As a form of therapy, somatic experiencing is intended to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through body sensations. It can also be used to help people experiencing other trauma-related symptoms and mental conditions.
Specific experiences can involve manipulation and mind games, intimate violence, social isolation, financial abuse, humiliation, sexual abuse, and being involved war, though there are many variants. Systemic and cultural trauma may also cause severe harm.
The remnants of repeated insults, cruelty, abandonment, bullying, verbal abuse, shaming, sexual assault, and degradation remains deep within people. It is not something that is often brushed off. Rather, people do what they can to forget it, despite the fact that the trauma will most likely reappear at a later time.
Every person has his or her own individual experiences with trauma. Whether a one-time occurrence or a reoccurring act, those memories are held within. It remains in their physical, mental, and emotional space. People often try to futilely avoid or suppress their trauma. However, the only way to get rid of it is to bring it to the surface, share it, discuss it, and grieve over it. Repression and coping, which may occur through dangerous activities like substance abuse, are not uncommon. At that moment, it may be the only way a person knows how to protect himself or herself. But eventually, that trauma needs to be released.
Somatic Experiencing Therapy (SE)
Somatic experiencing therapy (SE) was developed by Dr. Peter Levine.
This type of therapy can help trauma victims of all types, whether it’s a car accident victim or someone involved in an abusive marriage.
It is a body-focused modality, which centers on the principle that trauma occurs deep within. In order to fix that trauma, the individual has to overcome those experiences by slowly releasing energy and becoming aware of trauma sensations.
Trauma floods the body with chemicals during the encounter. Those chemicals do not leave the body. The suppressed emotion related to the trauma can result in problems, like addiction, physical symptoms, or the development of additional mental illnesses.
Somatic experiencing therapy aims to release those buried emotions, providing healing from the inside out. Trauma is captured at a physical and emotional level. SE combines all elements to produce a sensory focused treatment, which works with the nervous system and responses.
Healing Trauma With Somatic Therapy
Through somatic experiencing, a person gradually eradicates superfluous trauma energy from the body, resulting in healing. “SE differs from cognitive therapies in that its major interventional strategy involves bottom-up processing by directing the client’s attention to internal sensations, both visceral (interoception) and musculo-skeletal (proprioception and kinesthesis).”
During somatic experiencing, the patient will focus their memory on the images and feelings that arise. With closed eyes, the therapist leads the patient through the body-oriented approach. The experience helps the patient become aware of how they react to their trauma or their lack of control or fear in the session.
Therapists who are trained in somatic experiencing help the patient recognize the fight or flight reactions. Dr. Levine suggests that the fight or flight response has multiple stages and that trauma does not allow a person to complete all stages. Somatic experiencing helps the patient complete that process.
Somatic experience fixes inner trauma by completing, and thus, restoring regular stress responses. This is crucial because trauma can overpower regular responses. Therapy engages slowly so the patient will not be overwhelmed. With a focus on the nervous system, the aim of SE is to prompt the inner system to move back to a normal pattern of response. Sensations are monitored through the body through a collaborative effort between the therapist and patient.
This holistic approach is an integrated program, which focuses on all aspects of the individual. Sensations like pain, constricted breathing, sweating, or shaking are characteristic of trauma. Becoming aware of these experiences can help people stay fully present. Somatic experiencing forces the person to be present, to not think about the past, but to track every sensation.
Somatic experiencing engages a person’s ability to stay present to understand images, emotions, and behaviors. The therapist then promotes changes in the system. This method focuses on the ways an individual gets trapped in irregular system patterns because of a lack of closure and incomplete action. Somatic experiencing therapy helps a patient restore their nervous system and essentially, their life.
SE helps people become aware of everything that they are feeling course through their body. These signals can be reminders to people that they must focus on the physical feeling, whether it is pain or general unease. When people become attuned to internal cues they can heal deeper parts of themselves, which they otherwise would have continued to avoid, to their detriment. This therapy helps resolve the past, release stored emotions, and move forward in life.