Somatic Experiencing is a form of body-centred therapy, aimed primarily at resolving the effects of a variety of traumatic events. Traumatic events are those events to which we are unable to respond adequately, because the happening for us was too quick, too intense, or in general overwhelmed our capacity to cope. These situations include unexpected losses, falls and other accidents, medical procedures, violence, sexual abuse, prolonged lack of emotional support, etc. Nevertheless, the type of the experience does not in itself determine the level of trauma. The founder of this approach, Peter A. Levine, PhD, based it, among others, on observing animals’ responses to stress. When threatened, all organisms utilise their survival mechanism – the heightened arousal of the nervous system which facilitates short-term defence reactions called fight-or-flight response. If these two strategies cannot be utilised, they (temporarily) freeze. Even though wild animals frequently find themselves in such situations, they usually do not develop traumatic symptoms, because they successfully discharge the stress energies once the danger has passed through shaking, running, etc.
Human beings, on the other hand, are often unable to complete these survival responses. The reasons for this range from unprocessed existing traumas to the more highly developed state of human brain and the cognitive centres repressing instinctive behaviour (e.g. due to social pressure to be strong, invulnerable, etc.). Undischarged fight–or–flight energies, as well as repressed emotions connected with the traumatic event (e.g. fear, helplessness), are key reasons for traumatisation. This leads to a considerably less understood, but common and important response – freezing or numbness. It represents dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system: a state of high activity in both the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. To illustrate such state, Levine used a colourful metaphor of stepping on the brake and accelerator at the same time. Freezing is not a chosen, but rather an automated biological response to stimulus.
Effects of Somatic Experiencing
In a safe therapeutic environment, strengthened by our own sources of power, the previously unfinished defensive sequences of fight or flight are gently completed. In addition to processing specific traumas, Somatic Experiencing helps us to recognise our true feelings and act in a more self-attuned manner. Awareness of bodily experience, a skill we develop whilst using this approach, reconnects us with our body – and a body never lies. This comes in handy when facing any kind of challenge, not only when one is caught in the grip of a traumatic situation. Not only does this approach help us recognise and reduce stress at first signs, it also teaches us how to trust ourselves and self-regulate more effectively. Once we have learned to cope efficiently with a trauma response and cultivate awareness of bodily sensations and feelings, we are able to thoroughly transform ourselves. We can be more at peace with ourselves, become more assertive and spontaneous and, consequently, live a more vital, fulfilled, joyful and creative life.
Literature and sources:
Peter Levine (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Tiger. North Atlantic Books.
Peter Levine (2008) Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, Sounds True.
Peter Levine (2010) In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, North Atlantic Books.
Peter Levine & Maggie Kline (2007) Trauma through a Child’s Eyes: Infancy through Adolescence, North Atlantic Books.
Peter Levine & Maggie Kline (2008) Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: a Parent’s Guide to Instilling Confidence, Joy, and Resilience, North Atlantic Books.
Peter Levine & Maggie Philips (2012) Freedom from Pain: Discover Your Body’s Power to Overcome Physical Pain, Sounds True.
Payne, Peter; Levine, Peter & Crane-Godreau, Mardi (2015) Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers of psychology.
Payne, Peter; Levine, Peter & Crane-Godreau, Mardi (2015) Corrigendum: Somatic Experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers of psychology.
Brom, D.; Stokar, Y.; Lawi, C.; Nuriel-Porat,V.; Ziv, Y.; Lerner, K. & Ross, G. (2017) Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 30, 3: 2014-312.