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ABOUT SOMATIC EXPERIENCING

WHAT IS SOMATIC EXPERIENCING?

Somatic Experiencing was first developed in the 1970s by psychologist Peter Levine, who went on to found the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute. Levine's approach grew out of his observations of the way animals responded to stressful or life-threatening situations in the wild. He noted that they can face threats to their survival on a daily basis, and yet don't appear to become traumatised by these experiences. Levine posited that this is because animals possess innate biological coping mechanisms that enable them to recover from these events relatively quickly and return to normal functioning. He noted, by contrast, that human beings - possibly due partly to our more evolved brain function - have a tendency to override these natural responses.

The theory behind Somatic Experiencing states that trauma doesn't lie in the event but rather in our response to it. In other words, it isn't the events themselves that cause traumatic symptoms to appear, it is the inability on our part to complete and discharge the fight/flight/freeze response generated in our nervous system by those events.

 

When a wild animal faces a threat to its safety, there is a mobilisation of energy in the animal's body (fight, flight or freeze) to enable it to either confront or avoid the danger. If it manages to successfully negotiate the situation and the danger passes, the animal's body and nervous system are then able to discharge any left over stress energy and it can resume its previous activities as though nothing has happened. As part of this process of discharge, an animal's body may tremble, pant or shake, for example, sometimes finding ways to complete fight or flight movements - such as running away - that they were not able to enact at the time.

Our tendency as human beings not to trust this natural process - and to therefore override it - means that, in the wake of traumatic experiences, our nervous system can end up stuck on high alert. We continue to experience a sense of danger, even though the danger has passed. Through all of this our bodies are operating in a suppressed state of high activation - one way to describe this would be to say that the body is like a car with both the accelerator pedal and brake fully pressed down: literally 'all revved up with nowhere to go.' Over time, this causes patterns of chronic tension to appear, together with many of the physical and psychological symptoms of ill-health that go with it. People can find themselves increasingly living in a loop of self-perpetuating stress and anxiety, with no idea how to break the cycle.

HOW DOES SOMATIC EXPERIENCING WORK?

The aim of Somatic Experiencing is to enable the nervous system to bring itself back into regulation. We do this in a variety of ways.

 

One approach is through helping clients to focus on the felt sense: a deepening awareness of emotions and physical sensations as they arise in the body that enables us to navigate our way more skilfully through states of stress and high activation. 

 

SE also uses a technique known as titration, which is commonly used in other trauma treatments. Rather than dive straight into the heart of a trauma during a session, the client is encouraged initially to work at a level and pace that feels manageable to them. As sessions progress, he or she will gradually increase their capacity to bear the feelings and sensations that arise, building confidence and safety as they go. This helps with integration. 

In an SE session we might also work with pendulation, which involves helping a client to experience the movement between a state of activation or dysregulation, and then back to a place of safety and self-regulation again. As part of this process, clients are encouraged to develop resources, which are any sources of strength and comfort that help the nervous system to be able to tolerate traumatic material. The aim of working with these techniques is to help the client increasingly learn how to regulate their nervous system independently.

WHAT CAN SOMATIC EXPERIENCING HELP WITH?

Amongst other things...

  • Wanting to feel more grounded and connected to our bodies and the world around us.

  • Anxiety; depression; irritability; mood swings.

  • Feeling stuck or lethargic; chronic fatigue.

  • Unexplained physical symptoms, such as aching joints, digestive problems and disturbed sleep.

  • Addictions; phobias; obsessive thinking; PTSD.

  • Recovery from short-term traumas, such as falls or car accidents.