What is Somatic Experiencing®

As a Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner (SEP) one of my favorite things to do is explain how the neuroscience of stress works. Helping people use this information to improve their lives is a deep pleasure for me precisely because it has such a positive impact. The information behind stress and trauma helps people understand where they’re at, what’s going on for them and what they can to do to help themselves feel better.

For some people it works to read about these things. Others prefer to have things explained in person. Some just want to jump in and try things out without reviewing the manual first. No matter what type of person you are, feel free to get in touch with me so we can talk about what Somatic Experiencing might be able to do for you. Below is a short written introduction to SE. Under the resource tab you will find references for books, websites and videos where you can learn more. And again, I love to share this with people so feel free be in contact if you have more questions.

Don’t be worried, though sometimes the science behind SE can be complex, I always do my best to help make this information accessible. Let’s start with a quote from the originator of SE, Peter Levine PhD. –

Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering. Although it is the source of tremendous distress and dysfunction, it is not an ailment or a disease, but the by-product of an instinctively instigated altered state of consciousness. We enter this state – let us call it survival mode – when we perceive that our lives are being threatened. If we are overwhelmed by the threat and are unable to successfully defend ourselves, we can become stuck in survival mode. This highly aroused state is designed solely to enable short-term defensive actions; but left untreated over time, it begins to form the symptoms of trauma.” – Peter Levine

The central thing Levine is saying here is that our survival responses (the process that makes us fight, flee and freeze when we need to respond to danger) can get “stuck on” for various reasons. When that happens for a long time, everything in our lives can start to get out of balance. This feeling of being out of balance is a lot like the feeling of being stuck in time and finding ourselves repeatedly doing the same kind of behavior over and over again (just like with an addiction). That’s because our nervous system is literally still fighting, fleeing or freezing.

SE is the healing modality that Peter Levine created to help people get out of this stuck survival mode. SE provides a comprehensive understanding of how trauma happens in the nervous system as well as guidelines on how to help change this situation of repetition and stuckness.

What is supposed to happen:

The key to understanding why this “stuck on” situation occurs is in the biological rules of how our bodies process stress. This is the same process that other mammals use. When observing animals in the wild, Peter Levine discovered that even though they might be routinely exposed to potentially traumatic events, they rarely suffer from trauma symptoms. Levine realized that if a prey animal manages to escape from a predator, once it is “safe enough,” it will literally “shake it off” and then rejoin the herd.

It turns out that this “shaking it off” process is an expected part of our response to danger. It’s as important as the running away itself. That’s because it tells the brain that the event and the danger are over. To do that it must happen at the involuntary levels of the brain. You can’t just “do it” you have to “let it” happen. It’s more about instinct than about “doing the right thing.” We’ve all had the time when we were almost in an accident and felt shaky afterwards. That feeling is what we’re talking about here. It’s just something that happens–or that wants to happen. The difference between humans and animals is that the animals let it happen and humans tend to stop it. Levine’s research helped him realize that when this part of the process remains incomplete the nervous system stays inside the response to the event rather than finishing and coming out of it. With that we end up with the symptoms of trauma and upset (i.e. sleepless nights, tension and agitation, anxiety and depression and other similar signs of distress).

What happens when it goes wrong:

We tend to get stuck in one of two different ways: hyperarousal and hypoarousal.

When the nervous system is stuck in hyper-arousal the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is stuck on. This is the sub-system that directs fight and flight kinds of behaviors when we’re threatened. When this hyperarousal happens the frontal lobe shuts down which leads to impulsivity, risk-taking behaviors, poor judgment, hyper-vigilance, mind racing, states of frozen terror, and of course self-destructive and addictive behaviors. Most of that is because the nervous system is stuck “on” and it’s as if everything inside is racing, racing, racing, seemingly without end.

When the nervous system is stuck in hypo-arousal the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is stuck on. That’s the sub-system that will make us freeze or go immobile if our life is threatened in a way that makes us feel that we might die or that the situation is such that we can’t do anything at all about it. When this gets stuck on it can hold down our energy making us feel flat, numb, dead or empty. It can often feel inside like “nobody’s there” and it’s a major force behind depression and the victim identity where the feeling is that “I can’t do anything.” Thinking can be slow and even “zombie like.” When stuck in immobility people often become preoccupied with shame, despair and self-loathing.

One extra challenge that comes along with freeze/immobility is that it can look calm on the outside but inside there is actually a lot of turbulence and noise. People stuck here often have a hard time explaining that inside it actually feels like the accelerator is on at the same time as the brake.

In reality both of these positions of being stuck (hyper or hypo arousal) can feel terrible. And they can compel us to do crazy things that we wouldn’t choose to do if our nervous system was working better or “self-regulating.” Since these responses like fight/flight and freeze are generated in the most primitive part of our brain (“the reptilian brain”), symptoms of trauma tend to be related to the functions regulated by that part of our brain. This area governs physical balance, arousal, movement, and all basic vital bodily functions such as breathing, digestion, circulation, heartbeat, sexuality and action. Understanding this allows us to see trauma symptoms as the result of this highly activated and incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. By supporting this frozen response to thaw, and then complete itself, trauma can be renegotiated and with that we can move back into the opportunity to enjoy our lives and make better choices.

The very structure of trauma, including these two physiological states I just explained here, is based on the evolution of the predator/prey survival behaviors. They include this process which humans have a tendency not to complete. But fortunately we can complete the process. And we do when we have the right information and the right kind of support to do it.

So what is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic Experiencing takes all of this information into account and provides guidelines for practitioners and clients to help this completion process to happen. The work progresses through a logical sequence that includes education, skills building, personal awareness tracking and eventually renegotiation.

1) The education part provides more information on how these survival responses work in our daily lives and how they become stuck in the nervous system. That education helps us see where our own behaviors are reinforcing the repetition of our symptoms, which is a natural tendency of trauma. This knowledge can help us both respect our situation better as well as point to what we need to be doing differently.

2) We then develop the skills necessary to feel our body responses at the involuntary level, which is where they need to be processed for the brain to register them. Because these feelings and sensations can sometimes be negative and uncomfortable, SE specializes in cultivating safe and effective steps that can help previously distressing feelings to become manageable. By developing these skills of “mindfulness” and “body tracking” we can learn to gain access to the wisdom of our bodies. That’s helpful for both therapy and real life. Learning how to understand and appreciate our body’s “felt sense” gives us better access to understanding what is good for us and what is not.

3) Once sufficient understanding and skillful awareness of body responses has been developed we can move on to renegotiating past traumatic events. With this the nervous system is given the opportunity to “renegotiate” or complete the stress responses. This often includes the same kind of trembling and shaking that Peter Levine witnessed in wild animals. Just as Levine noticed that this is a critical component of the completion process for animals, it is for humans as well. The goal is not shaking itself but completion. The shaking is simply a way that sometimes indicates that completion is happening. With this completion and renegotiation the dis-regulated nervous system can stop being worried about past dangers and can start to pay more attention to the possibility and enjoyment of the present moment. With that, access to our real lives can begin.

What all this means:

Somatic Experiencing is a short-term naturalistic approach to getting out of these stuck survival reactions, stress and trauma. The word “trauma” in this sense covers a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms that result from the effect of stress accumulating in human physiology and the nervous system. In other words, we can get out of the feeling that our bodies can have of needing to be in the survival response all the time rather than being at ease and enjoying life.

SE helps a person cultivate the necessary physical awareness and ability to participate safely with the unresolved instructions for survival that their nervous system is still trying to use. As an example, part of learning SE is about learning how to feel your body and under the right kind of guidance allow your body to feel the way it is trying to feel. For example, to allow tension to be present for a moment so that it can “do what it is trying to do.” When the body is able to feel itself in this unique way it tends to communicate with the brain that the action is over, the response to the event isn’t needed any more and the stress process can complete. That then settles the nervous system and helps thaw a stuck survival reaction.

The use or integration of Somatic Experiencing® in trauma-resolution strategically re-positions people in a way that they are able to comprehend the extent to which trauma events have impacted their life. With this they can also gain the skills that will help bail them out of the endless repetitions of unbearable experiences and feelings of being “stuck in a rut.” Fortunately, on the other side of this stuckness is the return to the experience of success, flow and life.

If you have any questions about Somatic Experiencing, please feel free to be in contact. I’d love to be of help.

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