Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a modality of mental health trauma treatment that is being practiced all over the world. SE works with your biological makeup and how we function as human beings. SE also encompasses mindfulness, present state awareness, compassion, and acceptance of what arises at the moment. Dr. Peter Levine, a biologist, founded this therapy in the 1980s as he became increasingly interested in how mammals responded to trauma compared to human beings. He asked, “Why don’t mammals experience the debilitating life-changing symptoms of trauma like human beings do?” He had observed mammals from all over the world suffering from loss and death, being preyed upon and being the hunter, yet they still seemed to find a way to thrive. In similar situations, humans failed.
What he observed would change how we treat trauma in human beings and how we can effectively treat trauma in human beings.
Animals are wise in allowing their bodies to dictate what needs to happen after a traumatic event occurs. This “bottom-up,” body-based approach to dealing with our environment is how our bodies function. Eighty percent of the information our bodies receive through our senses moves from the body up to inform the brain. The brain conveys about 20 percent of information back down to the body. This means that our bodies are doing most of the work by feeling, observing, processing, and sensing the world around us to keep us safe. To heal from the trauma, we must become familiar and safe enough to go to our bodies, feel what is there and allow it to move and change. Unfortunately, humans have become so cognitively advanced that our brains will take us away from our body processes. What results is a brain that overrides what the body is calling for at any given moment. Trauma develops when we are horrified and unable to escape, move, or fight. Our bodies may want to flee, but something holds us back. It may be a thought or a duty you have to stay in the face of danger. It may be embarrassing to move or to fight, or maybe you have been taught it’s not your place. Perhaps you were too young to know. There are a million reasons we freeze and cannot process trauma and specific experiences the way our bodies want to. Regardless, our comfort and growth in familiarity with our bodies, sensations, and emotions are what can move us through the trauma.
Humans have learned how to continue even when faced with terrifying and horrific events, but often in complete misery. We have learned to coat ourselves with outer armor, giving those around us the impression that nothing can bother us. The fact is that we are human and built to feel sensations and all the accompanying emotions. Our bodies feel from within, and when we bury that energy, it can make us physically and emotionally ill.
I study SE and use this modality in my practice when working with trauma. We only go to where your nervous system can go. There is no reason to push into stories and get aroused to the point that we are reliving an event or triggered into a state of fight/flight/freeze response. We go slow and work on attuning to the body and its needs in the given moment.
Everything we need to heal from emotional and psychological pain is held within our bodies. Fundamentally, our nervous system is continually working to get back to neutral or a state of balance. For some, it can be easy to allow body sensations to inform us of what is going on, but for others, there is a protective function in us that keeps awareness of body sensation away due to some trauma that has occurred. Going to the body can be an unsafe space to explore and get familiar with, but still necessary for healing to occur.
“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
What if we could unlock the secrets that lay within us? Within our body lies the answers, and we can access this body’s wisdom for healing. Human beings can unlock this knowledge and understanding in a SAFE environment and with SAFE people. These conditions must be established for the system to start to recognize. The body can and will begin to realize that not everything is dangerous and worthy of fear.