Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a gentle, powerful approach to trauma that engages our ability to deeply attune to energetic impulses in the body and to use our creative energy through imagery to remobilize in a careful and resourced way, the fight/flight energy that can become trapped in the nervous system when the threat response does not have the opportunity to complete itself.  This can happen during a shock trauma, like an automobile accident, assault, natural or man-made disaster, fall or any similar experience, when there is no warning and when in the aftermath, due to well intentioned efforts to assist or because injury is severe and there is no time, the body is not given the time to complete the physiological response to the threat.  It can also happen when, during childhood, due to abuse, neglect or other environmental factors, the child's nervous system is repeatedly overwhelmed, the child develops a sense of not being safe in the world, and a state of anxiety and hypervigilance become chronic into adulthood when not treated.

Peter Levine, Ph.D., who developed the SE model, understands that trauma is in the nervous system, not the event.  This explains why two people experiencing the same event may have very different responses.  When there is a threat to the physical safety of the body, there is an automatic and complex physiological response designed to help one fight off or flee from the danger, hence the fight/flight response.  Some of what happens is that stress hormones are released, blood is pumped to the extremities, certain systems which are not needed, such as reproduction and digestion, go into hibernation, peripheral vision narrows and an enormous amount of energy is generated.  When the brain realizes the threat has passed, the system discharges the mobilized energy and returns to homeostasis.

Dr. Levine had worked with trauma for many years and noticed that animals living in the predator/prey relationships of the wild don't experience PTSD as we do and wondered why.  He studied animals whose nervous systems are similar to ours and observed that, when a threat was passed, animals lie still for a period of time as their bodies literally shake off the energy that is no longer needed in that moment for protection, and return to whatever activity they were engaged in as if nothing had happened.  You may remember when you experienced a near accident or some other brush with danger in your life, became very frightened and when the threat passed and you were unharmed, found yourself trembling or shaking for a few minutes and then went on about your day.  That's the completion of the threat response.

Unlike we humans, animals don't think about the experience.  They don't go over it and over it, worry about it happening again, think about all the other terrible things that can happen, watch the news lest we forget all the dangers in the world, and do all the things we do to keep ourselves frightened and on alert.  Sometimes, if we are alone when something happens, we may not know immediately that the threat is over or that we're going to be ok and even when we do, after a seemingly minor fall for instance, we may jump up, brush ourselves and the incident off, and go on our way not realizing we're carrying with us the mobilized fight/flight energy.  Often, when help arrives if needed after a traumatic incident, especially if there is injury, well-intentioned helpers don't or can't allow time for the body to discharge the threat energy, so it remains in the body and sometimes, treatment is more traumatic than the initial event.

SE provides the opportunity to complete the threat response by re-experiencing the trauma as if it were a film, slowly frame by frame, and by listening to the body now, allowing the body to complete today what it didn't have time to complete at the time of the incident.  When we do this very carefully, so as not to retraumatize, the body amazingly discharges the threat energy it has been holding, sometimes for years, and the nervous system returns to regulation.  This is, of course, a very simple explanation of a complex process and each individual is different as is each experience.  What we understand is that the body has a strong propensity toward health, balance and regulation in the nervous system, and what we see is that we can help the body return to a place of quiet regulation.

People often don't realize that depression, anxiety, avoidance of people, places and things that remind them of the trauma, an inability to focus attention, difficulties in relationships and many other things can be connected with a traumatic incident, even one that happened long ago.  Often the pain from whiplash in a seemingly minor 'fender bender' is resolved when the threat response is completed and the nervous system returns to regulation because the body is no longer constricted, holding on to energy it no longer needs.

The threat response is a critical physiological protection against danger.  It is important to resolve past traumas and reset, so to speak, the nervous system so that the threat response is available to warn of actual danger in the present, rather than something that's 'on' all the time based on something that is no longer happening.  We need to know when there is a danger today and people who carry mobilized fight/flight energy in their nervous systems all the time can't distinguish a clear and present danger from the terror of a past experience.  People who resolve trauma in this way experience themselves in the world very differently.  They feel safe, empowered, and are again able to trust their intuitive body awareness to guide them.

Childhood abuse and neglect issues are more complex and usually require integration of body awareness and nervous system regulation with other approaches to healing.  What SE offers immediately in such situations is an ability to begin to learn to regulate the nervous system which creates space for healing the soul wounds and release of irrational beliefs developed in childhood.  This process allows awareness and connection with the present day self and the ability to trust oneself, one of the greatest gifts this treatment offers.

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