Somatic Experiencing Eugene Oregon

What is Somatic Experiencing?

     Somatic Experiencing is a body-focused therapeutic approach that has been shown to help heal trauma and to reduce and resolve symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It centers on the belief that the energy we produce when we perceive we’re in danger (e.g. the surge of adrenaline produced by our fight or flight response) gets trapped in our bodies if it isn’t fully released after the event is over. When this energy remains in the body, the body continues to believe that it is under threat. Continuously being in this threatened state of survival causes a variety of issues which includes hypervigilance, avoidance, flashbacks, nightmares, emotional distress, self-destructive behaviors, problems in relationships, addictions, and even physical pain and illness.

Trauma and the Body

     In order to understand how Somatic Experiencing can help us heal, it’s helpful to know how trauma is created. All animals (including humans) have a natural, automatic response to danger. We commonly refer to this as the fight-or-flight response, but there are also several other instinctive survival responses in addition to fight and flight including freeze, fawn, and flop. Because time is of the essence when we’re under threat, our bodies become flooded with a surge of hormones and adrenaline which helps us to quickly attune to potential threats and to take immediate action to protect ourselves. This rush of energy increases or decreases our heart rate and breathing speed, dialates our pupils, thickens our blood, changes our blood flow, and even alters our perception of pain (Nunez, 2020).

     Our survival response also shifts us into emergency mode which causes the slow, thinking parts of our brain (prefrontal cortex) to turn off and the action-oriented, reptilian parts of our brain (amygdala, hypothalmus) and autonomic nervous system to take over. In short, when we’re in the middle of a traumatic event our bodies are intensely affected and the thinking parts of our brains are offline.

“Trauma is a fact of life.
It does not, however,
have to be a life sentence.”

– Peter Levine, PhD

How SE Was Developed

Early on in his study of trauma, Dr. Peter Levine suspected that most organisms have a natural ability to recover from stressful and threatening events. While studying footage of wild prey animals, he noticed that most animals go through a similar process before they return to normal after a life-threatening event. This process involves shaking, trembling, and spontaneous full-bodied breaths. Dr. Levine quickly realized that this was the same physical process he had witnessed years earlier when he was asked to help a woman called Nancy who was suffering from chronic pain, migraines, and panic attacks.

During their session, Dr. Levine was guiding Nancy on how to relax her body when she suddenly began to panic. An image of a tiger suddenly appeared in Dr. Levine’s mind and, without thinking, he said “There’s a tiger coming after you, Nancy. Run and escape to those rocks. Run for your life!” (P. Levine, Healing Trauma, p. 7) Nancy began to tremble, shake, sweat, and to take spontaneous deep breaths. This experience lasted for almost an hour. Afterward, Nancy told Dr. Levine that she had suddenly recalled a memory of having a tonsillectomy when she was four years old; an experience in which she felt trapped and terrified. After going through this energy discharge process (the same process animals go through), Nancy experienced a dramatic improvement in all of her symptoms.

Dr. Levine realized that trauma seemed to be tied to a particular instinctive response, the freeze response. When an animal responds with either the fight or flight reaction in response to a threat, the surge of hormones and energy produced by its body is used to take action – to run or to fight. However, when running or fighting are not viable options (the animal senses that it cannot escape or would not win the fight) and the animal freezes, this surge of energy is not immediately used. If the animal does not allow itself to go through the natural discharge process in order to release this energy, the result is trauma. And so began the development of the Somatic Experiencing.

How Does SE Help?

According to the SE approach, it is not the event itself that causes trauma. Rather, it is the trapped charge of energy dysregulating the nervous system that leads to the symptoms we refer to as trauma. The goal of SE therapy is to help the body discharge this stuck energy so it can return to a state of equilibrium, which naturally reduces or resolves symptoms of post-traumatic stress. This is done by first helping us to increase our internal awareness so we are able to identify trapped energy or blocks. We can then focus on helping the body to move what is stuck so that we can fully complete the fight-or-flight response that was interrupted during the original traumatic experience.