What is Somatic Experiencing®
"The Somatic Experiencing® method is a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders. It is the life’s work of Dr. Peter A. Levine, resulting from his multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application. The SE approach releases traumatic shock, which is key to transforming PTSD and the wounds of emotional and early developmental attachment trauma."
~~The Trauma Healing Institute
What follows is a vivid demonstration of this method by the originator of Somatic Experiencing®, Peter Levine, Ph.D. In this edited video (the full 24-minute version of which is available on YouTube by clicking here), Peter works with Ray, a marine combat veteran, who was critically injured and psychologically traumatized by the blast from an Improvised Explosive Device while serving in Iraq. The video is a wonderful example of Somatic Experiencing® in action.
Stress comes in many forms, and when it's severe enough we call it traumatic stress. We feel that stress in our thoughts, in our emotions, in our movements and actions, in the meaning we assign to our lives and the people in it, and we feel it physically in our body. In our body, stress takes the form of headaches, body aches, muscle tension, irritated organs like the bowel or the stomach, physical fatigue, sleeplessness, suppressed appetite, shortness of breath, heart palpitations ... and the list goes on.
Severe stress can be man-made or event-made: it can come from relationships with traumatic figures in our life, and it can come from specific events. It can result from accidents, invasive medical procedures, war, natural disasters, sexual or physical assault, birth trauma, emotional abuse, loss, neglect, and the long-term corrosive effects of cumulative fear and conflict.
Somatic Experiencing® is a therapeutic method that focuses on a person's innate but under-discovered capacity to regulate the way their own nervous system responds to stress. Although there are a variety of body-based methods to calm the nervous system--e.g., relaxation methods, mindfulness meditation, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing--the Somatic Experiencing® method focuses on developing techniques that are based on the specific way a client is storing the tension in their body.
Unlike cognitive-behavioral methods that focus on changing irrational thoughts or psychodynamic methods that focus on the cathartic release of repressed feelings, Somatic Experiencing® pays particular attention to the physical correlates of stressful experiences. This method is especially useful for people who may not know why they are anxious, or why they are depressed, or why they may be reclusive, or why they may be acting out in problematic ways. As trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, MD has said, "It is the body that keeps the score."
In healthy adults, our memory is not fixed around past events--our memory of the past automatically updates as we get new information that places those events in better context. This automatic updating allows us to adapt, to grow, to evolve, and to learn how to better adjust to similar experiences that may arise. However, in traumatic memory or the remembering of stressful events, those memories can become frozen--stuck--unable to reorganize themselves around new information. Traumatic memories are stored at several different levels--as "explicit memories" and as "implicit memories"--that is, as 1) recollections of what you or others have said, 2) as remembrances of what we saw, hard, smelled, tasted, or touched when we were there, 3) as feelings and emotions, and 4) what is often most important, as physical sensations stored in the body--in what might be called a "felt sense." We often don't know how we know we are uncomfortable ... we just have a felt sense that we are.
Somatic Experiencing® addresses this "felt sense" that is quite often outside of our awareness and identification. However, to the trained clinician and eventually to the client as well, the physical manifestation of traumatic stress is palpable, it's observable, and it can be tamed and slowly released. What we are aware of related to our own stress is just the tip of the memory iceberg. Our deepest wounds are held in physical memories, like how we braced or fought or fled or froze or recoiled or shrunk.
Whenever we are threatened our body goes through a rapid sequence of automatic responses that are hard-wired into our nervous system: 1) movement stops, 2) we orient ourselves to the environment and begin scanning it, 3) we evaluate whether it's safe or dangerous, 4) we begin to initiate protective responses, if needed, like flight, fight, freeze, or reaching out to others, and 5) when the danger has passed we discharge our excessive energy and begin to settle down. With traumatic memories, however, we become stuck somewhere in this sequence and fail to complete it. Our traumatic memories literally become disembodied parts of our experience and unavailable to heal. Somatic Experiencing® is a method that addresses this lack of completion and allows the healing to occur.