Don’t think, just feel. Somatic Experiencing therapy (SE®) aims to relieve the symptoms of mental and physical trauma –related health problems through the use of intense concentration on the patient’s bodily sensations (or somatic experiences).
The treatment is in fact based on the observations of Dr. Peter Levine, who studied the behaviour of animals in the wild following their encounters with life threatening situations. After noticing that animals seemed to experience little to no trauma after confronting danger, Dr. Levine proposed that humans’ stressful reaction was an indicator of irregularities in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) following the physiological ‘jolt’ of a distressing experience.
Levine’s theory puts forward the idea that normally, the ANS has the ability to self-regulate but that this ability is hampered by trauma. SE® mirrors the behaviour that animals undertake in order to avoid being adversely effected by dangerous or distressing confrontations on a long term basis, effectively restoring the ANS’s capacity to regulate itself.
SE® advocates believe that when the human body engages in genetically ingrained survival behaviours (adrenaline release and the ‘fight or flight’ response), the ANS is activated but due to the nature of modern stress triggers, never fully returns to a neutral state once the perceived threat has passed. On a basic level, SE® attempts to increase patients’ awareness of the physical remnants of trauma in muscles and bodily tissues before helping them to release and free themselves of that detrimental stored tension.
In practical terms, SE® doesn’t involve reliving traumatic events or revolve around contact body work, but acts as an educational therapy experience. Practitioners talk of listening to the ‘voice’ of the body in the form of physical sensations such as tingling, warmth and muscle/connective tissue contraction. By paying attention to these signals and relating them to stressors then enables the patient to focus on ‘discharging’ the pent up energy (resulting in releases such as involuntary muscle movement, heat related sensations and yawning), helping to heal and physical wounds and rebalancing the nervous system.
The patient is also asked to make use of ‘resources’- personalised anchoring sensations, thoughts or emotions that evoke a sense of safety- during treatment until they build confidence to confront and admit to the causes of stored tension. As well as learning about the physiology of emotional distress and how to utilise ‘tracking’ (the recognition and exploration of stressor symptoms), patients are expected to use the tools they gain during sessions to prevent lapsing into stress storing patterns in the future.
A typical SE® session lasts about an hour and progresses from an introductory conversation to carefully paced work on symptoms. Practitioners claim that in the immediate aftermath of a minor traumatic event (such as a non-serious traffic accident), health benefits can be felt after just a few session, but inevitably, long standing symptoms and long term trauma will need more work.
Anyone who has experienced trauma (whether through loss of a loved one, developmental, as a result of an accident or attack or through illness) and is feeling overwhelmed by the after effects of the situation may benefit from SE®. SE® practitioners often do not immediately look for a specific traumatic event in a patient’s past, but welcome them attending a session if their lives are disrupted by symptoms including the following:
If you feel you would be uncomfortable approaching things from your past during therapy, then SE® is not for you. Those who have unfortunately experienced overwhelmingly traumatic events may find that the flexible, self-help nature of SE® does not offer the immediate stability and support they’re looking for either.
Dr. Levine has spent over forty years developing SE® and it is currently available in 25 different countries.