The car accident was six months ago, but Chris (not her real name) still was too anxious to drive. The rear end collision that had come while she waited for a city bus to take on passengers left her not only with surgical scars but emotional ones as well. Aware that she was too disoriented about direction and space to drive, she had to rely on her husband to take her everywhere, including to therapy sessions with me. As a passenger, she startled easily and continually looked through the side view mirror to check if a car was about to ram them from the rear. The loss of her independence left her depressed and feeling helpless. Her world seemed to have collapsed around her.

When Chris came to me she desperately wanted to be driving again. By working with me with the process of Somatic Experiencing©, she was able to drive short distances after two sessions. After three sessions, she had regained her confidence to drive everywhere.

In this article I explain the process of Somatic Experiencing© and describe what happens in a typical session and its benefits.

Principles and Techniques of Somatic Experiencing©

Somatic Experiencing© (SE) is a counseling approach that helps to resolve and heal trauma. It is based on studies, made by Dr. Peter Levine, of how prey animals in the wild rarely seemed traumatized by the multiple attacks they face throughout their life. These animals, he noted, had built-in mechanisms that allowed them to release high amounts of energy after they were chased, injured or nearly killed and then to return to normal. He concluded that the same regulatory process exists within human animals. SE is a system of techniques that support people to access this process that aids in recovery from traumatic events.

Trauma happens when our nervous system gets overwhelmed. It does not get to complete one or more of the biological survival steps that are part of the natural sequence of responses when we feel threatened. These steps include locating the source of threat, mobilizing body chemicals, that can help us respond appropriately, engaging the defensive response of either fighting or fleeing from the source of threat, then resting and releasing the high level of activation. If the nervous system gets stuck or frozen in one or more of these steps, trauma symptoms can result. Some of these are disturbed sleep, feeling the need to be on-guard and depression.

An SE therapist works with individuals to help them successfully complete each of the biological responses in a way that does not overwhelm the nervous system. Techniques include:

· Resourcing- inviting the system to experience what it is like to feel calm and focused on the present moment. This can lead to you breathing more deeply, feeling tense muscles relax, or a slowing of your thoughts.

· Looping- moving gently between feeling calm and charged. When you are not overwhelmed, your body does this automatically. You get nervous about something then you relax; you are able to swing back and forth between different emotions without getting stuck in any particular one.

· Titrating- inviting the system to experience just tiny bites of the traumatic material so each biological step gets to complete. If you tried to absorb the entire traumatic event at once, you would miss the subtle cues that a biological step needed to be completed.

· Discharging- the process whereby the nervous system lets go of unused energy that was roused when the threat came. This could be experienced as sensations like tingling, vibration or heat.

What Happens In A SE Therapy Session?

Working with a SE therapist may seem different than other counseling sessions. While it is important to help you understand why you do some things and how you feel about them, the SE therapist also will invite you to pay attention to what is happening in your body. This is because the SE therapist wants to support the completion of survival biological responses; if these are not attended to, the symptoms of trauma often do not go away.

The survival mechanism is guided by the lower, non-analytical part of the brain and this section “talks’’ more in terms of sensation and imagery than insights or sophisticated thinking. To engage with this part of the brain, the SE therapist may ask questions like:

“As you remember that scene, what do you notice happening in your body?”

“If one drop of the tension could move through and out your body, how would it do that?”

“If you could imagine having all the help you needed, what would that be like?”

“Notice if there is any impulse to move any part of your body.”

What Can SE Do For You?

Eliminate or significantly reduce the symptoms of trauma:

Improve sleep, digestion and concentration
Decrease frequency and intensity of nightmares and flashbacks
Decrease anxiety, angry outbursts and depression
Ease physical discomforts associated with the traumatic event
Decrease need to feel on-guard
Decrease muscle tension
Increase of energy

Improve sense of connection to others:

Decrease isolation or detachment from others
Improve sense of belonging
Increase sense of feeling alive and “real”
Increase capacity to feel confident and capable
Deepen sense of connection to the spiritual world

Who Can Benefit From SE?

SE can benefit anyone who has experienced something overwhelming. This can include infants, who had difficult births or early medical procedures; children, who had accidents; adults with history of childhood abuse, assault, long periods of immobility, injury due to many causes, major overwhelming life changes, military experience and exposure to natural disasters. Those who have witnessed another’s injury or listened to the stories of people with any of these experiences can also benefit from SE. In general, SE is a powerful antidote to those dealing with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

SE would probably not benefit those with severe psychotic disorders.

If you are currently seeing another therapist to address other concerns and wish to incorporate SE into your healing process, discuss this need with your therapist. SE therapy for trauma issues can be used with other approaches.

I Am Not Sure About SE…..

I tried EMDR and it did not work. Does that mean SE will not work for me, too?

EMDR and SE are different in several ways. One is that SE does not use the concept of stimulating alternate areas of the brain. You will not be asked to focus on special sounds or movements. The SE therapist invites, instead, for you to notice movements that your body spontaneously wants to make. This is to support you in completing the biological steps your body already knows to how to do.

Another, is that SE stresses that your nervous system knows how to resource itself and to loop between a mildly stimulating event and a relaxing one before attention is given to facing the traumatic event.

Finally, when appropriate, SE can be a non-verbal experience using touch to support the different systems of the body, i.e. digestion, respiratory, muscular to return to their natural rhythm.

Should I consider SE? It was just a fender-bender. It wasn’t as though I was attacked or fell off a cliff.

Trauma is not defined by how we were hurt but by what happens to us as a result of these events. It is the sense of frozen helplessness that causes the symptoms. Needless to say, how we respond to threat is highly individual. If you are experiencing any symptoms of overwhelm, then SE may help.

I have done years of therapy and understand a lot of why I did things. I know I have to still deal with the ski accident and some other things like that. Will SE take long to help?

SE is a very effective short-term therapy when you are dealing with discreet traumatic events such as specific accidents. As in the case study above, Chris’s symptoms resolved very quickly because she was focusing on a specific time-limited event. SE can take longer when the trauma has been going on for a long time.

What Can You Do Next?

If you would like to read more about SE, check out Waking the Tiger by Dr Peter Levine or Crash Course by Dr. Diane Poole Heller. These are easy to read with good explanations and examples of the principles and application of SE techniques.

If you would like to experience SE, I suggest that we meet for a free 30-minute consultation. This way you can get a sense of whether I am a good fit for you, to hear how I work and for me to get a feel for whether I am the right therapist for you. Nearly all of my clients have felt very, very comfortable with our work and have made great progress. You should know, however, that I will continually check in with you to ensure you are comfortable and satisfied with our progress, and, if at any time you are not, I will be happy to refer you to another well-qualified trauma specialist.

Author's Bio: 

Maggie combines her technical medical knowledge, 19 years of experience as a massage therapist and body centered psychotherapist, and over 25 years as an adult educator to provide a solid foundation for her work.

Holding a Masters of Arts degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University, Maggie is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct faculty member at Naropa University. She is a graduate of the Hakomi Institute and of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing© trauma training. Maggie is a member of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.

Copyright 2008