Somatic Experiencing (SE) is primarily a method for healing trauma. There are two main types of trauma: shock trauma, which may arise from a sudden and terrifying event, and complex trauma, usually resulting from a sustained stressful experience.
Trauma can result in PTSD, or symptoms suggestive of PTSD. Long after the original event has passed, a person may experience uncharacteristically intense anxiety or rage, avoidance of situations which remind him or her of the stressful event, or an encompassing feeling of numbness. She or he may be emotionally shut down, distracted, “spaced out” and withdrawn. Flashbacks and nightmares are also common. Although these experiences vary from person to person, the impact of the trauma persists in the body, attitudes and emotional reactions.
Shock trauma can be primarily physical, such as a fall from a high place, or emotional, such as a profound and unexpected loss or betrayal. Sustained traumas include, for example, a lengthy illness, or years of verbal or physical abuse.
SE was developed by Dr. Peter Levine through observing the natural responses of animals to life-threatening situations. After the immediate danger had passed, Dr. Levine noted how animals would release the trauma via spontaneous movements, such as trembling.
A deer flees from a predator to safety, shivers to release the stress from its body, and then relaxes to resume life as usual. Similarly, a captured, anesthetized bear wakes from the drug and spontaneously makes small running movements. Why? The bear’s body was primed to run before it was interrupted, so these movements are now part of the bear’s healing. Without them, the bear would be stuck, to some extent, in the tension patterns which would impair its wellbeing and ability to function (run, defend itself, etc.) in the future.
Yet we, as human beings, typically learn from an early age to suppress our natural tendency to recover quickly and fully from trauma. Beginning in our early years, many of us were discouraged from the natural movements which would free us from the deep biological and emotional impact of shock traumas. For example, most of us would be embarrassed to let ourselves shake after a major scare, and we suppress this movement – blocking our natural ability to recover. The trauma becomes locked deep in the nervous system. We can be changed by the experience, perhaps more constricted and avoidant, perhaps more intensely fearful or prone to fighting than before.
What to Expect
What to Expect
To remedy this via SE, we establish a therapeutic situation which helps to reengage our natural ability to recover from trauma.
A typical SE session involves the creation of a sense of safety and support, promotion of self-awareness – primarily focused on bodily sensations – and release of trauma through spontaneous movement. A very careful, controlled remembering of various moments – often out of sequence – within or surrounding a traumatic event is typically part of the process.
For example, we might begin with “the first time you felt safe” after the disturbing event. Later, some part of the event may be revisited in very slow motion, which generally feels more manageable. This would give you time to feel and allow the natural impulses of your body to move – typically, in slow, unwinding motions – in ways which you might have moved originally if you’d had more time. Movements of fight or flight may emerge.
Some SE practitioners go further, and may guide you to visualize scenarios where you could more successfully escape or deal directly with whatever is happening. If you were too young at the time, or were outnumbered, visualizing a helper (perhaps yourself as an adult) or group of helpers is another way to maximize your opportunity to release the stress and experience greater safety.
Through this work, particularly when you visualize (and perhaps go through the motions of) helping yourself successfully, you may feel stronger, more empowered, and better able to protect yourself. Most probably, your sense of safety, self-esteem and self-confidence will grow, while stress-based emotions such as fear diminish. You will likely experience such benefits during the SE sessions themselves. As you continue to use these methods over time, you may find that the benefits increase.
Dr. Levine brought SE to the public through his first and best-selling book, “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.” For more information on SE, visit Peter Levine’s primary website: http://www.traumahealing.org. This site includes basic information about SE, with links for those interested in receiving the therapy or training in this method, as well as links to purchase books, CDs and DVDs for self-help or for assisting one’s children.
–Dr. Laurie Greenberg