While trauma can be hell on earth, trauma resolved is a gift of the gods – a heroic journey that belongs to each of us.
Dr. Peter Levine
Trauma changes people’s orientation to their self-worth and efficacy, their capacity to deal with conflict and intimacy, as well as emotion regulation and long-term planning. Trauma at different developmental levels changes brain circuitry differently, and thus: perception, self-regulation and reciprocity.
The consequences of these experiences can have deep psychological and physical effects on the body causing a variety of symptoms.
Somatic Experiencing Principles
Somatic experiencing (SE) does not focus on talking about or re-living trauma. SE works at the physiological level where traumatic activation is held in the body. Often, clients have had therapy to deal with their traumas and still have symptoms, physically, emotionally, and relationally. Or perhaps they have symptoms and don’t know why. Dr. Peter Levine found that by processing the body and guiding the discharge of stored energy in the body then homeostasis of the nervous system occurred and symptoms resolved. This seems to be the missing piece in trauma resolution, no matter how severe.
- SE stabilises the client in a safe, resourced state before working with any traumatic material. An environment of relative safety is necessary for healing to occur.
- SE tracks the bodily “felt sense” to allow the highly aroused survival energies to be safely experienced and gradually discharged, leading to completion and self-regulation of the nervous system. Sensations such as warmth, trembling, expansion and contraction, softening and tightening are experienced. This helps people “renegotiate” and heal rather than relive or re-enact trauma
- SE integrates and expands a person’s tolerance of their bodily sensations and helps them to trust in the innate wisdom of the body, and begins to separate out the fear and terror experienced during the event. In so doing, a person’s capacity for self-regulation is enhanced.
- SE “titrates” experience, working slowly within the client’s range of resiliency to facilitate the most efficient healing recovery rather than causing re-arousal of intense emotional states or painful physical discomfort.
- SE works peripherally with the activation. Work begins away from the area of greatest discomfort, or the traumatic event is approached from what occurred before and after the primary core of that event. This allows a reduction of the bound charge and an increase in stability to tolerate the strong sensations and emotions contained in the apex of the event.
- SE “pendulates” the experience by first helping the client to recognise and expand their internal, external and missing resources. As activation increases, the client can switch between working with the aroused and activated state back to their resourced state and not fall into the sensation of overwhelm.
- SE works in the here and now and focuses on the sensations and body memories and resources occurring in the present.
SE and Touch
Even though SE is a body-oriented approach it does not have to involve touch or bodywork. Touch when offered and accepted by the client is a gentle touch acting as a container, a resource, or to provide support. It may involve the practitioner’s foot against that of the client or a light hand on the shoulder or back. Whenever touch is used within an SE session it is never a manipulation or a high-pressure touch.
Whatever the cause of the trauma; be it from adverse pre- and peri-natal experiences, disorganised early attachment, episodic or chronic traumatic events or prolonged high stress situations, the safe, gradual negotiation of SE helps individuals to reconnect with their own innate capacity to recover. They will gradually return to experiencing aliveness, vitality, and health in the here-and-now, with an increased self-confidence and sense of empowerment. As these shifts happen there will be changes in the way they respond both consciously and unconsciously to stressful situations.
Who Can Benefit From SE?
Anybody who wishes to regain a sense of empowerment by learning about and experiencing their body’s natural ability to calm itself after strong feelings or activation caused by a situation they perceive as being stressful or threatening can benefit from SE.
SE can be helpful for many individuals, who have experienced either overwhelming traumatic life events or periods of continual stress. A traumatic event is an experience that causes physical, emotional or psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world.
If the threat, traumatic experience, or the duration of the event or circumstances is too great, or we have little or no support, our nervous system becomes overwhelmed and cannot return to its healthy place of resilience and equilibrium. We may stay either in a state of high arousal, reacting adversely to the slightest sound or movement and being hyperactive, or we may move into a state of shutdown and depression.
Symptoms of Overwhelm or Traumatic Stress
Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ”triggering” event itself. They stem from the leftover survival energy that has not been resolved and discharged due to a disturbance in the self-regulatory capacity of our autonomic nervous system and physiology.
Each time we are not able to return to a relaxed ‘normal’ state, our nervous system becomes more hypersensitive or unresponsive and we are more likely to be affected by events, actions or experiences that previously may not have had an impact. Over time, after months or years, symptoms of the following types may arise:
- Heart palpitations, breathing problems, dizziness
- Hyper vigilance, being on guard or over alert
- Extreme sensitivity to light, sound or touch
- Involuntary behaviour: tics, jerking limbs
- Anxiety, including chronic low level anxiety
- Panic attacks and phobias
- Fears and terrors
- Flash backs and intrusive memories or images
- Overwhelming emotional responses such as shame, anger, depression
- Insomnia, poor sleep, nightmares, night terrors
- Psychosomatic illnesses, particularly some headaches, migraines, neck and back problems
- Muscle weakness, muscle pain e.g. fibromyalgia, myofasical pain
- Menstrual problems
- Digestive problems, e.g. irritable bowel syndrome, spastic colon
- Immune system problems
- Skin disorders
- Environmental sensitivities
- Physical, mental or emotional exhaustion
- Mood swings, shame, depression, rage, aggression, lack of self worth, easily irritated
- Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
- Mental ‘blankness’ or spaced-out feelings
- Amnesia, forgetfulness
- Indecisiveness and feelings of overwhelm
- Attraction to dangerous situations or people
- Addictive behaviour: smoking, alcohol dependency, drug abuse
- Avoidance behaviour: avoiding places, activities, memories, situations or people
- Attachment difficulties in nurturing, bonding or committing to others or receiving from others
As SE works directly with the neurophysiology of the body to help regulate the nervous system and its effects on the endocrine and immune systems, these symptoms can gradually be reduced.
How Does SE Differ From Other Therapeutic Modalities?
The more traditional cognitive and emotional based ‘talk’ therapies can be considered as being “top-down” approaches. They focus on insight and emotions first and only secondarily focus on somatic responses to trauma. Talking about the trauma can have an adverse effect, as the person can be re-traumatised with the flooding of reactions and overwhelm that arises during the process if their nervous system is not able to regulate itself.
In contrast Somatic Experiencing is a “bottom-up” approach. It focuses on the brain stem – the reptilian brain and its survival-based functions that are not under conscious or emotional control. Access to these instinctual action and arousal systems is through the mode of physical bodily sensations, imagery and motor patterns. In the process of working with the ‘felt sense’ of the body other elements of the trauma experience may arise such as meaning and emotions. Thus cognitions and emotions are included in SE practice but they are secondary or derivative from physical sensations through the bottom-up processing.
SE uses techniques and interventions that work directly and gently with the neurophysiology of the body. SE avoids some of the issues that catharsis, re-enactment or talking about the story may create, such as re-traumatisation or re-arousal of intense emotional states that can be frightening or too confronting to clients and may discourage them from continuing on their healing journey.