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Somatic Experiencing for Trauma Healing

trauma-distorted faceAs the mental health community becomes more adept at holistic healing that incorporates the whole person (mind, body, spirit, and emotion), the role that sensation plays in one’s healing process is growing ever more important. Previously it was thought it was enough to just “talk it out.” Now, as research is uncovering growing evidence about the importance that the nervous system plays in both storing and releasing trauma, therapists need to rely increasingly on incorporating body sensation into their sessions with clients. Somatic Experiencing is one method of doing that.

As I began the journey of incorporating both Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Immanuel Prayer techniques into my practice, I was thrilled to hear the positive feedback from my clients. I’m hearing about better sleep, less jitteriness, panic attacks being stopped mid-attack, and decreased instances of flashbacks. On a grander scale, and perhaps more importantly, I have seen clients take back their power in regard to traumatic memories that were keeping them paralyzed and unable to progress toward their hopeful futures… all in just the short year since I began Somatic Experiencing training.

The research of Peter Levine (the developer of Somatic Experiencing) regarding how the body releases nervous system energy from traumatic events has dynamically shifted the understanding of trauma treatment. The great news for people struggling with traumatic memories is that our bodies are designed to heal from highly stressful or trauma-inducing events. Yet for those with traumatic memories, this often does not feel true. Enter sensation. By slowly and gently re-working one’s relationship with one’s body and incorporating tools that facilitate discharging stored nervous system energy, one can become friends with one’s own person again: body, mind, soul, and emotions.

Somatic Experiencing is based on accessing the nervous system through various experiential components. It utilizes a person’s “felt sense” to access physical sensations, images, behaviors, and meanings that have been internalized from traumatic experiences. By accessing elements of the felt sense in a very slow, gentle and titrated way, a person is enabled to do several things. First is to discharge stored energy that is bound in the nervous system and has negative impact on current functioning. Second is to integrate the memory in such a way that it no longer holds the power that it once had. Third is giving the body a chance to “complete” survival or protective responses that never got to occur in the actual event. For a sexual abuse survivor, this may mean making the physical movements of defending oneself against a perpetrator. For a veteran, it may mean using the imagination to be able to flee from an IED attack. Every client situation is different because our experiences – and the body’s response to them – are unique.
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These descriptions may sound like “voodoo” or “magic” or trying to erase one’s past. But SE is nothing of the sort. SE merely honors the body’s organic defensive mechanisms in the present, in a way that was not able to occur in the past event. As clients follow their bodies’ natural impulses in the present moment with the support of an SE therapist, their nervous systems can release the grip that their traumatic past has held on them, and they are liberated emotionally.

As a therapist, I have the high honor of helping my clients once again becoming friends with their own nervous systems. As a client learn to access his or her own nervous system’s tools to heal, the client grows the capacity to emerge from states of “freeze,” and regains the ability to follow the body’s natural impulse to fight or flee in situations of perceived threat. Moreover, clients reclaim self-regulation skills as they become curious about their own impulses and learn to utilize them to de-activate their systemic stress. When this begins to occur, it’s as if a chain reaction is unlocked and exponential growth starts happening that allows clients to build capacity to be present and not triggered and overwhelmed in their own lives. They reconnect with their own sense of resiliency and nurture their often lost or impaired ability to tolerate stress and emotional difficulties. Hope is renewed, and clients are empowered with forward movement in their lives again.

For more information about Somatic Experiencing, contact me through the contact page, see this page on our website or the website of the Somatic Experiencing Training Institute, or  check out Peter Levine’s books:

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine, North Atlantic Books, 1997.

In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Peter Levine, North Atlantic Books, 2010.

~Meghan Vosloo, LCSW

(LifeCare therapists Meghan Vosloo, Rhonda Kelloway, Linette Howard and Holly Shilling are trained in Somatic Experiencing.)

Photo credits: Run Jane Fox / Foter / CC BY and Somatic Experiencing Training Institute.