How Somatic Experiencing Can Help You Overcome Trauma

We all experience trauma throughout our lives. The types of trauma and the extent of it varies from person to person, but those experiences still happen for everyone. Many people carry the burden of unresolved or unaddressed trauma for years, if not their whole lives. Of course, this is no way to live!

Medical practitioners spent decades finding methods for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, along with the numerous physical and mental trauma-related conditions that people experience. This includes trauma therapist Peter A. Levine, PhD., who developed the Somatic Experiencing® (SE) method for healing trauma and other stress disorders.

Fight-flight-freeze

All animals, humans and otherwise, display natural motor responses to imminent threats: fight, flight and freeze. In the moment, these responses inspire an effort to protect yourself from or survive the encounter with the threat.

For example, if you saw someone charging towards you wielding a weapon, you might consider fighting off your attacker. When you realize that’s not possible given the weapon, you try to run away from this person. Then you trip, breaking your ankle, so you play dead in hopes of fooling your assailant.

Upon realizing that you’re in some kind of danger, your body automatically activates your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which communicates to the brain that you need to fight, flight or freeze. Simultaneously, your adrenal glands release the adrenaline you need to maximize your strength to either fight off the threat or escape from it.

Understanding trauma

Trauma develops when freeze responses remain uncompleted. After creating so much energy to fight or flight, the freeze phase of the cycle must run its course to release all that momentum. Skipping this part of the threat response cycle causes this energy to remain trapped within you.

The SE approach allows patients to complete these freeze response. Once they’ve worked through lingering freeze responses, their bodies finally release the energy and stamina their SNS created when initially triggered.

Within the SE framework, your trauma isn’t the result of the traumatic event you experienced. Instead, trauma occurs when the unresolved freeze response causes an imbalance in your nervous system.

To overcome trauma with SE methods, you work to access the “body memory” of the event, rather than the details of the event itself. In many cases, that means you don’t need to discuss the traumatic event if you’re not comfortable doing so.

Using SE to overcome trauma

Your work with a certified SE practitioner (SEP) focuses on reconnecting you with the physical sensations of the traumatic experience so you become more aware of them. This awareness allows you to employs the various SE tools intended for overcoming trauma.

  • Resourcing: A SEP begins treatment with resourcing. This technique allows the patient to create internal resources to make them feel safe. To create these resources, the patient discusses cherished memories, loved ones, favorite pastimes and other comforting touchpoints.
  • Titration: Once a patient creates the resources necessary to comfort themselves, they move on to the trauma. The therapist slowly eases you into revisiting the trauma. Remember, the trauma is the physical sensations of the event, not the story itself. As you gradually work through the titration phase, the SEP monitors the patient’s responses noting changes in breathing, crying, shift in voice tone, shaking, tensed muscles, shivering and/or clenched fists. The patient must communicate to the therapist if s/he also experiences hot or cold sensations, weightiness, dizziness or numbness. The purpose of titration is gradually training the body to be less affected by the trauma.
  • Pendulation: Also known as looping, pendulation helps your body regain homeostasis and balance. This trains the patient’s body to naturally move back and forth between states of alert and calm without experiencing the extremes of those responses. Working through the pendulation phase builds a more resilient nervous system so the patient can manage future traumas.

Prioritize your body with SE

Unlike other psychological approaches that prioritize memories and thoughts, SE addresses the physical manifestations of trauma. This body first approach uncovers the habitual behavior patterns that trigger PTSD and other trauma-related conditions. By pinpointing these behaviors, the patient works with their SEP to mitigate these destructive behaviors.

Through breathwork and “moving meditations” such as yoga, tai chi and qigong, the patient’s body eases the physical manifestations of trauma, such as headaches, muscle tension, high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia and numbness. As the patient continues this practice with their SEP, they’ll have more reasonable responses to stress and trauma with fewer long-term effects.

Don’t let trauma own your life. Find a SEP near you to work through the body memory that triggers your feelings of anxiety and depression. You’ll be amazed by the results!

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