What Is Somatic Experiencing?
“What is Somatic Experiencing?” You’ve probably asked yourself this question if you’ve been reading up on somatic ways to heal trauma. Most of us are familiar with traditional approaches to trauma healing like talk therapy or pharmaceuticals. Somatic approaches to mental health care like Somatic Experiencing (SE) are not as well known but on the rise. In this post I’ll explain how SE works, for what kinds of trauma it’s best suited and a few of its limitations. To begin, let’s look at the body’s fundamental response to threat: fight or flight.
“Fight or Flight” is a Basic Response to Danger
When you experience a high-intensity threat to your safety, a protective circuit between the brain and body activates. The body tells the brain there’s danger and the brain responds with a boost of adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals help you either fight off the threat or run away from it. If you successfully do either one, all the energy the adrenaline and cortisol recruited gets discharged. Your brain registers the discharge as a signal the threat is over. It shuts off the adrenaline and cortisol valve knowing you are now safe and sound. The brain-body circuit is complete and you can go back to business as usual. No trauma.
Sometimes Fight or Flight Fails
Now you see how “fight or flight” works so let’s take a look at what happens when it doesn’t. What if the threat strikes too fast, too suddenly or with too much force? What if it can’t be fought off or run away from? Your body blasts you with that rush of energy but the danger hits before you can use it. So where does the energy go? If there’s no discharge, how does the brain get the message that the threat is over? It doesn’t.Without the “all clear” from the body, the brain continues to supply you with adrenaline and cortisol. You remain in varying states of fight or flight from then on as if the danger were still present. This is how shock trauma happens.
Somatic Experiencing Makes Up the Difference
So how does Somatic Experiencing fit into all of this? SE is the life work of Dr. Peter Levine who studied how animals respond to threat in the wild. He wondered why humans get traumatized but wild animals don’t and he observed one critical thing. Let’s say a coyote is out looking for lunch and goes after a rabbit. The rabbit’s brain does what a human brain does: it preps it with what it needs to outrun the coyote. It makes a mad dash and with any luck, gets back to the safety of its little den. Once there, it shakes off all the extra energy it didn’t need to run away. The discharge signals the threat is over. The rabbit’s physiology is reset to normal and it goes on unaffected by its brush with death. No trauma.
Dr. Levine wanted to know if that could work with humans, too. If we could shed the extra energy like wild animals, could we avoid being traumatized? The answer is yes.The method he developed over decades of research taps into the trapped energy and helps it to finally release. A Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP) creates the safety you need to let your body finish what it started. This happens gently and incrementally over several sessions so that the process does not overwhelm you. But what does that look like? In a typical session you allow your body’s involuntary responses to occur. You may experience trembling, a flush of heat, muscle tension or relaxation, the chills or other physical sensations, yawning, surges of emotion—any of the numerous ways your body has of releasing energy. This is the difference between talk therapy and SE: you’re actually having an experience rather than talking about an experience.
Is Somatic Experiencing Right For Me?
SE is a very effective tool for addressing shock trauma. Shock trauma is a one time event that overwhelms your fight or flight response (e.g., a car accident or physical assault). If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, it’s very likely SE will be useful to you.
SE is not, however, well suited for developmental or relational trauma—trauma that was sustained over long periods of time during the early years of your life and inside the context of important relationships. If you have C-PTSD, SE may be helpful as a supplement but not as the main course of therapy. If you have questions about whether SE is right for you, visit www.traumahealing.org or click here to schedule a free consultation.