Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a short-term naturalistic approach to the resolution and healing of trauma. It was developed by Dr. Peter Levine and is based primarily upon the observation that wild prey animals, though threatened routinely, are rarely traumatised. We were therefore excited to have a presentation by Molly Wolfe, an art therapist and Jungian sandplay therapist, who is about to complete her SE training.
At its core, Molly explained, SE seeks to heal trauma through the body; enabling clients to achieve wellbeing through self-regulation. Stressful or threatening events normally lead to heightened arousal in the autonomic nervous system resulting in ‘fight or flight’ responses. Those events that feel ‘too much’, happen ‘too soon’ or ‘too fast’ often overwhelm us. The innate mechanisms utilised to regulate and discharge the high levels of arousal associated with defensive survival behaviours provide wild animals with a built-in ‘immunity’ to trauma, which enables them to return to normal in the aftermath of highly ‘charged’ or life-threatening experience. So, Dr. Levine wondered, why is this not always the case in humans?
“Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself but arise when residual energy from the experience is not discharged from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds” (Peter Levine)
Molly outlined the differences between the two branches of our autonomic nervous systems: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). In general, the PNS helps us rest and regenerate after stress; however, trauma can lead to it dramatically slowing all bodily processes resulting in a ‘freeze’ response. The SNS, often referred to as our primitive, ‘reptilian’ brain, regulates arousal and prepares us for action by increasing blood pressure, heart rate and visual focus. Trauma can lead to chronic hyperarousal of the SNS, meaning that the body is ‘stuck’ in responding as though it is under constant threat. This shock-led response is often associated with feelings of helplessness, loss of agency and shame. Using the metaphor of a stream, Molly explained that when we are traumatised some of the regular flow of our life can be diverted away into what has been termed ‘the trauma vortex’; the SNS will keep the body in a heightened state of arousal when we encounter the memory of the traumatic experience, or triggers associated with it (for example, certain places or objects). SE seeks to re-regulate the nervous system by restoring the natural cycles of sympathetic and parasympathetic interplay. Working within a holistic body and mind paradigm, SE encourages the client to “slow everything down”, to remain aware of his/her body and, gradually, develop the ability to internalise difficult experiences.
The SE practitioner supports the client to engage carefully and gradually, working on basic grounding and feeling safe in the room. The work then moves into dipping in and out of the experience to avoid re-traumatising, starting with more general memories in order to build resilience. The next step involves weaving together the events that both preceded and came after the given moment of overwhelm, e.g. recalling earlier that morning, as well as some time afterwards where the client can re-experience a ‘felt sense’ of being safe. This form of pendulation and titration slowly build a deepening physiological capacity towards direct exploration of the traumatic incident. Throughout the session, the practitioner will ask the client to track their own ‘felt sense’ and bodily responses. A conversation might involve the client saying: “I feel anxious” and the practitioner asking: “How do you know you’re feeling anxious? Where do you feel it in your body?” Or they might ask the client to tell them more; “what else is happening? What is the body saying?” The emphasis is on the here-and-now, expansive response, even when talking about past events.
SE practitioners work with sensations, images, observed behaviour, affect and meaning, in that order. This is unlike many therapies which focus predominantly on the story and its implicit ‘meaning’. It follows that we cannot be fully certain what we really mean unless we are able to access the sensation channel. Molly explained the different ways she integrates this model into her therapy practice, in order to reach the client’s felt sense experience and move towards discharging what is frozen or stuck within the body. She then related a recent personal SE session involving the memory of a car accident thirty years ago. Her initial post-traumatic responses were of helplessness and shame leading to a reduced sense of competence when driving and a gut fear of juggernauts. Within the SE session, she became aware not of the trauma, but of how her hands, at the time, had appeared to take over and steer her out of danger without any conscious control. The attendant, deeply felt sense, was of relief and gratitude for the amazing instrument the body truly is and how it knows what is needed to complete a necessary action and discharge the residual energy.
In contrast with the common belief that the effects of trauma are permanent, SE understands that trauma is a natural and normal part of life, not a mistake, a disease, or an aberration. It holds the attitude that the body-mind is designed to heal intense and extreme experiences. The therapeutic approach of SE focuses on empowerment, mastery, expansion of choice, self-direction and self-determination. Learning to be present and to trust our bodies to look after us is a large part of the work in SE. Practitioners may ask clients to imagine what they would have liked to have done during a traumatic experience, or to repeat bodily responses while slowing themselves down and experiencing them more fully. Clients are encouraged to be compassionate towards themselves, increase their body awareness, learn to self-sooth and to understand their own responses through mirroring by the practitioner. There is less emphasis in SE on cognitive and emotional processes and more on bodily reactions and the ‘felt sense’.
Molly summarised by explaining that the work often takes the client and practitioner on a journey which is unpredictable and involves learning to let go: “none of us really know what our next thought is going to be… is this terrifying, or is this an amazing freedom?”
For more information:
- sos.internationale.com (training body in UK)
- Foundation for Human Enrichment
- Posted by Nili Sigal, art therapist &
clinical meetings coordinator