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Treating Trauma with Somatic Experiencing Therapy

When people experience trauma, especially early in life, it can have a devastating effect on them. The impact of trauma can last years and even a lifetime if a person does not have the resources to help them process their trauma in a healthy way. People can begin to develop coping mechanism such as self-medicating with drugs or alcohol and may even struggle with significant mental health problems as a result of their trauma.

One of the main approaches to helping people recover from trauma is through psychotherapy with a trained counselor who helps a patient discuss and work through their traumatic experience. However, alternative therapies such as somatic experiencing used in conjunction with regular therapy can be used to help improve symptoms. People are often looking for different options when they have very severe issues such as PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder and alternative therapies can provide another solution for their problems.

There are a variety of somatic experiencing techniques available to those in need of somatic trauma therapy.

Somatic experiencing therapy is intended to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through body sensations. It can also be used to help people experiencing other trauma-related symptoms and mental conditions.

Learn about PTSD treatment and complex trauma treatment.

Let’s take a closer look at trauma, treatment, and somatic experiencing techniques.

Specific Experiences of Trauma

Specific experiences can involve manipulation and mind games, intimate violence, social isolation, financial abuse, humiliation, sexual abuse, and being involved in war, though there are many variants. Systemic and cultural trauma may also cause severe harm.

The remnants of repeated insults, cruelty, abandonment, bullying, verbal abuse, shaming, sexual assault, and degradation remain deep within people. It is not something that is often brushed off. Rather, people do what they can to forget it, despite the fact that the trauma will most likely reappear at a later time.

Every person has his or her own individual experiences with trauma. Whether a one-time occurrence or a reoccurring act, those memories are held within. It remains in their physical, mental, and emotional space. People often try to futilely avoid or suppress their trauma. However, the only way to get rid of it is to bring it to the surface, share it, discuss it, and grieve over it. Repression and coping, which may occur through dangerous activities like substance abuse, are not uncommon. At that moment, it may be the only way a person knows how to protect himself or herself. But eventually, that trauma needs to be released.

Healing Trauma

Some of the most popular ways to treat trauma are through psychotherapy. Regular, consistent treatment, in either individual or group settings, can help uncover suppressed trauma while giving the person the tools to heal.

Additional methods of somatic therapy for trauma also involved different modalities, some of them being relatively new. For instance, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is often cited as a way to eradicate trauma. Studies show that EMDR can improve symptoms with fewer sessions than traditional methods, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Although for repeated instances of trauma, multiple sessions of EMDR have to take place. Other holistic methods are gaining popularity in helping trauma victims recover.

What is Somatic Experiencing?

As an alternative therapy, somatic experiencing is a kind of holistic approach to treating cases of trauma that has to do with the mind-body connection. The treatment method was developed by Peter Levine who wanted to address the physiology of stress and trauma. He was motivated to research trauma because he was curious about the fact that animals in the wild don’t experience trauma in the same way that human beings do in their experiences.

The difference that Levine found between the way animals and humans react to trauma is that animals complete a full sequence of response to danger by noticing, reacting, and recovering from the treat. Humans on the other hand can have their full response interrupted. Animals can expend enormous energy to escape a threat which allows a chemical discharge through their system so that they can return to their baseline.

Humans may not be able to discharge the energy associated with a threat and instead of going through the full cycle response to a challenge that an animal would they become stuck and unable to meet further challenges in life. In somatic trauma therapy focuses on the physiological response that occurs when someone remembers or experiences a traumatic event. While standard therapy focuses a lot on a patient’s thoughts and emotions, somatic treatment focuses on bodily responses to trauma.

The idea behind somatic experiencing is that patients who have unresolved trauma need to restore the nervous system’s normal cycling between periods of alertness and rest. If the cycle of alertness and rest is interrupted then excess energy gets stuck in our bodies and makes it difficult to fluctuate between the two states. The charged energy can be easily triggered when certain experiences remind us of the traumatic experience that interrupted the cycle.

Somatic Experiencing Techniques

Somatic experiencing therapy (SE)was developed by Dr. Peter Levine.

Somatic Trauma Therapy can help trauma victims of all types, whether it’s a car accident victim or someone involved in an abusive marriage.

It is a body-focused modality, which centers on the principle that trauma occurs deep within. In order to fix that trauma, the individual has to overcome those experiences by slowly releasing energy and becoming aware of trauma sensations.

Trauma floods the body with chemicals during the encounter. Those chemicals do not leave the body. The suppressed emotion related to the trauma can result in problems, like addiction, physical symptoms, or the development of additional mental illnesses.

Somatic trauma therapy aims to release those buried emotions, providing healing from the inside out. Trauma is captured at a physical and emotional level. SE combines all elements to produce a sensory focused treatment, which works with the nervous system and responses.

Somatic Therapy For Trauma Healing

Through somatic experiencing, a person gradually eradicates superfluous trauma energy from the body, resulting in healing. “SE differs from cognitive therapies in that its major interventional strategy involves bottom-up processing by directing the client’s attention to internal sensations, both visceral (interoception) and musculo-skeletal (proprioception and kinesthesis).”

During somatic therapy for trauma, the patient will focus their memory on the images and feelings that arise. 
With closed eyes, the therapist leads the patient through the body-oriented approach. The experience helps the patient become aware of how they react to their trauma or their lack of control or fear in the session.

Therapists who are trained in somatic experiencing help the patient recognize the fight or flight reactions. Dr. Levine suggests that the fight or flight response has multiple stages and that trauma does not allow a person to complete all stages. Somatic Trauma Therapy helps the patient complete that process.

Somatic therapy fixes inner trauma by completing, and thus, restoring regular stress responses. This is crucial because trauma can overpower regular responses. Somatic experience therapy engages slowly so the patient will not be overwhelmed. With a focus on the nervous system, the aim of SE is to prompt the inner system to move back to a normal pattern of response. Sensations are monitored through the body through a collaborative effort between the therapist and patient.

This holistic approach is an integrated program, which focuses on all aspects of the individual. Sensations like pain, constricted breathing, sweating, or shaking are characteristic of trauma. Becoming aware of these experiences can help people stay fully present. Somatic experiencing forces the person to be present, to not think about the past, but to track every sensation.

Somatic experiencing engages a person’s ability to stay present to understand images, emotions, and behaviors. The therapist then promotes changes in the system. This method focuses on the ways an individual gets trapped in irregular system patterns because of a lack of closure and incomplete action. Somatic trauma therapy helps a patient restore their nervous system and essentially, their life.

SE helps people become aware of everything that they are feeling course through their body. These signals can be reminders to people that they must focus on the physical feeling, whether it is pain or general unease. When people become attuned to internal cues they can heal deeper parts of themselves, which they otherwise would have continued to avoid, to their detriment. Somatic Trauma therapy helps resolve the past, release stored emotions, and move forward in life.

Treating Trauma and PTSD with Somatic Experiencing Technique

Somatic experiencing can be similar to regular therapy because it involves in-person sessions with a trained therapist. Practitioners of somatic experiencing are required to complete a three year training course as well 18 hours of case consultations and 12 hours of personal sessions. It can be used for both short term shock trauma and developmental trauma when it is accompanied by psychotherapy.

When experiences trauma and ends up with mental health issues such as PTSD they are often frozen in a state of hyperarousal. Trauma is usually an overwhelming experience that our nervous systems can’t handle especially if we never get help with processing it. Although there are many emotional aspects to trauma, the physiological reaction in the nervous system is equally as important to address in treatment.

People with PTSD often have gone through very intense experiences such as rape, violence or being involved in a war. These are experiences which threaten our very survival and put the body and mind in shocked and frozen state. By regulating their nervous system, people with PTSD can minimize the negative impact that trauma has on their daily life.

Somatic experiencing therapy helps people with trauma return to a regulated state by allowing them to create resources for themselves that help them feel grounded and centered. Things like a positive memory or a physical item that helps them be more present can be used to return their body to a normal state. Patients can also try to discharge excess energy through tears, unconscious movement or deep breathing.

Although trauma can have a significant impact on a person’s life and well-being it is possible to use different resources and therapy options to minimize the negative reactions to trauma. Recovery from trauma and mental health symptoms through any kind of professional treatment can be a very positive and life-changing experience. If you are struggling with the way trauma has affected you physically and mentally, you can explore options like psychotherapy combined with somatic experiencing to help you lead a happier and healthier life.