ABOUT SOMATIC EXPERIENCING
WHAT IS SOMATIC EXPERIENCING?
Somatic Experiencing was first developed in the 1970s by Peter Levine, who went on to found the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute. Levine's approach grew out of his observations of the way animal responded to stressful or life-threatening situations in the wild. He noted that animals - who can face threats to their survival on a daily basis, and yet don't appear to become traumatised by these experiences - seemed to possess innate coping mechanisms that enabled them to recover from these events relatively quickly and return to normal functioning.
When there is a threat to an animal's safety, its nervous system goes on high alert. There is a mobilisation of energy in the body and a surge of power to the muscles in order to enable the animal to either respond to, or avoid, the threat (fight or flight). Once the danger has passed, the animal's body and nervous system are able to return to a state of normal functioning. As part of this process, animals often discharge the built up stress in their bodies - through trembling, panting or shaking, for example - sometimes finding ways to complete fight or flight movements that they were not able to enact at the time.
Levine noticed that human beings, partly due to our more evolved brain function, have a tendency to override these natural responses. This means that, in the wake of traumatic experiences, our nervous system can end up stuck on high alert. At some level, we continue to experience a sense of danger, even after the danger has passed. Our nervous system has become caught in a chronic state of activation, draining our energy and creating habitual patterns of tension in the body. Over time, this leads us to construct our lives on a foundation of defences designed to protect us and keep us safe from danger - we may, for example, start to avoid people and situations that remind us of the traumatic situation or present a potential threat. People can find themselves increasingly living in a loop of self-perpetuating stress and anxiety, with no idea how to break the cycle.
The theory behind Somatic Experiencing says that it isn't the original events themselves that cause traumatic symptoms to appear but, rather, an inability on our part to complete and discharge the fight/flight/freeze response that was generated in our nervous system. This leaves our bodies in a state of suppressed 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 chronic tension to appear, together with many of the physical and psychological symptoms of ill-health that go with it.
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 disregulation, 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.