Somatic Experiencing (SE)

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What is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-oriented psychotherapy approach that helps to release trauma and chronic stress from the body. SE helps clinicians to identify where clients might be “stuck” in the fight, flight, or freeze response and then gives practical tools to help clients move out of these fixated biological states.

Because SE clinicians facilitate this process gradually while carefully tracking the biological responses of their clients, clients slowly discharge traumatic energy from the body while also learning to self-regulate their nervous system. Thus, the gentle techniques of SE help clients to re-establish a sense of safety while also fostering resilience and a greater capacity for new stressors.

With regular SE sessions, clients experience a more regulated nervous system, which in turn can lead to feeling more balance emotionally and physically.

Why was Somatic Experiencing developed?

Dr. Peter Levine, PhD developed this psychobiological method to resolve the symptoms of trauma and chronic stress. Developing this modality has been his life-long work with over 40 years of research going into creating his methodology and techniques. He has written several books on the topic (including Waking the Tiger, and In an Unspoken Voice) and still teaches his therapeutic methods within the trauma healing community.

Dr. Levine developed this approach after observing that prey animals, whose lives are routinely threatened in the wild, are able to recover readily by physically releasing the energy they accumulate during stressful events. For instance, a zebra that is chased down by a lion and then escapes will no longer be “thinking” about the danger of the lion once he has gotten away from the threat. After the zebra has completed his biological response to flee the situation to safety, the zebra goes back to his ho-hum life with no concern or worry about the lion’s whereabouts.

In other words, zebras or other animals in the wild don’t have residual effects of stressful events that happen in their everyday lives; zebras don’t have nightmares, flashbacks, or stand around worrying about the lion coming back to eat them. They live in the moment and don’t carry around unresolved emotions, thoughts, feelings, or body sensations as related to dangerous circumstances they have encountered.

In an effort to maintain peace and order in our society and culture, on the other hand, humans cannot always respond in a way that our biology may want us to. We can’t always complete our biological impulses to escape unsafe situations or fight those people that we feel like are threatening us some how. For instance, we can’t just run out of a work meeting when we feel completely humiliated for making a mistake, or we can’t just choke out the person that tried to steal our boyfriend.

Also, even if these things were “ok” according to the code of human conduct and social norms, many of us don’t grow up being in tune to those natural biological impulses in our body. Instead, many of us learn to ignore or dismiss anything unpleasant that we might feel, whether we feel it physically or emotionally. Ironically, these “unpleasant” feelings in the body are a lot of times those biological signals we need to pay attention to. But, we often override these natural ways of regulating the nervous system with feelings of shame and pervasive thoughts, judgments, and fears. The more evolved human brain is not very helpful in this way, as the thinking, analytical, and problem-solving part of the brain can become over-activated and stuck in a loop, of sorts. This is where a Somatic Experiencing practitioner can help their clients move past the place where they might be “stuck” in processing a traumatic event.

What does Somatic Experiencing feel like as compared to regular therapy?

Somatic Experiencing focuses less on the story-telling of a traumatic situation or someone’s personal history, and more on the body sensations that are coming up. Once the sensations in the body are identified, the clinician uses specific techniques to help move or discharge stored up “trauma energy” in the body.

SE is designed to help clients resolve the fight, flight, or freeze biological responses, so once a client completes these they often feel a greater sense of calm, relief, and open-ness. When the body feels less under threat, that directly impacts one’s thinking, emotions, and behaviors, so SE heals trauma more holistically than other therapies.

What is the benefit of doing Somatic Experiencing therapy over “regular” talk therapy?

By allowing the stuck fight, flight, or freeze energies to be released from the body, a client that participates in regular SE sessions can experience a more balanced nervous system and a greater capacity to tolerate stress and adversity. In other words, trauma symptoms such as depression, anxiety, fear, sleeplessness, hyperactivity, agitation, chronic pain, etc will lessen and you will have a greater tolerance for new stressors that arise. Additionally, clients report more energy, more restful sleep, better work performance and concentration, and increased relationship and life satisfaction.

What is a typical client success story where Somatic Experiencing was used?

Over the last year or so we have had several clients that began therapy with us that reported high levels of panic and anxiety. These clients were having difficulty managing work stressors, felt unsafe and triggered being out in public, were irritable and agitated much of the time, and could not see their lives improving significantly.

For both clients, we started using SE right away and taught them some skills they could use at home and in between sessions. Within a few sessions the panic attacks stopped, and within 4-6 weeks they both reported little to no anxiety, improved sleep, improved energy, and motivation to go out and meet new people and try new things. One of the clients went from taking Xanax daily to no medication at all at the end of treatment.

Both clients also reported improved work productivity and renewed interest in hobbies and things they hadn’t been able to focus on in a long time. By clearing some of the stuck energy in their body and helping them to learn to self-regulate, they both were able to regain their motivation and drive for life.

You can be a success story, too, if there is any part of you that feels like you could benefit from Somatic Experiencing, or you want improved energy, sleep, and greater motivation for life. Please reach out to us so we can begin to reset your body and re-balance your nervous system!