Professional Psychotherapy &
Sven Schild, PhD, TCC
Somatic Experiencing (SE)® is a pioneering body oriented approach to relieving the physical, psychological, emotional and physiological effects of acute and chronic stress and PTSD
Somatic Experiencing is a short-term naturalistic approach to the resolution and healing of trauma developed by Dr. Peter Levine. It is based upon the observation that wild prey animals, though threatened routinely, are rarely traumatized. Animals in the wild utilize innate mechanisms to regulate and discharge the high levels of energy arousal associated with defensive survival behaviors. These mechanisms provide animals with a built-in ”immunity” to trauma that enables them to return to normal in the aftermath of highly ”charged” life-threatening experiences.
Although humans are born with virtually the same regulatory mechanisms as animals, the function of these instinctive systems is often overridden or inhibited by, among other things, the ”rational” portion of our brains. This restraint prevents the complete discharge of survival energies, and does not allow the nervous system to regain its equilibrium. The un-discharged “survival energy” remains “stuck” in the body and the nervous system. The various symptoms of trauma result from the body’s attempt to ”manage” and contain this unused energy.
SE employs the awareness of body sensation to help people ”renegotiate” and heal their traumas rather than relive them. With appropriate guidance with the body’s instinctive ”felt sense,” individuals are able to access their own built-in immunity to trauma, allowing the highly aroused survival energies to be safely and gradually discharged. When these energies are discharged, people frequently experience a dramatic reduction in or disappearance of their traumatic symptoms.
Because traumatic events often involve encounters with death, they evoke extraordinary responses. The transformation process can allow people to deepen their sense of self and others. The healing journey can be an ”awakening” to untapped resources and feelings of empowerment. With the help of these new allies, people can open portals to rebirth and achieve an increased sense of aliveness and flow. The experience can be a genuine spiritual awakening, one that allows people to re-connect with the world.
The very structure of trauma, including hyper-arousal, dissociation. and freezing, is based on the evolution of the predator/prey survival behaviors. The symptoms of trauma are the result of a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. By enabling this frozen response to thaw, then complete, trauma can be healed.
Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the dangerous event itself. They arise when residual energy from the event is not discharged from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds. Wild animals have the ability to “shake off” this excess energy. The key for humans in dispelling traumatic symptoms lies in our being able to mirror wild animals in this way. Dr. Levine has developed a safe, gradual way to help trauma survivors develop their own natural ability to resolve the excess energy caused by overwhelming events.
How SE works
How Animals Discharge Shock
Dr. Levine was inspired to study stress on the animal nervous system, when he realized that animals are constantly under threat of death, yet show no symptoms of trauma. What he discovered was that trauma has to do with the third survival response to perceived life threat, which is freeze. When fight and flight are not options, we freeze and immobilize, like “playing dead.” This makes us less of a target. However, this reaction is time-sensitive, in other words, it needs to run its course, and the massive energy that was prepared for fight or flight gets discharged, through shakes and trembling. If the immobility phase doesn’t complete, then that charge stays trapped, and, from the body’s perspective, it is still under threat. The Somatic Experiencing method works to release this stored energy, and turn off this threat alarm that causes severe dysregulation and dissociation.
In Somatic Experiencing®, the traumatic event isn’t what caused the trauma, it is the overwhelmed response to the perceived life threat that is causing an unbalanced nervous system. The aim is to help you access the body memory of the event, not the story. So we don’t discuss what happened if you don’t want to.
Take Your Time
Here we introduce the concept of titration – slowly releasing energy. Somatic Experiencing operates in cycles, where you sense your way through the normal oscillations of internal sensation – contraction/expansion, pleasure/pain, warmth/cold – but only at the level that you can handle. This repeated, rhythmic process helps you to develop a greater capacity to handle stress and stay in the present moment, where you belong.
Pendulation is a term used by Dr. Levine to describe the natural oscillation between opposing forces of contraction and expansion. Somatic Experiencing® utilizes this philosophy to help a client experience a sense of flow.
Bottom Up Processing
Like other somatic psychology approaches, Somatic Experiencing® professes a body first approach to dealing with the problematic (and, oftentimes, physical) symptoms of trauma. This means that therapy isn’t about reclaiming memories or changing our thoughts and beliefs about how we feel, but looking at the sensations that lie underneath our feelings, and uncovering our habitual behavior patterns to these feelings.
To learn more about SE, please visit TraumaHealing.org.