Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a pioneering body awareness approach to healing trauma. It focuses on experiencing the ‘felt sense’ in the present moment to relieve the physical, emotional and physiological effects of post traumatic stress disorder and other stress and trauma-related health problems.
SE does not focus on talking about or re-living trauma. SE works at the physiological level where traumatic activation is held in the body. Often, clients have had therapy to deal with their traumas and still have symptoms, physically, emotionally, and relationally. Or perhaps they have symptoms and don’t know why. Dr. Peter Levine found that by processing the body and guiding the discharge of stored energy in the body then homeostasis of the nervous system occurred and symptoms resolved. This seems to be the missing piece in trauma resolution, no matter how severe.
Whatever the cause of the trauma; be it from adverse pre and peri-natal experiences, disorganised early attachment, episodic or chronic traumatic events or prolonged high stress situations, the safe, gradual negotiation of SE helps individuals to reconnect with their own innate capacity to recover. They will gradually return to experiencing aliveness, vitality, and health in the here-and-now, with an increased self-confidence and sense of empowerment. As these shifts happen there will be changes in the way they respond both consciously and unconsciously to stressful situations.
How Does SE Differ From Other Therapeutic Modalities?
The more traditional cognitive and emotional based ‘talk’ therapies can be considered as being “top-down” approaches. They focus on insight and emotions first and only secondarily focus on somatic responses to trauma. Talking about the trauma can have an adverse effect as the person can be re-traumatised with the flooding of reactions and overwhelm that arises during the process if their nervous system is not able to regulate itself.
In contrast Somatic Experiencing is a “bottom-up” approach. It focuses on the brain stem – the reptilian brain and its survival-based functions that are not under conscious or emotional control. Access to these instinctual action and arousal systems is through the mode of physical bodily sensations, imagery and motor patterns. In the process of working with the ‘felt sense’ of the body other elements of the trauma experience may arise such as meaning and emotions. Thus cognitions and emotions are included in SE practice but they are secondary or derivative from physical sensations through the bottom-up processing.
SE uses techniques and interventions that work directly and gently with the neurophysiology of the body. SE avoids some of the issues that catharsis, re-enactment or talking about the story may create such a re-traumatisation or re-arousal of intense emotional states that can be frightening or too confronting to clients and may discourage them from continuing on their healing journey.
Who Can Benefit From SE?
Anybody who wishes to regain a sense of empowerment by learning about and experiencing their body’s natural ability to calm itself after strong feelings or activation caused by a situation they perceive as being stressful or threatening can benefit from SE.
SE can be helpful for many individuals, both adults and children, who have experienced either overwhelming traumatic life events or periods of continual stress. A traumatic event is an experience that causes physical, emotional or psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world.
If the threat, traumatic experience, or the duration of the event or circumstances is too great, or we have little or no support, our nervous system becomes overwhelmed and cannot return to its healthy place of resilience and equilibrium. We may stay either in a state of high arousal, reacting adversely to the slightest sound or movement and being hyperactive, or we may move into a state of shutdown and depression.
The consequences of these experiences can have deep psychological and physical effects on the body causing a variety of symptoms.
Symptoms of Overwhelm or Traumatic Stress
Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ”triggering” event itself. They stem from the leftover survival energy that has not been resolved and discharged due to a disturbance in the self-regulatory capacity of our autonomic nervous system and physiology.
Each time we are not able to return to a relaxed ‘normal’ state our nervous system becomes more hypersensitive or unresponsive and we are more likely to be affected by events, actions or experiences that previously may not have had an impact. Over time, after months or years, symptoms of the following types may arise:
As SE works directly with the neurophysiology of the body to help regulate the nervous system and its effect on the endocrine and immune systems, these systems can gradually be reduced.