What is Somatic Experiencing?

By Madhu Batheja, LMFT, SEP, Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco, CA

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is an effective, non-invasive, yet powerful, step by step approach for resolving trauma symptoms and relieving chronic stress. SE uses bodily sensations (or felt sense), to connect with and gradually release the energies held in the body as traumatic symptoms. Trauma can develop from a perceived life threat, an actual life threat, or as a result of chronic unrecognized stress. Both acute and chronic stress can seriously affect a person’s body, mind, emotions, relationships, behavior and sense of self. In the past 25 years, research has demonstrated SE’s effectiveness in healing physical and emotional trauma, PTSD, overwhelm, and other stress related conditions.

The stress response

Human Beings respond to threat in an instinctive, biological way first, and then the awareness of emotions and cognition follow. When we feel threatened, our bodies produce chemicals that give us the energy to fight, flee or freeze – which are our 3 innate responses to threat. For example, if someone tried to assault us, we may get angry (fight) or run (flee) or get overwhelmed and just stand there like a deer caught in headlights (freeze). These are innate, natural, self-protective responses that arise without much conscious thought.

According to Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself, but because residual energy from the experience is not released from the body. When we are unable to release this energy during and after the threat, our body and brain may think we are still in danger and continue to produce more chemicals for fight/flight/freeze. Over time, this (often non-conscious) feeling of danger and accumulation of stress chemicals, can create difficult and complex trauma symptoms.

Some typical symptoms of trauma are:

– hyper-arousal: increased heart rate, difficulty breathing (rapid, shallow, panting), racing thoughts, bodily tension, worry, cold sweats
– hyper-vigilance: being on guard all the time
– intrusive imagery and flashbacks
– hyperactivity and restlessness
– startle responses to sudden loud noises/movements
– feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, depression
– abrupt mood swings (rage reactions, temper tantrums, shame)
– difficulty sleeping
– anxiety, panic attacks
– excessive anger

SE can help people with various experiences of trauma such as:

– natural disasters, (earthquakes, hurricanes, fire, etc.)
– severe childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse
– violence or witnessing violence
– rape or assault
– catastrophic injuries or illness
– loss of a loved one
– automobile accidents (even minor ones)
– invasive medical or dental procedures (especially for children)
– falls (especially for children and elderly people)
– abandonment, especially for babies and young children
– war

What you can expect in an SE session

Somatic Experiencing takes things slowly, starting by establishing a safe environment, gently increasing somatic awareness by having the client track body sensations. When the client focusses on a body sensation, for example tight shoulders, they start to release and relax. The client’s symptoms may get reactivated in session; they may notice impulses in their body to move in ways that suggest self-protective responses, or they may have thoughts, emotions or recall a memory. The SE practitioner will monitor these arousal symptoms and help the client find resources like inner strengths or external relationships, that enable the client to stay calm, feel safe and supported in the present moment.

Going gently back and forth between the arousal symptoms and personal resources, allows the client to slowly increase their tolerance for the physical sensations, emotions or memories of the trauma. The SE practitioner will guide the client in a slow, manageable process to release the blocked energy. They may ask questions like “ what does your body want to do now, that it could not do back then?” and invite them to make the movement. The nervous system may start to release pent up energy in various ways such as shaking, feeling heat or completing a physical movement. This lets the body know the threat has passed and the nervous system goes back into balance. This increases resiliency to stress and increases a person’s vitality and capacity to actively engage in life, resulting in a new integrated healing experience.

Healing trauma may take time, depending on the severity of trauma and how long the symptoms have existed. When we heal trauma, we free up energy, connect with our deepest self and can live our lives in fuller, less inhibited ways.

SE Practitioners (SEP’s)

Somatic Experiencing Practitioners are graduates of a 3 year professional training program run by the Somatic Trauma Institute. SEP’s come from a variety of backgrounds such as mental health, physical and occupational therapy, bodyworkers, nurses and addictions counselors.

For more information about Somatic Experiencing, please visit the SE website at www.traumahealing.org..

Madhu Batheja, LMFT

About this Contributor: Madhu Batheja is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and SEP with a private practice in San Francisco, CA. She has 24 years of experience working with individuals, couples and groups. She received her MA in Counseling Psychology from the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA in 1992. She has been a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner since 2005. She incorporates Somatic Experiencing along with other somatic modalities (Irest Yoga Nidra and Somatic Attachment – DARe) with relational and depth psychodynamic theories into her therapy practice. Her areas of expertise are early childhood abuse and neglect, couples and cross-cultural therapy.

To find out more about Madhu Batheja, LMFT, please visit her website at www.madhubathejamft.com.