What is Somatic Experiencing?, Cont’d

In the last post, I gave a very brief, general overview of Somatic Experiencing, and in this post, I wanted to give you a bit more detail about what it looks like.

Somatic Experiencing is a term used to describe a kind of therapy devised by Peter Levine for assisting the stuck energy of incomplete defensive responses to be released from the body in order to restore healthy nervous system functioning. The healthier the nervous system, the more likely it is to “self-regulate”, that is, to effectively manage the ups and downs in energy and stress levels without having to actively help it.

What does that mean in plain english? Well, this is a gross simplification, but your internal system for responding to threats is kind of “stupid”. It doesn’t know toast burning from a house on fire, and it doesn’t have to. It just has to put out the chemicals to mobilize the body for survival activity, whether that’s seeking social connection, fighting, fleeing or freezing up (playing dead). A complex set of internal chemical and electrical interactions sorts through whether it’s toast or house that is on fire, and regulates the response up or down to match the perceived threat.

Trouble is, if there are enough incomplete defensive responses – aka energy stuck in the system – it gums up the works, and the complex set of processes can get stuck on (anxiety, panic), off (severe depression, stuckness), or both (one extreme to the other, and back). Or the system can be oversensitized so the physical reaction is the same size (as big as possible!) no matter the size of the threat. And the more this happens, the more ingrained these patterns of response become, with the mind inventing whatever it needs (ah, the wonder of self-confirmatory bias!) to in order to explain the intensity of the physical feeling/reaction:

  • seeking out situations that are similar in order to relive the pattern
  • blaming, for example: “I must be ______ (lazy, stupid, defective, unworthy)”, or “The world must be ______ (evil, broken, dangerous, hopelessly lost)
  • reacting to others’ reactions to the overreaction (e.g. defensiveness, self-isolating)
  • becoming desensitized to others’ responses when they don’t conform to the overreactions

Enter Somatic Experiencing. Somatic = of or relating to the body. So we’re talking about experiencing the body. The experiencing is guided by a person trained to recognize the patterns of response of the nervous system, who has also done a fair amount of their own work, which is part of being an effective practitioner. The guide helps focus attention in the present, and sometimes directs attention or movement in some particular way that helps the observed internal energy to move or complete. The work could include art, symbolic movement, visualizations, or vocalizations.

The work could also be much more subtle, for example in the case where someone initially cannot tolerate paying attention or perceive any body sensations, which is common in cases of severe trauma. The work is gentle and seeks always to stay within the current capacity of the individual. There is no need to relive the event, as in the traditional psychotherapy approaches, which might overwhelm a person’s system.

The process of being with the internal sensations related to emotions and thoughts could be likened to surfing, where the intensity may initially increase, and then decrease or dissipate. Normal parts of the process of surfing these sensations might include but are not limited to: trembling, involuntary twitching or jerking, sweating, chills, tiredness, tingling, heaviness, vibration, feeling of “buzzing”, laughing, and feelings of friendliness and gratitude. What happens as a result of the release of energy can seem almost magical: the brightened outlook on life, ability to assert with and connect to others, and sudden freedom to be productive, as well as improved physical health and symptoms.

Mindfulness practice that increases the ability to maintain the position of “witnessing” can facilitate Somatic Experiencing work. Sometimes it is implied by well meaning teachers that mindfulness practice by itself can facilitate such a process of energy discharge, and to some extent this is true, but I’ve found from personal experience that SE has created much bigger and quicker shifts than trying to do it alone in meditation. What I understand now is that it is because, alone, I did not initially have the ability to titrate, or stop the overwhelm to the system by introducing small bits of experience at a time until my nervous system developed more resilience. This inability to titrate is a classic symptom of trauma!

I have heard that Peter Levine suggests that we aren’t meant to do this kind of work alone. I tend to agree now, and with good reason. We are wired for connection. It’s what we’re here for. We don’t learn in isolation – not in an experiential way. We can read books and meditate all we want, but in relationship is where the rubber hits the road. Somatic Experiencing is about helping the nervous system learn to self regulate, and it makes perfect sense that we do this in relationship.

About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, spiritual coaching, and meditation and mindfulness instruction.
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