What is Somatic Experiencing (SE)

Last updated on: Feb 23, 2024

Somatic Experiencing is a form of therapy that aims to help people recover from trauma and stress. It was developed by Peter Levine, who observed that animals in the wild are able to recover from traumatic experiences by physically shaking off the stress. He believed that humans could also benefit from this natural process and developed Somatic Experiencing as a way to help people release physical tension and heal from trauma.

Overall, Somatic Experiencing can be a powerful tool for individuals who have experienced trauma or stress. By focusing on the physical sensations of the body, this therapy can help individuals release tension and heal from past experiences. If you are struggling with trauma or stress, Somatic Experiencing may be a helpful therapy to consider.

Understanding Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing (SE)

SE recognizes that trauma symptoms are not solely psychological but also physiological and that the nervous system plays a crucial role in the development and maintenance of those symptoms.

SE is based on the premise that the body has an innate ability to heal itself and that trauma symptoms are often the result of incomplete or interrupted physiological responses to traumatic events. By focusing on physical sensations and bodily experiences, SE aims to help individuals complete those responses and restore their natural state of homeostasis.

SE emphasizes the importance of resourcing, which involves identifying and strengthening internal and external resources that can help individuals cope with stress and trauma. These resources can include physical sensations, memories, emotions, and relationships. By learning to access and utilize these resources, individuals can increase their resilience and improve their quality of life.

SE also utilizes various techniques to help individuals regulate their nervous system and manage overwhelming emotions. These techniques include pendulation, titration, grounding, and resourcing. Pendulation involves moving back and forth between sensations of safety and sensations of discomfort, while titration involves breaking down overwhelming experiences into smaller, more manageable parts. Grounding techniques help individuals stay connected to the present moment and their physical surroundings, while resourcing techniques help individuals access positive experiences and emotions.

SE can be used to treat a wide range of trauma-related issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, anger, grief, and chronic pain. It has been shown to be effective for both children and adults and can be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy or as a standalone treatment.

SE is grounded in the principles of somatic psychology, neuroscience, ethology, and indigenous healing practices. SE can be used by psychologists, psychotherapists, first responders, and anyone else interested in healing trauma and improving their mental health.

  • Somatic Psychology: SE incorporates the understanding of how the mind and body interact, especially in the context of stress and trauma. Somatic psychology emphasizes the importance of bodily experiences in psychological health.
  • Neuroscience: SE is informed by neuroscience in understanding how trauma impacts the brain and nervous system. It uses this knowledge to help regulate the nervous system and promote healing.
  • Ethology: Ethology provides insights into instinctual responses and behaviors, particularly in response to threat or trauma. SE uses this understanding to address how trauma affects instinctual fight, flight, or freeze responses.
  • Indigenous Healing Practices: SE integrates wisdom and practices from indigenous cultures, acknowledging the holistic and interconnected nature of healing. This includes a focus on the balance of mind, body, and spirit, as well as a deep connection to nature and community.

The Process of Somatic Experiencing Therapy

Somatic Experiencing therapy is a body-oriented therapeutic model that focuses on healing trauma by addressing the physical sensations that arise in the body during traumatic experiences. This therapy was developed by Peter A. Levine, a psychologist with a background in ethology and biology. Somatic Experiencing therapy is based on the idea that traumatic experiences can cause a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, which can lead to a range of trauma symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Initial Stages

The initial stages of Somatic Experiencing therapy involve establishing a sense of safety and trust between the therapist and the client. The therapist helps the client to identify the physical sensations that arise in their body when they feel stressed or triggered. This process is called resourcing, and it involves identifying internal and external resources that can help the client feel more grounded and present in their body.

Middle Stages

The middle stages of Somatic Experiencing therapy involve working with the client to process traumatic memories and experiences. This process is called titration, and it involves working with small pieces of the traumatic experience at a time, rather than overwhelming the client with the entire experience all at once. The therapist helps the client to pendulate between the traumatic memory and a resource, such as a pleasant memory or a physical sensation, to help regulate their nervous system.

Final Stages

The final stages of Somatic Experiencing therapy involve integrating the traumatic experience into the client's life in a way that promotes resilience and healing. This process is called completion, and it involves helping the client to find meaning and purpose in their experience, and to develop a sense of empowerment and agency over their life. The therapist may use a variety of techniques, such as touch, movement, and meditation, to help the client feel more present in their body and to promote relaxation and healing.

Somatic Experiencing therapy is a powerful tool for healing trauma and promoting resilience. This therapy can be particularly helpful for individuals who have experienced trauma related to accidents, loss, physical sensations, anger, grief, or natural disasters. It is also helpful for individuals who have experienced trauma related to sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, or oppression. Somatic Experiencing therapy can help individuals to develop a greater sense of homeostasis and to improve their quality of life.

You can search for therapists who specialize in somatic and body awareness therapy. You may also incorporate somatic or body-inspired techniques into other therapy approaches, especially mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens in a Somatic Experiencing session?

In a Somatic Experiencing session, you will work with a trained therapist who will guide you through a process of exploring and releasing physical sensations and emotions related to past traumatic experiences. The therapist will help you tune into your body's sensations and guide you through exercises to release any physical tension or emotional distress that may be stored in your body.

Is Somatic Experiencing evidence-based?

Yes, Somatic Experiencing is an evidence-based therapy that has been shown to be effective in treating trauma-related symptoms. Multiple studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of Somatic Experiencing in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related disorders.

What does Somatic Experiencing do?

Somatic Experiencing helps individuals release physical and emotional tension stored in the body as a result of past traumatic experiences. By working with a therapist to tune into the body's sensations and release any stored tension, individuals can reduce symptoms of trauma-related disorders such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

What are the 4 somatic practices?

The four somatic practices in Somatic Experiencing are pendulation, titration, discharge, and regulation. Pendulation involves moving back and forth between sensations of safety and sensations of discomfort. Titration involves working with small amounts of physical or emotional tension at a time to prevent overwhelming the nervous system. Discharge involves releasing physical tension stored in the body through movement or other physical activity. Regulation involves developing the ability to self-regulate the nervous system and manage emotional and physical responses to stress.

What is an example of somatic therapy?

An example of somatic therapy is Somatic Experiencing, which is a type of therapy that helps individuals release physical and emotional tension stored in the body as a result of past traumatic experiences. Other examples of somatic therapy include dance therapy, yoga therapy, and massage therapy.

What does a somatic release feel like?

A somatic release can feel different for everyone, but it often involves a sense of physical or emotional release, relaxation, or relief. Some individuals may experience shaking, trembling, or other physical movements as part of a somatic release, while others may simply feel a sense of calm or peace.

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About the Author

First Session Editorial Team

The First Session Editorial Team, composed of seasoned researchers, writers, editors, and therapists, focuses on providing content that helps​ Canadians find the right therapist.

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