SE™ (Somatic Experiencing®)
The SE approach releases traumatic shock, which is key to transforming PTSD and the wounds of emotional and early developmental attachment trauma. It offers a framework to assess where a person is “stuck” in the fight, flight or freeze responses and provides clinical tools to resolve these fixated physiological states. SE provides effective skills appropriate to a variety of healing professions including mental health, medicine, physical and occupational therapies, bodywork, addiction treatment, first response, education, and others.
HOW DOES SE™ WORKS?
The Somatic Experiencing approach facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms. This is approached by gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions.
Dr. Levine was inspired to study stress on the animal nervous system when he realized that animals are constantly under threat of death, yet show no symptoms of trauma. What he discovered was that trauma has to do with the third survival response to perceived life threat, which is freeze. When fight and flight are not options, we freeze and immobilize, like “playing dead.” This makes us less of a target. However, this reaction is time-sensitive, in other words, it needs to run its course, and the massive energy that was prepared for fight or flight gets discharged, through shakes and trembling. If the immobility phase doesn’t complete, then that charge stays trapped, and, from the body’s perspective, it is still under threat. The Somatic Experiencing method works to release this stored energy and turn off this threat alarm that causes severe dysregulation and dissociation. SE helps people understand this body response to trauma and work through a “body first” approach to healing.
SIBAM (Sensation, Imagery, Behavior, Affect, and Meaning)
Typically, most therapy uses our cognitive skills to access our memories or traumas via “top-down” methods. However, somatic experiencing uses a “bottom-up” approach, which starts with bodily sensations before returning to our thoughts.
Sensation: You may not be used to sitting with the sensations that are constantly coursing through your body, or you may not have previously realized how they were linked with your emotions. You will begin with simply noting what you are feeling in your body.
Imagery: This part of the framework uses guided imagery (where the practitioner leads you through imagining a scene while you listen) or interactive guided imagery. The latter is an ongoing conversation between you and the practitioner where you share what’s coming up as you are being led through this exercise.
Behavior: While much of this therapy consists of you reporting your internal experiences, the behavior part of Levine’s model involves the therapist observing your behavioral responses, such as your body language or posture.
Affect: This is how you display your emotions to the outside world, such as through your word choices, tone, and speed.
Meaning: Finally, this part of the model looks at how you perceive the therapy and what your experiences mean to you.
What SE™ Therapy Can Help With
- Substance use disorders
- Chronic pain
Benefits of Somatic Experiencing Therapy
Unlike the “fight or flight” response that takes place in response to an acute threat, which causes the sympathetic nervous system to increase heart rate, breathing, and focus, the “freeze” response can cause the opposite.
It is said that the body doesn’t know how to distinguish physical trauma from mental trauma. If the danger is life-threatening, like that tiger, you may be able to physically shake off that fear once the tiger is no longer around. With emotional trauma, however, the brain can get stuck believing that you are still in a state of danger.
The freeze response may manifest in both cognitive and physical symptoms such as:
- Cognitive Symptoms
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical Symptoms
- Difficulty moving
- Slowed breath
- Lower heart rate
Effectiveness of Somatic Experiencing Therapy
One study looked at the efficacy of somatic experiencing interventions following a 2004 tsunami in India. While there was no control group, 90% of the 150 participants in one study reported either no symptoms or a reduction in symptoms at an eight-month follow-up interval following a single 75-minute session.
Another non-controlled intervention study followed 53 participants who received one to two sessions of treatment a month after a tsunami and were evaluated three to five days post-treatment and a year later. After the first session, 67% of participants reported a full or partial reduction in symptoms. When evaluated a year later, 90% of these people had sustained improvement in that time period.
Things to Consider
This may feel uncomfortable, but that is the point. Before reaching this stage, your therapist will work with you on “resourcing,” or finding tools that will help you self-soothe when you are feeling emotionally overloaded so that you can handle working with these memories when they come up in therapy.