Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a theory and methodology for healing both shock trauma and developmental trauma, based on the neurophysiology of the autonomic nervous system. In SE terms, trauma is characterized by the body's response to an overwhelming event (or accumulation of events). The arousal energy in the body from these original responses to threat has not been completely processed and remains lodged in the nervous system, often manifesting in a range of mental and physical health problems. This trapped energy occurs because the natural survival responses of fight, flight and/or freeze were unable to fully complete their cycle toward "release."
Somatic Experiencing was developed over a forty year period by Dr. Peter A. Levine. The theory is based on observations of animals in the wild, noting that while routinely threatened by predators, wild animals don’t hold and lock trauma in the body like humans do. He developed Somatic Experiencing as a clinical methodology to help people discharge the bound energy in the autonomic nervous system. Unlike some other methods of trauma therapy, Somatic Experiencing carefully and gently facilitates awareness of internal sensations and movement impulses to safely release and integrate thwarted survival responses. Peter Levine has said that the impact of trauma can be re-negociated in the body and not neccessarily become a life sentence.
Somatic therapy theories and healing methods are based on the neurophysiology of the autonomic nervous system. This is the system which runs our most important bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, pupillary response, urination and sexual arousal, automatically, without conscious involvement. The autonomic nervous system is also the location of our instinctual survival responses of flight, fight and freeze when threat is perceived.
A critical element in healing trauma is to utilize a memory of something positive, meaningful and/or pleasurable in a healthy way with focus on the physical sensations. Human beings (and all mammals) are biologically oriented to be on the look out for something unpleasant or threatening as a means of survival and we are less apt to consciously access a body memory of ease and well being.
Our body instinctually signals a perceived threat, usually by muscles tightening, heart rate increasing, chest compressing and breathing becoming shallow. The body is gearing up to protect in an action to flee or fight. Often, an emotional or physical inability to complete this action occurs and instead of discharging the bound energy, there is a shut down we call freeze. When animals in the wild face imminent threat, and fleeing or fighting is not possible, they go into a state of "tonic immobility," appearing to be dead to the predator. Once the threat has passed, they "shake" or "convulse" until the heightened energy under the freeze is discharged. The organic ability to "freeze" is a wonderful protective trait. Since humans, unlike wild animals, do not easily discharge the arousal energy after the threat is gone, often experience symptoms of unintegrated trauma for years or decades. The original purpose of the freeze is completely skewed and distorted. In SE we help a person to consciously practice the "felt sense" of positive physical sensations and then use this as an anchor to gradually and gently touch into the bound survival "fear," a step in facilitating a biological discharge in the cycle.
As a psychotherapist for so many years, these additional avenues for opening the nervous system have enabled rich and powerful dimensions to healing emotional and attachment wounds.
Dr. Stephen Porges has conducted decades of research about a theory, the Polyvagal Theory, which further explains and supports why and how SE works. It is extremely exciting to learn there is a neurobiological explanation for how connection and empathy actually stimulate the parasympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system for calming and regulation. Most people understand that the autonomic nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When perception of danger happens, the sympathetic system responds with a flight or fight impulse and when the perceived danger has passed, the parasympathetic branch comes on to calm us down. In fact the synchronization and regulation of both these systems happen with every breath in and out. Most of the “nerve energy” that runs the parasympathetic function comes through the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the viscera. We now also know that the parasympathetic system has a second response when the imminent danger is too fierce and unmanageable, and one drops into a freeze state. We see this in animals where they drop to a complete shut down (known as tonic immobility), mimicking a death like state, and then they pop out of it when the danger has passed.
The Polyvagal theory considers the evolution of the autonomic nervous system as scientists have observed physical changes in this vagus nerve over eons. The vagal system has developed a newer function unique to mammals in the way it connects to all the cranial nerves in our head, face and neck. This is important because it adds a new neural circuit to our instinctual survival responses of fight, flight or freeze. Dr.Porges calls this the Social Engagement system which is unique to all mammals. Now there is a new first (autonomic) response to threat which is that the mammal’s first impulse is looking to other members of a tribe for help. Animals in the wild do this instinctively. They regard and organize the overall herd before making an action plan in the face of threat. Again, this newer vagus nerve function innervates the parasympathetic system, which helps to settle and bring balance and regulation to us.
I knew empathic resonance was a critical element in all of therapy, but never did I hold the appreciation for the neurobiological underpinning to this.
I still practice the way I always have, integrating different elements as it seems most fitting to a particular client's needs. The SE works feels like the missing piece; to bring one's sense of their body into mindful awareness as a link for integrating a lost sense of self.