Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body based, resilience building modality, used for understanding and working with the impact of trauma and experiences that overwhelm us.
SE was first developed in the 1970s by American psychologist and neurobiologist Dr Peter Levine, who’s life’s work since that time has been to further develop this understanding.
SE developed out of Levine’s observation of the way animals in the wild respond to stressful or life-threatening situations. He observed that even though their lives are routinely threatened, animals possess innate coping behaviours that enable them to recover and move past traumatic events.
In the ‘harmonious’ functioning of things, our nervous system (a communication system between the body and brain) directs our energy easily between activity and relaxation. We have energy for action and activity when we need it, (blood and oxygen to muscles etc) and are also able to relax and rest, (energy goes inward for relaxing, resting and digesting)
What is Trauma
Trauma can be described as anything that overwhelms and pushes us beyond our resilience and capacity to cope.
Broadly speaking this can be shock trauma such as an accident, or developmental trauma where we have experienced ongoing stressors in our childhood environment, that we were powerless to control. eg having caregivers that we were not reliably able to meet our emotional or physical needs.
Trauma can be something that we have a conscious memory of having occurred, or in the case of developmental trauma we might not have conscious memories but experience repeated and problematic patterns playing out in our lives and relationships.
How We Respond to Traumatic Events and Overwhelming Experience
Mammals including human beings, share the same predictable pathways of response to threat or stressful experiences. When a threat presents itself, our nervous system, goes on high alert, galvanising a huge amount of energy within our body in readiness for ensuring our survival. (Fight, Flight, Freeze, *Fawn/Appease)
These survival responses are hardwired into our body and happen ‘autonomically’ which means that they happen without conscious control . . in the same way that our heart beats, our circulation carries blood around our body, and that we breathe
In an ideal situation, once a danger or stressful situation has passed, our body and nervous system settle back into to a state of balance.
However in modern life we are less in touch with how to support this and following prolonged stress or a traumatic event, our body can struggle to find its way back to balance. The energy that was readied in service for our survival, is ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’ and we can continue to live with our nervous system primed for danger, long after a threat has passed.
This readiness for threat (either high activation or shut down) can become stuck in the body and psyche, coming out in myriad physical and psychological symptoms and tension patterns that are frequently confusing, frightening and life limiting. We are left trying to manage our internal experience as best as we can.
Because this response is not connected to the thinking / rational part of our brain (ie it has happened 'autonomically / without conscious decision) . . we can fins that we have a good rational understanding and insight as to what is going on for us, but find that despite our very best efforts we are at a total loss in terms of how to move beyond forwards.
How Can Somatic Experiencing Help
In Somatic Experiencing the body and mind are seen as a whole organism that has an innate capacity to heal. The aim of this work is to support the nervous system to come back into balance which can greatly improve distressing symptoms, both physical and psychological.
It is not the content of the traumatic event itself that causes problematic symptoms, but, rather, an inability to complete and discharge the survival energy that was generated in order to cope with the crisis we faced
In SE, although not disregarded, there is less emphasis on narrative and recollection of events. Instead we develop and tend to an awareness of our internal bodily experience in the here and now. Through this, the body is able to reveal its own memories and the ways in which we have learned to cope when faced with challenging experiences in our lives.
Through learning to track and be with our internal experience, we can begin to reclaim our energy for life and release things that may have become habitual and stuck within us. As we do this we find that new possibilities start to become available to us.