The Somatic Experiencing® method is a body-oriented therapy designed to help heal trauma and other stress disorders. SE differs from other therapies in that it does not require extensive nor full retelling of the traumatic events. The focus of the therapy, instead, is on creating awareness of inner physical sensations, some of which are seen as carriers of the traumatic memory.
The Somatic Experiencing® method is the life’s work of Dr. Peter Levine, resulting from his multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, medical biophysics and over 45 years of clinical application. In Waking the Tiger, Dr. Levine explains how observing wild animals in nature guided the development of his approach. Key to his work is the fact that, when facing overwhelming threat, all mammals (including humans) have three primary responses available: fight, flight, or freeze. If these mechanisms prove successful, and the animal in the wild survives the threat, innate mechanisms regulate and neutralize the high levels of arousal associated with these defensive survival strategies. For example, when a prey animal who has gone into freeze is now out of danger, it will literally shake off the residual effects of the immobility response and gain full control of its body. It will then return to its normal life as if nothing has happened.
The involuntary and instinctual portions of the human brain and nervous system are virtually identical to those of other mammals and reptiles. Since the parts of the brain that are activated by a perceived life-threatening situation are the parts we share with animals, the key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans lies in our being able to mirror the fluid adaptation of wild animals as they shake out and pass through the immobility response to become fully mobile and functional again. These key self-regulating systems are often overriden in humans by neo-cortical inhibition (the rational mind). This restraint leads to the formation of a constellation of symptoms, including pain, patterns of bracing and collapse, cognitive dysfunction, anxiety, among others.
“Through the focal awareness of bodily sensation, individuals are able to access…restorative physiological action patterns. This allows the highly aroused survival energies to be safely and gradually neutralized. Unregulated arousal previously “locked in” the neuromuscular and central nervous systems can be discharged and completed, thus preventing and resolving traumatic symptoms.”
Peter Levine, Ph.D., 1997
Trauma may begin as acute stress from a perceived life-threat or as an end product of cumulative stress. Both types of stress can seriously impair a person’s ability to function with resilience and ease. Trauma may result from a wide variety of stressors such as accidents, invasive medical procedures, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, war, natural disasters, loss, birth trauma, or the stressors of ongoing fear and conflict.