What is Somatic Experiencing (SE) ?

June 25, 2017 - 8 minutes read

As a body-mind practitioner and clinical psychologist, I have found that incorporating principles of Somatic Experiencing (SE) into my practice has provided me with a whole new way of helping people move on with their lives when stressed, anxious, depressed, traumatized, or otherwise in pain (including living with chronic pain). So what then, is Somatic Experiencing, and how does it work?

First devised in the 1980s by Peter Levine (Levine & Frederick, 1997; Levine, 2010), but rooted in the pioneering work of others, such as Seyle (1976) and Gendlin (1982), SE is a cutting edge ‘mind-body’ trauma therapy that focuses on the smallest unit of subjective experience—discrete physical sensations.

Sensations are the building blocks of experience. As you read this, notice what happens internally, in your body. Are you feeling relaxed, curious, energized, sleepy or heavy? Do you feel an impulse to get up? Visceral sensations inform our feelings, thoughts, and behavior. We are wracked with pain, tense with worry, consumed with guilt, flushed with excitement, We shake uncontrollably, have clammy hands, feel butterflies in our stomach. I could go on, but I believe I’ve made my point.

In SE, the patient learns to focus on his (or her) sensations and work with them, one at a time. This allows him to fully experience sensations of expansion and well-being and to release or discharge painful or unpleasant sensations of constriction. It sounds simple but it does take practice. While some people take to it like fish to water, others may need to learn a whole new language—that of sensations, the language of our reptilian brain.

Examples of expansion include: feeling light, energized, bubbly, flowing. In contrast, examples of constriction include: feeling disconnected, numb, empty, nauseous.

Since feelings are comprised of sensations, if we can learn to attend to the sensations that inform us that we are angry, happy, anxious and so forth, we can use this skill, practiced in the typical SE session, to ultimately self-regulate ourselves and manage our emotions. We can also learn to listen to our thoughts (our self-talk) from a neutral, non-judgmental place, which Dan Siegel has called a “wheel of awareness” (2015), and then discharge the physical constrictions that may accompany them.

Once we do this, we are well on our way to self-regulation, for we can remind ourselves that whatever we are experiencing, thinking or feeling at that particular moment is short-lived—it has a beginning, middle and end. When all is said and done, it is ‘just’ a thought or feeling, informed by a visceral sensation. This physical sensation can be discharged when it constrains us. When pleasant or neutral, we can use it as a resource (see down).

This insight allows us to put whatever it is we are feeling into perspective, and ultimately, will allow us to be more fully present, rather than wrapped up in, stuck or otherwise captivated by the past – as so often happens in post-trauma. Perspective makes movement possible. It is lost when the autonomous nervous system is dysregulated. A cascade of physiological events that perpetuates the emergency state (characterizing the functioning) of the mind-brain-body follows. 

Since trauma is not in the event itself, but in the reaction of our nervous system to the event (Levine), the event/s we are responding to, sometimes as if they are ongoing rather than behind us, do not have to be of great magnitude, and may be quite mundane, such as an inopportune comment by a boss at work, or specific events related to a minor fall or car accident.

We can utilize skills learned in the SE session to regulate our nervous system, manage our thoughts and feelings, and consequently, our behavior.

These include:

  • Focusing on one sensation at a time, perhaps ‘interviewing’ it to learn more about it.
  • Doing a ‘body scan’ and seeing where in the body it feels pleasant or neutral, versus where there is constriction or even pain.
  • Learning to ‘anchor’ a resource (anything that makes us feel good, without there being a price attached) in the body, by noticing how the resource makes us feel. Embodied resources ground us to the here-and-now, connect us with the small pleasures of life. For example, as we picture or think of a specific resource, whether internal (e.g., a personal characteristic, such as tenacity or humor) or external (e.g., a friend or family member, music, walking on the beach), does our rib cage fill up with air and our chest expand? Does our spine elongate?
  • Going back and forth between a sensation of constriction and one of expansion until the constriction dissipates or is released (‘pendulating,’ from the word pendulum).
  • Tracking whether we are ‘discharging’ the pent-up arousal energy trapped in the constriction or symptom (this requires familiarity with the signs of activation/arousal and discharge that most characterize us).
  • Allowing ourselves to rest and consolidate our hard-won gains, once a discharge (reset) occurs (‘settling’).
  • Sometimes we may be able to flesh out an account of a particular and hitherto elusive experience, and integrate it with other experiences.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to examine this at length, an important part of SE treatment is to track and when necessary complete the instinctual survival responses to threat that come into play when, having oriented to danger, our attempts to elicit help from others are not met. We then respond with Fight or Flight. If necessary, as a last ditch attempt to deal with threat, we resort to Freeze, followed by Fold & Collapse. The interested reader is referred to other articles I have written on the subject, some of which are available on my website, as well to the writings of Levine and others.

References

Gendlin, E. T, (1982). Focusing. New York: Bantam.

Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books & ERGOS Institute Press.

Levine, P.A  & Frederick, A. (1997). Awakening the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Seyle, H. (1976). The Stress of Life (rev. edn.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Siegel, D.J. (2015). Brainstorm. The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.



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