Somatic Experiencing (SE) is an effective body-centered approach to resolving trauma symptoms. It helps relieve PTSD, chronic stress and anxiety. It applies intimate knowledge of the nervous system as a guide to gradually release trauma symptoms from the body. Trauma can develop from a perceived life threat, an actual life threat, or as a result of chronic unrecognized stress.
Somatic Experiencing helps us access our body’s natural ability to heal. It engages the wisdom of a person’s physiology to complete the nervous systems natural re-calibration. This is not “talk therapy”, it is a dialogue with the physiology of a person that encourages a healthy and resilient nervous system.
Trauma is the physiological response to a deeply distressing event or series of events that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and keeps their system in a constant state of threat. Trauma does not need to be a cataclysmic event to trigger a trauma response. Each person’s response will be different. It can affect a person’s body, mind, emotions, behavior, and relationships. It can cause feelings of helplessness, a diminished sense of self and a dampened ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.
Although we are human and live in a developed society, we are still physiologically an animal that first has an instinctual way of dealing with threat, and then the awareness of emotions and cognition follows. Under menace the sympathetic nervous system generates a massive amount of energy for survival and there is a surge of bio-chemicals to propel the system into fleeing or self-protection. Sometimes the traumatic event may occur at lightning-like speed or be too overwhelming. When this happens the survival energy is blocked from being discharged by fighting or escaping. When this happens the dorsal vagal part of the nervous system kicks in and shuts the body down into a state of collapse and immobility, “trapping” in all that survival energy. By physiologically pretending to be dead, the animal may have a chance of surviving by catching the predator off guard. And then as it comes out of freeze it will discharge the “trapped” energy. It will shake, twitch, yawning or have spontaneous alterations in breathing as a way of naturally restoring equilibrium. These let the body know the threat has passed and it is safe to return to normal.
Unfortunately, we do not live in the wild. We have a lot of “social norms” we adhere to. We often stigmatize and judge our somatic expression. We feel guilt and shame and a layering of old unresolved trauma with its own stories and drives. Or the event may have happened so fast that it overwhelmed our system too quickly. We often do not fully complete our physiological response. Our nervous system stays dysregulated and our natural ability to heal is dampened.
As a result, we may experience a variety of physical symptoms such as pain, sleep disturbances, digestive issues, reproductive problems, problems concentrating, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine dysregulation. A constant state of heightened alert and fear can take a toll on the body. We also may have serious persistent emotional distress, dissociation, depression, anxiety, anger and a decreased ability to tolerate our environment. We may react to situations in ways we do not understand, and seemingly have no control over our reaction.
There may be events like a new job, divorce, financial troubles, relationship issues, illness, surgeries or work stress. Although we may disregard these events as being “small” they can disrupt our normal functioning in the world. Our nervous system may suffer the cumulative compounding effects of these stressful situations.
Other situations that may be more difficult to overlook such as
Children are particularly vulnerable as they often have no option to fight or escape. Their nervous systems have not fully formed. Even small events seem huge to a nervous system that has no “buffer”. Disrupting events influence how their nervous system is developed. As if it were software that was being installed. We are born with the “hardware” we need to grow up, but our “software” is installed by our interactions with our caregivers. That is what teaches our nervous system to balance itself. When a child’s needs are not met their nervous system is wired in a way that reflects that. Their body keeps the physiological wiring of that trauma.
Somatic Experience goes at the pace of the nervous system. It takes things slowly, by starting to establish a safe environment and gently increasing somatic awareness. This may mean taking things “one frame at a time” and allowing the nervous system to recalibrate with each “frame”. Working from the periphery, and pausing when there is nervous system arousal, fear, or anxiety to allow the trauma energy to disperse before moving forward. It emphasizes ways that the nervous system can build resources, like a greater sense of inner strength or external relationships that enable one to stay calm, feel safe and supported in the present moment.
Going gently back and forth between the arousal symptoms and personal resources, allows one to slowly increase their tolerance for the physical sensations, emotions or memories of the trauma. You will be guided in a slow, manageable process to release the blocked energy.
Rather than focusing on the trauma story, Somatic Experiencing enhances the awareness of the energy and physical sensations in the body. This includes pleasant sensations which can often go unnoticed. When details of the story emerge, they are taken in small pieces with the intent of accessing the physical sensations, subtle imagery and motor responses that help the physiology complete the survival response. The nervous system may start to release pent up energy in various ways such as shaking, feeling heat or completing a physical movement. This lets the body know the threat has passed and the nervous system goes back into balance. This increases resiliency to stress and increases a person’s vitality and capacity to actively engage in life, resulting in a new integrated healing experience.
Somatic Experiencing helps one renegotiate trauma. It Increases a person’s vitality and capacity to actively engage in life, resulting in a new integrated healing experience.
Healing trauma may take time, depending on the severity of trauma and how long the symptoms have existed. When we heal trauma, we free up energy, connect with our deepest self and can live our lives in fuller, less inhibited ways.
Erica offers sessions in the Seattle-Bellevue area and virtually.