Somatic Experiencing™ (SE) explores the ways the body holds onto memories and experiences and invites the whole body into the therapy room in a safe and well-regulated way.

How SE works: for example, if a parent or teacher is consistently hypercritical, a child will internalize that template, and feel unworthy, or not smart, or unlovable in the world. The brain literally becomes wired for self-criticism and the body may respond by living in a state of hypervigilance, shame, dissociation, agitation or shutdown.

Adults may experience this same reaction as triggers even in healthy situations, such as when a decent boss or a good partner offers some constructive advice or shares their feelings. Trauma incidents and developmental wounds are held in their original nervous system and non-verbal states.

When the original defensive or survival responses (fight/flight/freeze) are thwarted by an authority figure or a highly charged situation, a person is left in a state of hyperactivation (anxiety) or hypoactivation (depression, collapse, or dissociation.) The body expends a huge amount of energy on containment, and this takes a toll psychically, emotionally and physically.

Clients who benefit from Somatic therapy may sense that how they react to certain people and situations is disproportional. They may feel they are living in the past or worrying about the future, rather than being able to enjoy the present.

The goal of somatic therapy is to repair that which did not originally get to happen in the body during a traumatic incident because it was overridden. For example, if a child or adult was a victim of assault, and they went into a survival state of freeze during the incident, that freeze gets stuck in the body with feelings of shame and the untrue but core belief, “It was my fault.”

The problem is that these responses can become a trigger response in the future. Somatic processing helps to move that original freeze response into a flight/fight response in the body, thus helping to return a sense of agency and power to that person. It is important for clients to return to the full spectrum of survival strategies so that if something occurs in the future, they do not automatically default to only one response. Without the full spectrum of survival strategies, it leaves a person in potential danger and cut off from responding in the most adaptive way.

By accessing and slowly processing the mind-body connection to trauma and stressors (injury, loss, adverse experiences of childhood, a near drowning) a physiological shift occurs, and this, in turn, changes reactions to memories, emotions, and symptoms. Somatic Experiencing therapy builds greater capacity for safety and trust, aids in boundary setting though improved awareness (proprioception and interoception), corrects distortions due to trauma, and helps to increase relational attunement.

Somatic therapies were originated by Peter Levine, Ph.D (Somatic Experiencing™) and Pat Ogden, Ph.D. (Sensorimotor Integration™) in the 1970s. It is a bottom-up (body-based) vs. top-down (cognitive, talk therapy) approach. Bottom-up approaches begin by noticing what is happening in the body during therapy. This involves observing what begins to shift when one notices with curiosity where a certain emotion or sensation appears in the body. Clients might consider what happens when they imagine more space around a painful feeling in the chest, for example. The idea is that trauma or stressors are caused not by the events themselves, but by bodily responses to them. Lower, more primitive brain reactions are at play, which is why pure “talk” therapy alone, is not sufficient to move traumatic incidents or childhood experiences through the nervous system.

Stephen Porges, Ph.D. introduced the Polyvagal Theory in the 1990s, which looks at the neurophysiological foundations of self-regulation, attachment, emotions and pro-social responses. Porges extends the attachment research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth by integrating the research within the field of neuroscience. He explores what happens to normal physiological development when there is a traumatic incident or ongoing traumatic childhood disruptions that shake one’s sense of safety in the body. Somatic therapies originated by Peter Levine, Ph.D. and Pat Ogden, Ph.D integrate polyvagal research into the clinical realm.

Somatic processing, when paced to the individual nervous system, is gentle, collaborative, and easily adapted to the client. When working with body integration, less is more. The goal in Somatic Experiencingô is to help the client arrive at incrementally greater feelings of safety and trust, internally and with others. 

Creating a greater window of tolerance requires building blocks for self-regulation, learning to use body sensations as information and guidance, softly coming into the ability to set soft and hard boundaries for oneself and with others. In other words, it is better to allow the nervous system to adapt, integrate, and settle, with smaller, more digestible pieces of processing before adding more.

Most people find somatic approaches to be reparative because the focus is on noticing what is shifting, even when working through disturbing memories. When clients notice the shifts, then they no longer feel trapped or helpless, either in the past or in uncomfortable emotions or sensations in the present. 

Somatic therapy can be offered as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with other modalities like psychodynamic and AF-EMDR therapies. Somatic processing can be used to treat:

  • Nervous System Dysregulation (anxiety, depression, phobias, dissociation, trauma, PTSD, GI distress, medical conditions)
  • Medical Trauma (anesthesia, near death, surgery, microaggressions by medical staff)
  • Pre and Perinatal Trauma 
  • Complex Grief and Loss
  • Single-Incident Traumatic Events (concussions, near-drowning, falling, attack, accidents)
  • Relational Issues (trust, boundary setting, self-esteem)
  • Childhood Wounds (bullying, narcissistic or a mentally ill parent, neglect, abuse)

A therapist will adapt somatic therapy and in-session exercises depending on a client’s family, school, medical and present-day history. Sessions are geared to help clients begin to develop relationships with their own physiology and body sensations. For some, this is a careful, slow, gentle process in line with building therapist-client trust and safety. This is especially true if a client has a history of childhood attachment wounds or breaches in boundaries. 

For others, who come to therapy to work on medical trauma or accidents and do not have historical trauma, the work may clear more quickly by completing in the body what could not happen during the event. Even though they have returned to family and work, for many, a part of them does not truly know they are safe. The somatic work might include noticing felt senses and shifts in the body as the memory is processed through to a point when the client knows authentically, “I survived; I am ok.”  

For the first 20 years, I practiced psychodynamic attachment-focused therapy. Although patients improved, I felt something was missing in my therapeutic toolbox. I went back for post-licensing training in AF-EMDR and became a Certified EMDR and AF-EMDR therapist, an EMDR/AF-EMDR Approved-Consultant, and facilitator of trainings. 

Much of Attachment-Focused-EMDR incorporates somatic processing, tracking bodily sensations, and requires knowledge of the physiology of trauma. Advanced and specialized training in somatic work augments the kind of AF-EMDR I provide. After completing a three-year certification course in Somatic Experiencing with Peter Levine, Ph.D., David Berg, PT, LCSW, and Kathy Kain, Ph.D., I went on to become a facilitator for the beginning and intermediate years. 

As a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, I integrate body/nervous system awareness into the therapeutic journey.