Somatic Experiencing® is a body-oriented therapeutic model that helps heal trauma and other stress disorders. Developed by Peter Levine, Ph.D., it is the result of the multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, with more than 45 years of successful clinical application. Essentially, Somatic Experiencing® helps people who have experienced trauma to regulate their own nervous systems and to process trauma, often after years of having experienced anxiety, stress, depression, and other disorders secondary to dysregulation from the unprocessed traumatic event(s) they experienced.
Our human bodies are wired for survival. That means that our brains have complex circuitry that is, in part, designed to keep us alive. When we experience a potentially life-threatening event, a cascade of chemical and neurological activity is set off. This creates reactions in our bodies, which are most often observed in what are called the ‘fight’, ‘flight’, and ‘freeze’ responses. These survival responses are excellent for helping us to escape life-threatening situations- they provide us with energy and orchestrate the physical ability to outrun predators, to fight off would-be attackers, or even to ‘play dead’ if the situation calls for that. Unfortunately, when we do not get to complete these defensive responses, as is often the case when we experience trauma, those internal messages of ‘fight’, ‘flight’, and ‘freeze’ can become trapped. It’s almost as though the messages of “FIGHT! RUN! or COLLAPSE!” become stuck on a loop inside of us. Where we have unprocessed trauma, our nervous systems can, and often do, continue to send out signals as if we were still experiencing the original survival threat—even though it may be years or decades after the threat occurred.
Somatic Experiencing® is a gentle and titrated approach through which clients can complete these often-incomplete survival responses, without being re-traumatized by the original event. In Somatic Experiencing®, Somatic Experiencing® Practitioners help clients work with nervous system dysregulation in bite-sized, manageable pieces to restore a sense of wholeness and connection within their body, mind, and spirit. This dysregulation often shows up as anxiety, hypervigilance, stress, physical pain, chronic illness, depression, lethargy, lack of motivation, self-destructive or addictive behavior, shame, despair, self-loathing, and overwhelming sensations or emotions, to name a few. As a client builds the capacity to process the dysregulation, less of the dysregulation exists and there is more room for the client’s authentic self to shine through. When clients are more in touch with their authentic selves, they often experience a greater sense of who they really are without the trauma, an increased capacity to deal with their body sensations and emotions, and the ability to truly enjoy their lives.
In traditional talk-therapy, clients are asked to talk through their thoughts, emotions, and to deal with their traumatic events cognitively. This is often referred to as a ‘top-down’ approach, as the clients start at the top of the brain (the neocortex, the frontal lobes, and the prefrontal lobes) and use their cognitive abilities to process trauma. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is one example of a well-known ‘top-down’ approach.
Somatic Experiencing® is what we refer to as a ‘bottom-up’ approach, in that clients are invited to explore the sensations, reflexes, and survival responses that are governed by the bottom of the brain (the brain stem). Because Somatic Experiencing® seeks to first establish a sense of safety in the body before ever processing trauma, it can be a far gentler healing modality. Clients are not expected to jump into discussing trauma or processing trauma before having a baseline of safety and resourcing. Interestingly, it is in the process of increasing this baseline of safety and resourcing that clients learn to handle their emotions and to experience the challenging sensations in their bodies. This makes it possible for clients to then process their trauma from a place of groundedness, strength, confidence, and autonomy.
A lot of what you experience in a Somatic Experiencing® session depends on what is present with you, or what you want to work on that day. Typically, at the outset of working with a Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner (“SEP”), your SEP will get to know you and will begin to invite you to explore various different ways that you experience the world. Your SEP may invite you to notice the sensations that are present for you as you mention the traffic you had to sit in on the way to their office, or your SEP might ask you what thoughts or emotions come up for you during a discussion of how your boss failed to return your call on an urgent matter. You may notice that you have different images arise as you’re talking about something, or that you remember a certain sound or taste during an experience you had. Finally, your SEP might observe that you tend to look to the right or exhibit other behavior every time you mention the car accident you were in. Throughout your session, your SEP will be monitoring your level of dysregulation or nervous system activation, such that they can help you learn to manage and to experience this activation within what is referred to as your ‘window of tolerance’. This is the window within which you can experience an event without also experiencing overwhelming activation and dysregulation. Over time, as you learn to manage your own nervous system regulation, you increase your capacity to heal from trauma.
Somatic Experiencing® is a three-year trauma-healing certificate that is offered through Somatic Experiencing International. When interviewing a clinician who offers Somatic Experiencing®, make sure to ask them whether they have completed the full program and whether they have graduated the program and have earned their certificate. As Somatic Experiencing® is a “multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, and indigenous healing practices”, it takes time and practice to learn.
If you have questions or would like to schedule a Somatic Experiencing® session, call our office today!