Somatic Experiencing Therapy was developed by psychologist Peter Levine PhD, starting in the 1970s. Levine found that the symptoms commonly associated with trauma, such as anxiety, hyper-vigilance, mood swings, or disturbed sleep, are the result of a disruption in the proper functioning of the autonomic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for regulating body functions such as heart rate, digestion, and the fight, flight or freeze response. This disruption is often brought about by an event – or events – that overwhelm the nervous system’s ability to cope; in other words, by an experience of trauma. As a result, the body continues to respond as if it is under threat.
How does Somatic Experiencing work?
The aim of Somatic Experiencing is to enable the nervous system to bring itself back into regulation. We do this in a variety of ways. One approach is through helping clients to focus on the ‘felt sense’: a deepening awareness of emotions and physical sensations as they arise in the body that enables us to navigate our way more skilfully through states of stress and high activation.
SE also uses a technique known as titration, which is commonly used in other trauma treatments. Rather than dive into the heart of the trauma during a session, the client is encouraged initially to work at a level and pace that feels manageable to them. As sessions progress, he or she will gradually increase their capacity to bear the feelings and sensations that arise, building confidence and safety as they go. This helps with integration.
In an SE session we might also work with pendulation, which involves helping a client to experience the movement between a state of activation or ‘disregulation’ and then back to a place of safety and ‘self-regulation’ again. As part of this process, clients are encouraged to develop ‘resources,’ which are any sources of strength and comfort that help the nervous system to be able to tolerate traumatic material. The aim of working with these techniques is to help the client increasingly learn how to regulate their nervous system independently.