wild horses

Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing (S.E) is a body-based treatment used for releasing and healing trauma, shock and stress. It was pioneered by American psychologist, Peter Levine.

Dr Levine studied wild animals, observing that even though their lives are routinely threatened, they don’t suffer with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are able to release all the ‘fight and flight’ survival energy from their bodies, naturally and simply, when the threat is over. They then go on with their lives as if nothing has happened.

Although human beings have a similar nervous system to wild animals, we do not easily discharge this energy from our bodies. In our modern-day sophisticated world, we tend to override our instinctual natures. For example, after even a minor traffic accident, there is always a powerful adrenaline rush, and rather than allowing our nervous systems to express and release this energy, we will concern ourselves instead with the practicalities of the event, such as exchanging addresses, and hurrying to work. It is this ‘override’ that causes the spaced out state we call ‘shock’.

This survival energy is enormous – it allows a mother to lift a car from her toddler trapped underneath. If not released, it will remain trapped in the body and mind, and can persist for years causing a variety of debilitating symptoms. This energy may keep us stuck in the past, reliving trauma, unable to engage with life and the ability to feel fully present.

The freeze response

In the wild, when an animal is threatened it will first try to run away or fight the attacker (‘fight or flight’ response). A third survival scenario is also possible. If running or fighting is not going to work, or is not possible, then the animal will become immobile ('freeze' response) in a last attempt to escape death.

If the prey animal survives (predators often lose interest in immobile prey), it will discharge the enormous amount of frozen fight/flight energy through shaking and sighing and breathing deeply. All fight and flight energy will be released at this stage. The nervous system returns to normal, and all other bodily functions also normalise. Life is resumed as if the threat had never occurred. There will be no PTSD.

Modern-day humans are often unable or unwilling to use the instinctual fight or flight under threat. We therefore go into the freeze state as the only other choice. This is often experienced as numbing or shock or dissociation. And this generally does not get released as in the case of our wild animal. Shaking and crying after a threatening event is something a sophisticated ‘in control’ modern human doesn’t like to do! It looks silly and feels uncomfortable! This suppression lies at the heart of understanding trauma and why so many people – often unknowingly- are suffering from PTSD.

By not releasing freeze energy, we feel that the threat is still happening, keeping us effectively locked in the past. This can cause emotional problems (for example anxiety and panic attacks) and physiological symptoms - perhaps especially digestive and breathing pattern disorders. Many of these problems have no obvious medical diagnosis.

We may feel that the threat is somehow always with us in some shape or form, causing us to feel helpless and powerless without really knowing why. Carrying around unresolved survival energy can keep us hyper-vigilant, unable to relax or feel at ease.

Talking therapies may not free us from trauma if we are stuck in the freeze state because it is a nervous system injury not a mental disorder. We need the language of the lower brain – that of sensation, to do the work. Somatic Experiencing addresses this animal brain injury.

Trapped trauma energy can result in:

Flashbacks

Palpitations

Feeling overwhelmed

Unexplained pain

Hyper vigilance, feeling on guard

Sensitivity to sound and light

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Panic attacks

Breathing disorders

Digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome

Muscular tension and chronic pain problems

Feeling ‘spaced-out’

Anxiety

Phobias

Nightmares

Inability to think clearly

Memory loss

Our bodies, like those of wild animals, have an inherent capacity to heal and self-regulate. Our nervous system wants to return to a state of equilibrium and balance. S.E teaches the client to track his/her own body sensations or ‘felt-sense’. Through this door, the nervous system shows us the trapped survival energy felt in the body and its release is encouraged safely and in small manageable pieces. This dynamic and creative body-aware approach can be deeply empowering, bringing us to a greater sense of self, and awareness of our senses and instincts. We then have an opportunity to reclaim what we have lost through trauma.

hand motif

 

back to top