Somatic Experiencing®: Regaining Your Resilience
Somatic Experiencing® is a system of healing techniques designed to help you calm down after a stressful event(s), as well as relieve the symptoms of ongoing and chronic stress. Nature has beautifully designed your nervous systems to be able to do this. Your ability to respond to stressful events and then calm down is called “resilience”.
The Natural Response to Stress
A stressful event can trigger what is sometimes referred to as a “fight or fight”, or “survival”, response. You may recognize this response: you startle, your breath speeds up and gets shallow, your heart races, you can feel angry or scared, or both. All of these reactions are caused by your body automatically preparing you to take action in response to the stressful event.
After the crisis is over and your feel safe again, your body will put the “brakes” on. You calm down, your breathing and heart rate slows, your muscles relax, etc.
Events don’t have to actually be life-threatening for the survival response to be triggered. A heated argument, rushing to meet a deadline, a “fender bender”, or even a simple fall can mobilize your survival response in the same way as an actual physical attack.
When You Can’t Calm Down
Sometimes, however, this calming down process doesn’t work. There are many possible reasons for this.
Sometimes an event is simply too overwhelming for your system to handle. Or sometimes you can’t take the stress-relieving action your body wants to. For example, your body may want to “flee” after a car accident, but it can’t because your seat belt is keeping you strapped into the car.
Less obvious stressors like the constant pressures of every day life can build up over time, so that your nervous system can never “catch up” and calm you down.
When your survival response gets stuck, you can experience symptoms such as the inability to relax, anxiety, depression or numbness. You may find it difficult to stop obsessive thoughts, sleep at night, or even relax enough to enjoy relationships with your friends and family members.
Sometimes symptoms can manifest in physical form such as aches and pains, headaches or intestinal disturbances. All of these can be symptoms of that your body hasn’t fully calmed down. The longer this situation persists, the less resilient your nervous system can become over time.
Somatic Experiencing® uses gentle, invitational techniques to help you access and then release this trapped stress. By slowly bringing awareness to your body sensations, your nervous system can be encouraged to resume the process of helping you calm down.
You will learn different ways of practicing these techniques outside of your sessions to facilitate the process. As a Certified Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner, I incorporate these techniques into my work as appropriate.
The Development of Somatic Experiencing®
Dr. Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing®, was originally trained as a biologist. He noticed wild animals literally “shaking off” excess energy (trembling, moving their limbs, etc.) after a stressful event. (An example would be after a prey animal narrowly escaped from a predator.)
Dr. Levine hypothesized that human beings can fail to allow their nervous systems to release this energy after they have experienced stress, and that energy trapped in the nervous system can lead to the development of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and even physical tension or pain. He developed Somatic Experiencing® to facilitate the body’s natural process of discharging stored excess energy from the nervous system to alleviate such symptoms, and to return the nervous system to its naturally resilient state.
More Resources and Information
You may wish to read some or all of the following books by Peter Levine, Ph.D., founder of Somatic Experiencing®:
An excellent self-help book on the use of Somatic Experiencing therapy in recovering from trauma caused by an automobile accident is Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide to Auto Accident Trauma and Recovery, by Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D.