Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing

Have you ever experienced a dangerous situation and felt your body physically react to it?

Maybe you noticed your heart beating fast or your breathing changed. Maybe you felt like it was difficult to sit down and be still. Maybe you have trouble going to sleep at night if you’re thinking about something that’s worrying you. Or perhaps your jaw clenches when you’re thinking about something stressful. Maybe you get a headache when you’ve experienced something difficult. These are all responses that we feel in our bodies as a result of what is going on in our minds and the world around us. Our brain and our body work together in what we call the nervous system. It’s a really complex and wonderful system that allows us to navigate our environments. As Peter Levine was working with trauma and a body-mind approach, he developed the term Somatic Experiencing to define a type of approach that helps to bring awareness and healing to these felt bodily sensations.

Sometimes even after we experience trauma or a difficult situation, our nervous system continues to hold on to some of those sensations. Our nervous system keeps communicating to us that we are in danger even though it was a part of the past. Through this type of somatic work, therapists are able to help clients bring awareness to some of these emotions that are being held in certain parts of the body. For example, chronic pain can be held in many different areas of the body, including the head, abdomen, or pelvic region. These regions of the body are commonly associated with past trauma that has not been processed.

Curious about how Somatic Experiencing might take place in therapy?

Once the counselor and client build rapport and trust is formed, they can begin exploring the idea of resourcing. A resource is what a client can recognize that feels safe or comforting to their system, incorporating the five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. This could include smelling a nice lavender candle at night, feeling the weight of a blanket on top of you, or being outside in nature. Other resources could include a person, like a spouse, a place, like the beach, or an object, like a cup of coffee or tea. Understandably, these can be different for everyone.

Once the counselor and client identify a few resources that feel good to the client, they can begin exploring the idea of pendulation. This technique involves allowing the client to experience emotions and sensations from a given event, and begin processing them with the therapist. These tough memories and events can be termed as an activating event, or becoming activated. The counselor will allow the client to feel these feelings at a small level, and then pendulate between activation and a resource. The key here is to notice the different physical sensations in your body as you recall the activating event, and then as you resource.

Titration is a technique that focuses on starting with small activating events and then back to grounding with a resource. Our bodies are not made to feel everything all at once, as that can be where trauma is born. A phrase that helps us understand trauma a little more includes something happening “too much, too soon, or too fast.” Titration allows us to go back and forth from activation, to resourcing and safety. This way, our bodies will be able to learn to tolerate more with the different skills we learn. This widens our window of tolerance.

These skills are helpful to a wide variety of clients. Sometimes, for our brain to process our thoughts and feelings, our body and our nervous system must become “unstuck” first. This is where somatic work comes into play. Once our bodies feel safe and relaxed, our brains will be able to do the work.