Somatic experiencing is a powerful therapy that’s designed to help you heal from trauma by using body awareness. It was first introduced in 1997 by Dr. Peter Levine, who developed this unique approach to treatment.
According to Dr. Levine, “Trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event”. He noticed that, although animals in the world are frequently threatened by predators, they are rarely traumatized by those events. A threat triggers a defensive survival response from the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Once the threat is gone and the animal is safe, it spontaneously discharges the extra arousal energy with innate mechanisms such as shaking or breathing deeply. This allows the animal’s ANS to return to its normal state.
Humans have these same innate mechanisms to recover from a threatening situation. However, unlike animals in the wild, we often end up traumatized by events that threaten or overwhelm. Instead of naturally rebounding from an experience that overwhelms us, our inherent capacity for self-regulation is often thwarted shame, rationalization, our own judgments about ourselves or what happened, and the anxiety our physical sensations trigger. When this occurs, the arousal energy that’s no longer needed becomes trapped or locked-in our body. This makes it impossible to heal from the trauma.
That survival energy can remain stuck for a very long time – months, years, and even decades – until our nervous system is reset and equilibrium is restored. Until that occurs, it will inevitably manifest in a variety of problems and troubling physical or psychological symptoms, such as insomnia, digestive problems, a weakened immune system, irritability, poor concentration, fatigue, panic attacks, and low self-worth. In many cases, unresolved trauma can trigger a full-blown psychiatric disorder such as PTSD, panic disorder, a specific phobia, or depression.
These symptoms and disorders occur as a result of your body’s efforts to contain or manage the excess arousal energy. Unfortunately, it’s unable to do so. The resulting imbalance leaves you feeling emotionally, socially, and spiritually disconnected. Attempts to restore equilibrium on your own often leads to unhealthy behaviors such as self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, engaging in unhealthy relationships, avoidant behavior, social withdrawal, impulsive or reckless behavior, or becoming a workaholic.
While traditional forms of talk therapy can certainly be helpful, they rarely address the somatic impact of trauma. Somatic Experiencing is a potent therapy because it enables you to release that trapped energy and finally break free from the trauma once and for all. Once that energy is discharged, your innate ability to self-regulate is restored and healing occurs.
Somatic Experiencing is often used in conjunction with other body-centered therapies or psychotherapy. However, it can also be used as a standalone treatment. Whether used alone or in combination with other therapies, it’s a highly effective treatment for problems related to unresolved trauma.
Types of Trauma
Trauma can occur in two forms: developmental trauma and shock trauma. Developmental trauma occurs during childhood. It refers to sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, significant family dysfunction, abandonment, and neglect. Shock trauma, on the other hand, occurs as the result of a specific event that causes significant distress. Examples of shock trauma include witnessing someone being killed in a car accident, being the victim of a violent assault such as a rape or mugging, living through a natural disaster such as a tornado, or facing the horrors of combat.
For most of us, the word trauma elicits images of the types of trauma listed above. All of those are obvious forms of trauma. However, trauma isn’t always nearly so obvious. Many of us experience trauma in various forms throughout our lives, even though we often don’t recognize it as such. But if left unresolved, it will cause problems. More subtle types of trauma include things such as:
- changing schools, especially during the middle of the school year
- moving to a new city
- the death of a beloved pet
- being teased or bullied
- medical or dental procedures – particularly ones that are invasive or involve needles
- hurtful comments from a teacher, friend, or family member
- minor injuries or accidents
- financial struggles
- being wrongfully accused
- being rejected by a friend or significant other, feeling invisible
- getting fired from a job
- getting lost
- the breakup of a romantic relationship
Even these more subtle forms of trauma can leave deep, unresolved wounds. Many individuals find it difficult to even admit that they’ve experienced a trauma. They either minimize or deny the experience, despite often feeling “stressed” or anxious. Those wounds may be buried, but they can still elicit unwanted feelings of physiological arousal and cause an array of problems and symptoms just like those that are caused by more obvious forms of trauma.
Somatic experiencing is beneficial for shock and developmental trauma, whether obvious or subtle.
Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma
As mentioned above, unresolved trauma can manifest in a variety of problems and symptoms in your life. While these vary from one individual to the next, they may include the following:
- Startle response
- Night terrors or nightmares
- Panic attacks
- Sleep problems
- Deep feelings of shame
- Emotional numbness / Difficulty showing emotion / Emotional overreaction
- Anxiety and fear / Excessive worry
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Low stress tolerance
- Feeling isolated or detached
- Obsessive fears
- Compulsive behaviors
- Guilt (especially survivor guilt)
- Temper tantrums in children
- Mood swings
- Crying spells
- Sadness that’s difficult to shake
- Depressed mood
- Anger outbursts / rage
- Addictive behaviors
- Difficulties with concentration
- Difficulties making decisions
- Avoidant behavior (particularly with anything related to the trauma)
- Cold, sweaty hands
- Self-harm behavior
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Attraction to danger
- Feeling easily overwhelmed
- Sense of a foreshortened future
- Feelings of emptiness
- Accident proneness
Somatic and Physiological Symptoms:
- Low energy
- Chronic fatigue
- Psychosomatic illness
- Headaches, including migraines
- Muscle tension
- Neck and back pain
- Joint problems
- Low libido and other sexual problems
- Chronic pain
- Asthma and other breathing problems
- Compromised immune functioning
- Weight problems (including being underweight)
- Digestive problems
- Menstrual problems
Disorders and Conditions That Can Benefit From Somatic Experiencing
Somatic Experiencing can be very beneficial for any condition or disorder that stems from trauma. These include (but aren’t limited to):
- Specific phobias
- Social phobia
- Panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- ADHD / ADD
- Childhood trauma
- Grief and loss
- Sleep disorders
- Chronic fatigue
- Asthma and other types of breathing problems
- Digestive problems, such as IBS
- Muscle tension
Brief History of Peter Levine and Somatic Experiencing
As mentioned above, Somatic Experiencing was developed by Peter Levine, PhD. He holds two doctorates – one in psychology from International University, and one in medical biophysics from the University of California in Berkeley. He has over 40 years of experience in the area of stress and trauma. He has worked as a stress consultant for NASA, taught at various hospitals and clinics all over the world, and was part of the APA initiative for Response to Large Scale Disaster and Ethno-Political Warfare.
Dr. Levine is the Founder and President of the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute, which is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. In 2010, he received the Lifetime Achievement award from the USABP (United States Association for Body Psychotherapy). He is also currently on the faculty at Santa Barbara Graduate Institute.
Dr. Levine is the author of numerous books and other publications, including his best-selling book Waking the Tiger; Healing Trauma.
Today, Somatic Experiencing is taught in many different countries. It’s used by a variety of healthcare professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, bodywork practitioners, and physical therapists. Somatic Experiencing is based on the latest research in many different fields including neurology, psychology, biology, physiology, and attachment theory.
Key Concepts Somatic Experiencing
A combination of techniques – resourcing, titration, and pendulation – plays a key role in Somatic Experiencing. They work together to ensure that the therapeutic process is safe and gentle.
Resourcing refers to grounding you in safe, stable, positive resources as you work through the trauma. The term “resource” in SE refers to anything that makes gives you this sense of safety. For example, a resource may be the thought of a supportive loved one, the memory of a time you felt safe and secure, a pleasant physical sensation, something you appreciate and enjoy (e.g. music), or a physical object.
One of the goals of Somatic Experiencing is to help you expand your internal supply of resources. Feeling safe and comfortable in your body makes it easier to navigate the trauma and work through it.
Titration is a term used in chemistry, and the underlying concept is the same for SE. In chemistry, when you’re combining two volatile substances, you have to be very careful to avoid a serious chemical reaction. So, you titrate the amounts by adding a small drop at a time, and letting it settle before adding the next drop. If you add too much at once, the results can be disastrous.
Talking about a traumatic experience can be very distressing and overwhelming, potentially resulting in re-traumatization if you just open up the floodgates. In SE, the therapist will ensure that doesn’t happen by exposing you to only small amounts of distress at a time. This way, your reactions (as in chemistry) are very small rather than big. As you make progress, you’ll gradually build up your ability to handle more over time.
Pendulation (also called “looping”) involves helping you move back and forth between a state of arousal (dysregulation) and a state of calm (regulation) in tiny increments (titration).
This process of titration, pendulation, and resourcing enables you to discharge the trapped energy or arousal from the trauma without becoming re-traumatized at any time. Small amounts of the trauma energy are discharged each time. This may be evidenced in different ways, such as a deep sigh, a warm feeling, or tears. Each time more energy is released, your natural ability to recover from trauma (like animals in the wild) is strengthened. This back and forth process brings about healing from the trauma.
What to Expect
Somatic Experiencing is different from traditional talk therapy in many ways. The primary focus is on the somatic response to trauma – the trapped survival energy connected to the trauma – rather than the dialogue about the trauma itself. The therapist’s goal is to help you understand how your body regulates stress and track your own “felt-sense” experience. You won’t be required to talk at great length about the trauma and risk being flooded with painful emotions and bodily reactions in the process.
Therapy sessions are typically done in a face-to-face, one-on-one format. Sessions will usually be weekly. At the start of treatment, the therapist will use the first one or two sessions to discuss your treatment goals and gather your personal history.
Therapy will be a collaborative process between you and the therapist. As you talk, both you and the therapist will observe and track how you react in terms of your bodily sensations, as well your thoughts and feelings. This will help you become more in tune with your own reactions, while increasing your tolerance for those reactions that cause distress.
In SE, shock trauma often responds well to just a few sessions. Developmental trauma, however, often requires longer treatment, and is often used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy.
Benefits of Somatic Experiencing
There are many potential benefits to be gained from Somatic Experiencing. They include:
- Greater ability to live fully in the present, and let go of the past
- Restoration of the body’s natural ability to self-regulate; i.e. to spontaneously return to a state of relaxation following a stressful situation (rather than getting stuck)
- Improved self-confidence
- Increased psychological resilience
- Decrease in anxiety
- Alleviation of depression
- Enhanced sense of well-being and vitality
- Sense of being empowered
- Release of emotions that had previously been suppressed or blocked
- Greater awareness of bodily reactions to stress
- Deeper and more fulfilling relationships with yourself as well as others
- Greater ability to reach your potential in life
- Increased energy
- Improved ability to trust
- Enhanced focus and concentration
- Improved mental clarity
- Sharper memory
- Decrease in or elimination of chronic physical pain
- Less prone to accidents
- Improved mind-body awareness
- Greater sense of hopefulness and optimism
- Inner peace
- Decrease in anger
- Stronger sense of mastery over your life
- Greater ability to handle stress
- Relief from troubling somatic symptoms
Advantages of Somatic Experiencing
There are many advantages to using Somatic Experiencing as a treatment for unresolved trauma. One of the primary advantages is the reduced risk of being re-traumatized during therapy as you talk about or re-live the traumatic experience. By preventing levels of arousal from overwhelming you (through titration, pendulation, and resourcing), you’ll be more likely to stick with therapy and finally heal from the past.
Other advantages of somatic experiencing include:
- A focus on the somatic response to trauma, which is often minimized or ignored in regular talk therapy
- Increase body awareness facilitates innate healing without requiring therapy clients to relive the trauma in therapy
- A focus on gradually releasing “stuck” survival energy, which occurs at a pace that feels safe for you
- Restoring your innate ability to self-regulate provides greater resilience to stress than insight alone
- The healing process comes from within, which is empowering
Indications for Somatic Experiencing
If you consider all the potential types of trauma discussed above – and especially the less obvious types of trauma – it’s easy to see that the indications for SE are quite broad. In fact, almost anyone who’s suffering from psychological distress can benefit from this particular approach to therapy.
Indications for SE include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
- Military veterans who’ve been in combat
- Civilians traumatized by war
- Patients experiencing post-surgery trauma
- Individuals who’ve been in a motor vehicle accident
- People dealing with chronic pain
- Individuals who’ve experienced
- domestic violence
- rape or any other type of violence
- childhood abuse or neglect (both children and adults)
- serious or chronic illness
- natural disasters
- any life-threatening experience
- prolonged or severe stress
- death of a loved one (including a pet)
- debilitating injury
- painful divorces
- Anyone who’s witnessed something horrifying or traumatic
Somatic Experiencing can be used with both adults and children.
Finding a Qualified SE Practitioner
Somatic Experiencing is used by over 5000 trained clinicians all over the world. Qualified SE practitioners include mental health professionals – psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors – as well as other healthcare professionals including acupuncturists, chiropractors, nurses, physical therapists, massage therapists, and cranial sacral therapists.
When looking for a practitioner, it’s important to make sure he or she has the proper training in Somatic Experiencing (216 hours total). In order to become certified, practitioners must obtain 12 hours of personal SE sessions as well as 18 case consultation hours. Upon completion, they receive the designation SEP (SE Practitioner). Practitioners received their training from the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute. Although the headquarters are located in Boulder, Colorado, the Institute has training programs in more than 26 countries across the globe.
You can find a qualified Somatic Experiencing provider via the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute’s website.
If you’ve experiencing any type of significant stress or trauma in your life – even if it’s something that you’d never really thought of as “traumatic,” but troubling nevertheless – Somatic Experiencing can be beneficial in helping you find the resolution and peace you deserve.