What is Somatic Experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a trauma therapy that works directly with the body, or soma, to alleviate a variety of symptoms related to mood and anxiety disorders, trauma diagnoses, chronic health concerns, and many more. This modality addresses the reptilian brain, which is responsible for the execution of our fight, flight, freeze response. The theoretical framework behind SE is that our symptoms of mental health are better understood as ways in which we’ve gotten stuck in fight energy, flight energy, and/or freeze energy.
To release this energy, we drop out of the mind and into the body by noticing physical sensations. Once in the body, the client begins to notice impulses that are being constricted (usually a sense of tension). Instead of forcing the body to relax, the client learns to listen to the instructions that the body sends. To illustrate, think about the urge to sneeze. If we’re seated in a restaurant, we may attempt to avoid sneezing so that we do not appear rude or disgusting. We may be able to hold it off temporarily, which requires energy and attention. However, we eventually will be forced to sneeze, which then eliminates the impulse from the body and allows us to redirect our energy and attention to that which interests us.
Pent up fight, flight, and freeze energy feel quite different from resisting a sneeze. Because these energies are tied to our mammalian threat response cycle, if they’re not allowed the opportunity to complete, they remain trapped inside. The latent flight energy can feel like anxiety, avoidance, intrusive thoughts, hyper-vigilance, perfectionism, obsessions, and preoccupation. Fight energy can be experienced through irritability, aggression, emotional reactivity, resentment, and anger. And freeze energy can feel like lethargy, depression, laziness, boredom, or apathy. The nervous system can be stuck on “on” in multiple places. SE aims to renegotiate these nervous system responses by tapping into the natural flow of our life energy.
What does a Somatic Experiencing session look like?
For each emotion or thought we experience, there is a corresponding physical sensation that serves as a window for where these experiences live inside our bodies. This shift to body work over talk therapy can be challenging, as the brain associates the discharge of survival energy with the negative emotions of the original event(s) that elicited the energy in the first place. Because of this, humans begin to associate healing sensations with threat. Unconsciously, we can avoid the discharge of survival energy because we misinterpret the experience.
Instead of coming into the therapy room prepared to process events that have happened in between sessions, SE, like other experiential therapies, is interested in what is happening in real time – What does the client notice in this very moment as he talks about something that was upsetting? Is there a sense of constriction or tension in a muscle group? Is there an awareness of the rhythm of their heart or of their breath? Is there an impulse to do something with their hands or their eyes?
As the client goes back into their story, sharing about who said what, the therapist will gently guide them back to noticing what is happening within their bodies. As clients become accustomed to the nature of this body-based modality, they begin to attune to their own nervous systems and learn to feel safe when they are safe. Then, they can resist the urge to avoid completion of the threat response cycle and move the survival energy to discharge.
How will I know when it's working?
SE is a gentle approach that actively resists the re-traumatization process that unfortunately frequently happens in trauma therapy. SE provides a gradual transition from the experience of being absorbed in one's symptoms, to feeling calmer, less reactive and more responsive, and connecting deeply to one's self and to others.