Somatic Experiencing is a gentle, yet powerful and effective approach for resolving symptoms of trauma and relieving chronic anxiety and stress. Instead of just talking about the problem, this is a “bottom-up” way of processing. This means we’re inviting the body’s information and the body’s intelligence to come into our awareness and be a part of the process, encouraging and creating space for our body’s natural ability to heal.
How we Get Stuck
When we feel like our life is threatened (whether real or imagined) or if we have chronic stress over a long period of time, our bodies are designed to show symptoms of trauma. This is because our bodies mobilize energy and chemicals to enact one of our three main innate responses to threat: fight, flight, or freeze. These responses to threat arise naturally from our physiology, without much conscious thought. They are designed to be temporary in order to get us to safety, and then release, allowing our bodies to come back down to a baseline.
When our bodies don’t have the opportunity to release this energy during and after the threatening event, our body may think we are still in danger, and continue to produce more chemicals and “brace” for responding to this perceived threat. Over time, this accumulation of stress chemicals as well as the constant feeling of being unsafe can create dysregulation in a nervous system along with complex and difficult symptoms.
Some typical trauma symptoms include:
- hyper-vigilance (a constant feeling of being on “high alert” for danger, excessive worry)
- hyper-arousal (increased heart rate or breathing, racing thoughts, body tension, cold sweats)
- anxiety/panic attacks
- digestive issues
- chronic pain
- flashbacks/intrusive imagery
- a feeling of being disconnected from others and/or life
- difficulty sleeping
- a sense of helplessness/hopelessness or a need for control
- chronic shame
Somatic Experiencing addresses all types of trauma, including:
- childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- experiencing or witnessing violence
- loss of a loved one
- sexual or physical assault
- catastrophic injuries or illness
- automobile accidents (even minor ones)
- invasive medical or dental procedures
- experiences of war
- major life transitions
What Therapy Looks Like
Somatic Experiencing work often begins by taking things slow, starting with establishing a felt sense of safety in your environment and helping you to find personal resources (like inner strengths or positive relationships) that can help you to experience a sense of support and stability. Your counsellor will guide you into slowly increasing awareness of bodily sensations, so that you can establish the feeling of connection and safety within your own body. As you learn to pay attention to your internal body experience, your counsellor will support you to move your attention gently back and forth between sensations. The sensations could be a tight feeling in your throat, a heavy feeling in your chest, a sick feeling in your gut or so many others. They can be everyday feelings that we usually ignore. However, Somatic Experiencing views these sensations as related to both challenging experiences and positive experiences. This movement back and forth allows you to slowly increase your tolerance for the physical sensations, emotions, and memories of the trauma. Sometimes you might notice the body wanting to move in certain ways in order to complete self-protective responses that didn’t get to complete, or releasing emotions or activation that has been stuck in the nervous system. This release may happen in various ways, such as shaking, tears, feeling heat, or completing a physical movement. The counsellor will help you to notice what your body is saying so that your body can finally get the message that the threat has passed, and the nervous system can regain its natural balance and regulation.
Benefits of Somatic Experiencing Therapy
Our Autonomic Nervous System governs the functioning of so many of our body’s other systems, such as the digestive system, the reproductive system, the musculoskeletal system, the endocrine system (our hormones), etc. Finding true Nervous System healing means that people often experience improvement in the functioning of these other systems, and relief from ailments such as IBS, endometriosis, chronic pain, hormonal imbalances, and the list goes on… Most people notice that this type of therapy frees up energy in their bodies so that they have more energy for daily life. It also allows them to increase their resilience to stress, so they may experience a fuller sense of aliveness and connection with their authentic selves.
Common Questions about Somatic Experiencing Therapy
I don’t really feel my emotions. Will this therapy work for me?
It’s normal for people who first begin this form of therapy to have difficulty connecting with their emotions and internal experience. We’re not often taught growing up how to check into our bodies and notice what’s happening in there, and for some, feeling and/or expressing emotion hasn’t been a safe experience growing up. This form of therapy supports people to gently build the capacity to experience their internal world, and begin to come more into connection with themselves.
I feel lots of emotions and body sensations. Do I still need this therapy?
Many people who feel in touch with their emotions would also say that sometimes it feels like their emotions take over, feel overwhelming, or out of control. It’s common for people to value their emotions and express them, but also not quite know what to do with them. They can end up feeling like they are swinging back and forth all the time between competing emotions or between an emotion and an idea.
The goal of SE is not to have emotions running the show, but to let our emotions be one part of our whole selves. Therapists use the word, “regulated.” When our emotions are regulated, we can feel them, hear them, and incorporate what they tell us about ourselves without losing our cool or feeling out of control.
Also, if you are stuck with trauma symptoms, simply letting emotions run wild won’t necessarily help you move past those symptoms. Being able to hear the emotions is only the first step. Your therapist can help you take the next steps of regulation so that you can feel more stable and alleviate your trauma symptoms.
Who started this therapy? How long has it been around?
Somatic Experiencing is the life work of Dr. Peter Levine and has been successfully applied in clinical settings for more than four decades.
Please see the www.traumahealing.org for links to videos of Peter talking about how he came to develop this work.
I have a physical injury that won’t heal. Should I try this therapy?
Yes. Many people have benefitted from SE work after a long history of struggling with pain and complications from an injury that hasn’t been healed by other means. Quite often, an injury that won’t heal is a result of energy mobilized at the time of the accident that has become stuck in the body for various reasons. Please see the following blog post for more information about how trauma gets stuck in our body:
How long will it take before I feel better?
There is no simple answer to this question. For some people, there may be a specific, isolated event that has created the trauma symptoms, which can sometimes be healed in as little as a few sessions. For others, especially those who experienced more complex and/or childhood trauma, the healing period may take much longer, and the work may need to move slower in order to support increased, more sustainable nervous system regulation over time. Everyone’s healing process is unique to them, and to their own personal history.
What if I’m afraid to “open up” past trauma?
Somatic Experiencing prioritizes establishing safety and stability first, anchoring into what is positive in a person’s life, or what gives them a sense of wholeness, ease, or “flow”. From this stable base, we then begin to touch into more challenging aspects of experience, while staying connected with the “anchors” of stability along the way, to ensure the nervous system remains supported throughout the process. Care for the nervous system is a mainstay of Somatic Experiencing work.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t try this therapy?
Everyone can benefit from understanding themselves better and learning to better care for their nervous system. At every step of the way, you therapist will be working to ensure that your whole self feels an increasing sense of safety. If there is any reason that your therapist believes that this approach wouldn’t be appropriate for you, she will let you know and provide you with an alternative.
For more information on Somatic Experiencing, please visit the official website:
Cheryl Verheyden is an RCC counsellor, a certified Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP), and holds an MA in Expressive Arts Therapy. She has many years of experience helping people with trauma and abuse and uses an individualized approach to help people move forward with their lives by getting better connected to themselves.