third course. This course, not yet titled, will explore eros and trauma resolution. “That means,” he says, “dealing with trauma and how it affects the process of therapy when eros—attraction—arises… and also how the therapist can use these energies to support and deepen healing.” His goal is to harness the power of eros “for the benefit of the client and therapist alike.”
And this healing mission is ultimately what drives Ocampo every day. That line of veterans that formed outside his mentor Dr. Peter Levine’s Berkeley clinic door back in the ‘70s has never really disappeared. People carry wounds and trauma through generations and lifetimes. If Ocampo can help some of them to process that trauma and so release it, he is doing good. That’s his mission: “allowing the vitality of the body, the vitality of the mind and the soul, to recommence and begin to help heal the person.”
Jasper Nighthawk '19 (Antioch Los Angeles, MFA) is Antioch's University Storyteller and the host of the Seed Field Podcast. He lives in Los Angeles and on the Mendocino Coast with his partner and their cat.