The theory behind the Somatic Experiencing (SE) method of trauma healing is we experience trauma, or threat, in our body, as well as our mind. To heal, we must discharge the pent-up physical and mental energy by completing the fight or flight response. After we finally are able to fight back or escape (flee), the nervous system is no longer aroused, and it can return to a calm resting state.
In human beings, trauma gets stuck, or frozen, in our body and nervous system when we are overwhelmed by a threat and are unable to fight or flee. Our instincts kick in and the freezing (or immobility) response takes over.
When we can’t fight back or run away, the freezing response may help in two ways. First, it allows you to fool the attacker into thinking you are ‘dead’ until you can escape. Second, during immobility, our instincts take over, and we don’t feel any pain. So, we seem to leave our body, which is called disassociation.
Even though we are disassociated, our nervous system is still highly aroused. Animals will shake and tremble when they come out of the freeze response. This discharges the excess energy and allows the animal to regain balance, and calms the nervous system. A great example of this can be found in the 1982 National Geographic video Polar Bear Alert, directed by James Lipscomb.
Humans have a very hard time completing this response. We often get too afraid and want to control ourselves rather than let go and surrender to the trembling. So our rational brain overrides the completion process and we remain in a state of over-arousal. Fear prevents us from processing.
How trauma is experienced…
In the case of repetitive trauma in childhood, the child can be trapped at home with someone who continues to traumatize them and cannot get away since they are relying on the person for food and shelter and physical survival. There is nowhere to go. The child’s instinctive desire to get away gets overridden by the need to rely on the abuser to survive.
Car accidents, angry encounters, invasive medical procedures and natural disasters are other examples of stress or trauma that may cause an accumulation of pent-up arousal energy.
In order to heal trauma, we must process and discharge the excess survival/arousal energy. This is done by separating the fear from the immobility response. Then, as we move out of immobility, we can complete the fight or flight response.
How Somatic Experiencing helps
Somatic Experiencing is a process that leads to a fundamental shift and the nervous system regains self-regulation. Our instincts, emotions, and intellect begin to work together, bringing vitality and healing.
In Somatic Experiencing we don’t relive the old trauma, we renegotiate it. This allows us to use the strengths and resources that we didn’t have access to at the time of the trauma. Now that we are safe, we can process the trauma in a new way.
In the Polar Bear video, referenced above, the bear is shot with a tranquilizer gun while it is running away. Scientists can then tag the bear. When the bear wakes up, it senses that it is out of danger. So, while laying on the ice, the Polar Bear begins to tremble and shake, it’s legs moving fast as if it is running away. This allows the bear to complete the escape response and then it can get up and walk away, it’s nervous system no longer aroused.
One technique we employ is tracking. Feeling safe is very important, so this is done in the safety of my office. You slowly quiet yourself and become aware of your body sensations, thoughts, emotions and images. You give yourself the time to notice them and then report what you are noticing to me. As you track these sensations, you give yourself the time to discharge whatever energy comes up, with my guidance.
Another technique is resourcing. Instinctually, during a threat, you want to defend yourself. But this desire for self-defense becomes overwhelmed by the trauma. As you track, the resources you had for self-defense once again become available to you. I can then guide you to reclaim your instinctive fight or flight responses. Then, you are able to renegotiate the trauma as you reclaim these important resourcing tools.
Since trauma disconnects people from their bodies, SE employs mindfulness techniques such as grounding and centering. This helps reconnect you to your body so you can reclaim your sense of self.
As you discharge fight energy, I help you access the instinctive aggression and discharge it in a safe way that helps you respond to the threat and discharge the pent-up energy. We also may need to discharge the running, or flight, energy. So you can feel the need to run, and discharge that energy.
As you discharge this energy, you start to feel much less fear, which allows you to move out of the trauma. As you leave the fear behind, I help you reorient to a new world! This reorienting process is an important step to move beyond trauma and fear and into a different sense of self.
Then, your symptoms of trauma begin to diminish and won’t have control over you like they did.
If you think that the Somatic Experiencing technique could help you in your quest for freedom from trauma, feel free to call me 310-314-6933 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I am here to help.