Somatic Experiencing

somatic-experiencing

Somatic Experiencing is a body-centred treatment for trauma, first developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.

Levine began to develop Somatic Experiencing following his observations of animals in the wild. He noticed that, when facing threat, animals display a range of threat responses similar to humans – fight, flight, and freeze. Unlike humans, however, Levine noticed that animals were adept at releasing the physical energy charged up by the threat response, able to recover quickly and return to a state of internal homeostasis. Humans, unfortunately, have a much harder time releasing this energy.

Even though we may be safe now, our nervous system can become ‘stuck’ in its threat response. When we live our day to day lives with a frozen threat response, we continue to sense danger in the environment, are on high alert and in a state of high reactivity. Alternatively, we become numb and apathetic, unable to live fully in the present.

Somatic Experiencing helps to restore clients to health by assisting them in releasing their frozen energy and gaining a visceral understanding of safety.

 

Trauma and the Brain

Let’s simplify the brain into two basic primary modes; ‘safe’ and ‘survival’. Safe mode allows us to relax, engage with others, and learn new information. When we are safe, we are healthy, open, and sociable.

In safe mode, the branch of the Autonomic Nervous System[1] (responsible for regulation of physiologic processes) activated is the Parasympathetic Nervous System, responsible for rest and digestion.

In survival mode, we are on high alert, constantly surveying our environment for threat, and highly reactive to stimuli. Or we are emotionally shut down, numb and apathetic to our surroundings. Decisions in survival mode are often fear-based. In survival mode, it is the Sympathetic Nervous System (responsible for the fight/flight response) that is activated.

In the face of threat, we enter survival mode, which ensures our safety. When the threat has passed, we may still be in survival mode, because the threat was overwhelming that we froze. While our threat responses aim to ensure our survival, they can be detrimental to our health if they are prolonged. Prolonged activation of our threat response leads to a range of physical and psychological health issues[2], including anxiety, depression, poor concentration, strained interpersonal relationships, flashbacks, and other mood and personality disorders.

 

How does Somatic Experiencing work in Practice?

 To release the grip of our frozen threat responses on our well-being and functionality, the accumulated energy from the response must be discharged. A trained SE therapist guides the client in becoming aware of their physical sensations when talking about their past experiences. The client’s narrative of the experience is not the centre of focus in therapy, Instead, focus is placed on the physical, inner sensations that arise when the experience is revisited.

Unlike traditional talk therapies, which take a ‘top-down’ approach, focusing on cognitive processing, Somatic Experiencing uses a ‘bottom-up’ approach, where focus is given the bodily sensations linked to traumatic memories.

In the early stages of SE therapy, clients are educated on the nervous system and how it is affected by a traumatic event. This serves to dispel any confusion as to why a person is experiencing difficult trauma-related symptoms.

Before visiting the traumatic memories, therapists help clients to resource their own innate strength, peace and resilience by discussing positive aspects of the client’s life, perhaps people or places that bring them a sense of peace and calm.

Once the resources for strength and resilience have been identified, a gradual revisiting of the traumatic memories can take place. This stage of the process, known as titration, allows clients to slowly accept the memory and the associated feelings. The process is gradual to prevent overwhelm and retraumatization.

As the memories are revisited, the trained SE therapist will witness and track the clients sensations and physicality, such as a change in breathing, postural shifts, or a change in tone of voice. The client collaborates with the therapist by informing them about invisible sensations, like a change in body temperature or a dizzy feeling.[3]

When sensations arise, clients may respond by shaking, trembling, or crying. There may be muscular tightening, clenching of hands, clenching of the jaw. These phenomena are considered to be a release of the frozen energy, and are encouraged. At the same time, the therapist will help the client come to a calmer state by encouraging the use of the cultivated resources at the beginning of therapy[4]. Over time, the movement from activation to calm becomes a lot smoother, and further exploration can take place.

 

What are the Benefits of Somatic Experiencing?

 Somatic Experiencing offers a range of benefits to clients who have experienced trauma, such as child abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, violence, natural disasters, or motor vehicle accidents.

Following a course of SE therapy, clients may experience[5]:

  • A greater sense of self
  • Increased confidence
  • Reduction in PTSD symptoms
  • Improved concentration
  • Improved relationship with one’s body

Unresolved trauma permeates into all aspects of our lives. It can lead to a host of disruptive and inhibitive physical and psychological symptoms that get in the way of us being able to fully live our lives. With Somatic Experiencing, clients can find that healthy functioning is restored, and maladaptive behaviours, or survival strategies, can be reduced. Ultimately, Somatic Experiencing helps clients find balance and regulation in their nervous system, which is integral to leading a healthy life.

 

Sources:

[1] McCorry, Laurie Kelly. “Physiology of the autonomic nervous system.” American journal of pharmaceutical education vol. 71,4 (2007): 78. doi:10.5688/aj710478

[2] Selye H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1956.

[3] Healthline. n.d. Somatic Experiencing: How It Can Help You. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/somatic-experiencing#considerations> [Accessed 25 June 2020].

[4] Healthline. n.d. Somatic Experiencing: How It Can Help You. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/somatic-experiencing#considerations> [Accessed 25 June 2020].

[5] Khan, K., 2018. How Somatic Therapy Can Help Patients Suffering From Psychological Trauma. [online] World of Psychology. Available at: <https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-somatic-therapy-can-help-patients-suffering-from-psychological-trauma/#:~:text=Somatic%20therapy%20offers%20a%20variety,a%20heightened%20ability%20to%20concentrate.> [Accessed 5 August 2020].

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