What Is Somatic Experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing is a body-oriented form of therapy aimed to heal trauma and other stress disorders. The practice aims to release built-up energy and tension from past trauma – whether that be early developmental attachment trauma, a recent traumatic event, or low-level chronic stress which has imprinted on your nervous system.
What Does Somatic mean?
With the term “somatic” relating to the body, this therapy concentrates on the nervous system and how it responds to all forms of stress. By understanding how our bodies respond to the stresses of life – however large or small – we can develop an awareness of our own baseline of well-being. This way, we can more easily identify when our body is falling into familiar stress-induced patterns, and be conscious of how to self-soothe and not allow ourselves to be overcome by our anxiety.
Trauma and your body’S Reaction
Every one of us has been through a trauma of some sort. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of abuse or a specific event, as our bodies can even be seriously impacted by work stress or generalised anxiety. Whatever form it takes, unresolved trauma can lead to larger mental and physical health concerns, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, mood swings, or immune system problems.
When we feel stressed or threatened, our nervous system springs into action by triggering the fight, flight, or freeze instinct. Although designed to be self-regulating, this response can become erratic when you experience some sort of trauma, but repress your emotional response – either consciously or subconsciously.
As a result, the body continues to respond as if it is under threat by releasing a flood of hormones – notably adrenaline and cortisol – which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds, your muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses sharpen. This hormonal fluctuation – although your body’s defense mechanism – can shake up your nervous system, mess up your natural hormone balance and trigger a whole host of other symptoms.
What Happens During a Somatic Experiencing Session?
Somatic Experiencing therapy follows the belief that the negative symptoms such as anxiety, nervous system disorders, hypervigilance, or depression result from denying the body the opportunity to fully process trauma. During the session, which involves a combination of verbal and sensory therapy, you are therefore encouraged to be open about whatever is on your mind. To let yourself feel the emotions and to let them out – in order to move on.
Every practitioner has slightly different methods, and since every one of us has different manifestations of anxiety, this adds even more possibility for variety. But your session is likely to start with some general conversation about how you feel in the present moment. If you notice any physical or emotional disturbances. And how you wish you could feel long-term.
This will then move onto a more physical section of the session. Pressure is applied along the length of your spinal cord, in order to both encourage relaxation and observe your body’s response. Depending on your current state, the practitioner may try to trigger a response from your nervous system. This could be either by talking about what is on your mind, or mimicking your physical response to trauma. Both you and the practitioner will then be able to observe how you respond and recover. There will likely also be some breathing exercises, to experience how your body responds to deep or shallow breaths.
The session will finish with a few minutes of relaxation. Here, your body and mind can process the sensations which they experienced. Hopefully, this will be a restorative time for you to begin to bridge that gap between body and mind.
How does Somatic Experiencing work?
Developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine, Somatic Experiencing aims to restore the body’s ability to self-regulate in order to achieve balance and integrity. Levine was curious about the fact that animals in the wild aren’t traumatized by their life-and-death encounters, while people can be traumatized relatively easily – even by events that are not life-threatening.
Once a threat has subsided, a flurry of excess energy courses through the body. Animals usually release this by either trembling, shaking, bucking, or running. This “re-sets” the mind and body, preparing it for the next threat.
Humans, on the other hand, seem to have lost this primal instinct. The resulting trapped nervous energy leads to continued unnecessary hormone spikes. This only serves to further stress the body and inflict long-term symptoms. As such, after being overwhelmed by something that has thrown us off-kilter – whether days or decades ago – we need an outlet for this energy in order to move forward, and let old tensions go.
Should You Give Somatic Experiencing a Try?
If you feel at all out-of-touch with your body, have persisting symptoms of anxiety, experienced burnout or a traumatic event, Somatic Experiencing could be a transformative addition to your self-care regime.
In our modern world, we are all somewhat disconnected from the needs and instincts of our bodies. We all face stresses in life which we simply forgot how to process. And however trivial this stress may seem, your body will treat it as though you are still fleeing a predator, provoking your nervous system to react accordingly.
As such, every one of us could surely benefit from Somatic Experiencing. We must embrace what is troubling us to re-learn how to reconnect with our bodies. This could serve as a promising first step towards maintaining self-regulation and healthy stress management.
Have you tried somatic experiencing? If so let us know how you found it in the comment section below.