Introduction to Somatic Experiencing
Contributed by Janee Bellamy, with full attribution to Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute: http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/
What is Somatic Experiencing®?
A single brief exposure to an overwhelming event can throw a normally functioning individual into an abyss of emotional and physical suffering.
SE® is a clinical methodology based upon an appreciation of why animals in the wild are not traumatized by routine threats to their lives while humans, on the other hand, are readily overwhelmed and traumatized. Fortunately, the very same instincts (and related survival based brain systems) that are involved in the formation of trauma symptoms can be enlisted in the transformation and healing of trauma. Therapeutically, this “instinct to heal” and self-regulate is engaged through the awareness of body sensations that contradict those of paralysis and helplessness, and which restore resilience, equilibrium and wholeness.
In distinction to cognitive and emotional based therapies (“top-down” approaches which focus on insight and emotions first and only secondarily focus on somatic responses to trauma), SE® is a “bottom-up” approach. It focuses on the brain stem and its survival-based functions, which are not under conscious or emotional control. Access to these instinctual action and arousal systems is through the vehicle of physical bodily sensations.
Cognitions and emotions are included in SE® practice but they are secondary or derivative from physical sensations through bottom-up processing.
SE® employs awareness of body sensation to help people “renegotiate” and heal rather than re-live or re-enact trauma. SE’s guidance of the bodily “felt sense” allows the highly aroused survival energies to be safely experienced and SE® “titrates” experience (breaks down into small, incremental steps), rather than evoking catharsis, which can overwhelm the regulatory mechanisms of the organism.
Science Behind Somatic Experiencing
Integrating a broad scientific understanding of how animals and human beings respond to overwhelmingly stressful circumstances, Somatic Experiencing® (SE®) is an innovative and highly effective approach to preventing and healing the consequences of emotional and physical trauma. The result of over forty years of observation, research, and hands-on development by Dr. Peter Levine, SE® recognizes that trauma isn’t just restricted to catastrophic events like war, rape, and disaster, but can be the product of an accumulative effect from other more “ordinary” events such as falls, accidents, and invasive medical procedures.
SE® encourages the client to physicalize their personal boundaries by becoming aware of physical sensations and impulses. By gradually discovering their own innate defensive responses, the client replaces feelings of collapse and terror with a sense of completion, self-acceptance and mastery. This is done without retelling or reliving the traumatic narrative, which are highly likely to re-traumatize. The reliance on observing and discerning shifts in sensation and imagery (known as “tracking”) is a much safer and more effective approach, as opposed to re-immersion or cognitive-based therapies, when dealing with the high-level, survival energies of trauma.
By “tracking” their own shifting physiological states, incomplete survival responses to real or perceived threat begin to re-emerge through posture, heat changes, and trembling or muscle vibration. The client is encouraged to complete these actions, either through slow, deliberate movement, or just by “feeling” themselves do it. This leads to a successful renegotiation.
Renegotiation is defined as the integration and transformation of traumatic memory, experience, and energy into a more cohesive and life-fulfilling sense of accomplishment. Renegotiation achieved when the client is able to successfully release in a slow and segmented way, only as much trapped survival energy as can be re-integrated back into their body, without becoming overwhelmed. As sessions progress, this capacity for re-integrating larger levels of this traumatic energy (through trembling, temperature changes, imagery, and intense sensation) increases.
An SE® therapist’s role is to monitor changes in the client’s body. These changes include pulse rate, breathing, temperature and posture. These changes are reported to the client, who in turn is gently encouraged to experience (and report back) these shifts as sensation (warm, cold, tingling, vibration, contraction, expansion, pleasure, discomfort, etc.).
The therapist guides the client’s awareness to observable changes in their body (or stark discrepancies between what the client is saying, and how their body posture changes). The client is encouraged to set their own pace, and the intensity of the sessions is also modulated by the therapist for added safety. Context is unspoken, and only experienced in small, easily integrative doses.
SE® practitioner modulates the client’s levels of nervous system arousal during the session, but allows the client to “set their own pace” or rhythm, a counter to the fixity and lack of choice in the trauma.
For more information on SE®, including information about and schedules for future training, please visit the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute website, http://traumahealing.com/. In January 2014, a new class will form in Austin, Texas.
For more information regarding research and articles on this modality, please visit: