Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., draws from many different disciplines to address the physiology of stress and trauma. Dr. Levine was curious about the fact that animals in the wild aren’t traumatized by their life-and-death existence, while people can be traumatized by events that seem inconsequential to many of us. As he studied animal’s reaction to danger in their environment he noticed that animals will complete the full sequence of a response to danger, by noticing, reacting, and recovering from the threat, once they realize they are safe.

Humans beings are dissuaded from reacting to challenging experiences this way and so our frightening experiences get stuck in our physiological and emotional systems.  Without the help of our bodies to complete the reaction and move on the way animals instinctually do, we replay these experiences over and over in our minds and bodies.   When in jeopardy, animals will access and expend enormous amounts of energy providing the” fuel” to run or fight. What Peter Levine concluded from watching animals in the wild was that once the threat had been successfully overcome, there was a discharge of that excess energy, through the body. That way the body can return to its baseline. Allowing a chemical discharge to move through the nervous system—for example by trembling, shaking, bucking, or running further than necessary simply to escape the predator- re-sets the mind and body and prepares it for the next challenge. In humans this expenditure of excess energy can be very subtle but still work necessary to heal and move on.

People can be daunted by the word trauma and not relate it to the things they are troubled by.  Here is a simple working definition of trauma:  anything that is too much, too soon, or too fast for our nervous system to handle, especially if we can’t reach a successful resolution. When we talk of trauma, it does not necessarily imply that we will have a complete breakdown in adulthood; it may simply be a decreased ability to feel satisfaction or emotional or physical pleasure.  Somatic Experiencing (SE), is a therapy which is a holistic approach to re-establishing a natural flow between mind and body.    

Re-balancing of our nervous systems and minds:

Dr. Levine describes in his books Waking the Tiger and In an Unspoken Voice, that Somatic Experiencing Therapy focuses on the physiological responses that occur when someone experiences or remembers an overwhelming or traumatic event, rather than just focusing on the thoughts or emotions connected to it. This helps to restore the nervous system’s normal cycling between alertness and rest.

  • The excitation is when we’re stimulated in some way, whether to feel pleasure or to respond to danger.
  • The settling is to allow for the relatively quiet states necessary for digestion, rest, and recharging. This settling also permits us to prepare for the next time we need to react, with yet a new demand for energy.
  • This cycle continues smoothly, up and down, when we’re functioning well.

When any part of this normal cycle is interrupted, the charge of energy gets ‘stuck’ in our bodies. We can then fail to fluctuate easily between states of different intensity. The charge stuck in our systems will then likely be triggered in the future we encounter events, people, or things that remind us of the earlier experience that was never completed.  Trying to avoid this stuck energy is draining and we cannot use our resources (our life energy) to accomplish what we want to do which is to successfully navigate happenings in the present moment.  Somatic experiencing is one of those modalities that help to re-access our life energy and be more present in the present moment.