“The body tells the truth regardless of whether we speak its language or not. ... Often my practice has focused on trying to meet my body where it is, instead of constantly trying to get it to meet me where I am.”
― Lama Rod Owens
ABOUT SOMATIC EXPERIENCING
WHAT IS SOMATIC EXPERIENCING?
The theories behind Somatic Experiencing aren't totally new. As far back as the early 1900s the French psychologist Pierre Jane wrote about the importance of taking successful physical action to prevent traumatic memory from becoming lodged in the mind and body. In his book Psychological Healing (1925) he wrote about the 'pleasure of a completed action' and suggested that people 'suffering from traumatic memory have not been able to perform any of the actions characteristic of the stage of triumph'. This, he argued, meant that they have never had the closure that their body - and mind - has been crying out for.”
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 in part grew out of his observations of the way animals responded to stressful or life-threatening situations in the wild. He noted that animals 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 and return to normal functioning relatively quickly.
When a wild animal faces a threat to its safety, there is a huge surge 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.
Human beings, by contrast - possibly due partly to our more evolved brain function - have a tendency to override these natural mechanisms and become stuck in the trauma response. Somatic Experiencing states that trauma doesn't lie so much 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 to complete and discharge the fight/flight/freeze response generated in our nervous system by those events. Symptoms of trauma, such as flashbacks, dissociation, or chronic anxiety, persist largely because the actions of responding to stress remain unfinished. If a person can support the body to finish the job by allowing the incomplete defensive or escape-based reactions to run their course, it allows a feeling of safety to return and the body can go back to a state of homeostasis.
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.
WHAT HAPPENS IN A TYPICAL SOMATIC EXPERIENCING SESSION?
One of the principal differences between Somatic Experiencing and more traditional methods of 'talk therapy' is that there is less emphasis placed on the client telling their story or examining their past in order to gain an understanding of the issues they are working with.
Typically, you will be invited to sit comfortably opposite the practitioner, be given time to settle, and then asked if there are any themes or issues you’d like to work with today. As the session unfolds, you will be supported to consciously explore related physical tensions, sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise, working at a pace that feels manageable to you. The role of the Somatic Experiencing Practitioner is to act as a compassionate support and guide through this process. They are there to help facilitate you as you learn how to gradually tolerate, release and integrate whatever may be arising for you.
Through this simple moment-to-moment process it becomes possible for whatever is stuck or unresolved in your body to be experienced more fully and to find a way to release naturally. Examples of this discharge can include tingling, warmth, and involuntary muscle movements such as twitching, gurgling in the stomach, or yawning. The result of this, often subtle, mobilisation can be immediate: the trapped survival energy at the root of your symptoms begins to be freed up, allowing a new sense of relaxation and well-being to arise spontaneously in your body and mind. As you learn to integrate this new material over time, the way is cleared for fresh meaning and purpose to emerge in life.
HOW OFTEN DO I NEED TO HAVE SOMATIC EXPERIENCING SESSIONS? HOW MANY WILL I NEED?
There is no set answer as far as frequency of sessions is concerned. Typically a client might begin by coming weekly, but it can vary from individual to individual according to their needs. I generally suggest that people initially agree to come for six sessions. After this time people usually have a sense of whether or not they want to continue. After this, you are free to terminate the sessions whenever you wish. It is usually a good idea, however, to have a final session in which we formally draw our work together to a close.