Somatic Experiencing: The Missing Puzzle Piece to Trauma RecoveryNov 22, 2023
Somatic Experiencing: The Missing Puzzle Piece to Trauma Recovery
By Britt Piper, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, Trauma Expert, Founder of The Healing Hub -@healwithbritt
If you’re reading this it’s likely you’ve exhausted a long list of healing options, yet you still feel stuck in the never-ending rollercoaster of survival mode. The good news is, as a member of our Healing Hub community, you’ve taken a brave and bold step in joining us on a path of exploring somatic healing and how it can help us all to heal the imprints of trauma. As I type this, I can hear the collective cry from so many of my clients over the years: “After decades of suffering, I wish I had known about these tools sooner!” At last, my friend, you’re on the precipice of true and lasting healing. I’m beyond excited for you.
In this post, we'll introduce you to Somatic Experiencing (SE), a powerful trauma recovery modality that can help you break free from the chains of survival mode and embark on a path of true and lasting healing.
Who Is This For?
- Individuals who have tried various healing approaches but still feel stuck in survival mode.
- Anyone interested in exploring somatic healing and its potential for trauma recovery.
- Those who want to understand how trauma affects the nervous system and learn how to release trapped emotions and sensations from the body.
- People seeking a gentle and effective self-healing method that can be integrated into their everyday lives.
- Anyone looking for a way to reconnect with their authentic selves and break free from the effects of past trauma.
We'll delve into the principles of Somatic Experiencing, how it works, and its transformative potential in healing trauma. You'll discover how somatic tools can help you process discomfort, build resilience, and regain control over your life and body. By the end, you'll realize that you're not broken, and you don't need fixing; you just need the right tools to get back in the driver's seat of your life, and we're here to support you on that journey. SE is a huge focus of our signature trauma healing program, the Body-First Healing Program. Learn more or apply here!
Understanding Somatic Experiencing
Following trauma that’s too overwhelming, the nervous system often becomes ensnared in chronic states of survival mode (fight, flight, freeze). This can leave us seemingly trapped in the survival responses of the past, aka the “threat response cycle,” even though we are safely living in the present. As my mentor Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, aptly describes it–trauma can be likened to an internal straitjacket where a devastating moment becomes frozen in time. (Somatic Experiencing the trauma recovery modality we guide our clients through in the Body-First Healing Program.)
Somatic experiencing (SE), is based on the idea that traumatic experiences can lead to dysfunction in your nervous system, which can keep you from fully processing the experience. The goal of SE is to help you notice bodily sensations stemming from mental health issues (or unprocessed trauma) and use this awareness to acknowledge and work through painful or distressing sensations, feelings and emotions trapped in your body and physiology.
In Somatic Experiencing (where soma means “of the body”), we gently guide you out of your head and into the experience of your body, where the nervous system can be accessed. In the Body-First Healing Program, you’ll be introduced to SE with the goal of guiding you to better be with difficult sensations and emotions, rather than avoiding or suppressing. By learning the language of your unique system, you’ll have a greater capacity to process discomfort or what was once too overwhelming to be with. This is what allows your system to free itself from survival mode and complete it’s thwarted threat response cycle, revealing a more present and regulated you.
How Somatic Experiencing Works
As world-renowned trauma expert Dr. Gabor Mate puts it, “Trauma is not what happens to you, trauma is what happens inside of you, as a result of what happened to you.” Because trauma is first experienced and stored in the body, it should be healed there first.
When your nervous system perceives threat, it armors up to protect you. This “threat response cycle” aims to provide immediate protection through the release of adrenaline and cortisol and your body’s natural impulse to fight, flight, or freeze. These survival responses are great for the short team, but are not meant to be lived in.
It’s important to note the basic sequence of physiological events that take place in a threat response cycle:
- Neutral: you’re in your “rest and digest state,” where you feel present and at ease
- Activation: something triggers your nervous system to go into a survival response (fight, flight, shutdown, freeze or fawn). Mobilizing hormones of adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body.
- Mobilization: if we can successfully allow the natural impulse of the nervous system to complete (examples could include, flight: leaving a situation, fight: setting a firm boundary), then we are able to release, aka “discharge,” the survival hormones from the body.
- De-activation: following a discharge comes a natural de-activation, where our system comes back into restoration, ease, and then returns back to neutral.
Now let’s explore an example of the threat response cycle in everyday life:
You’re driving, singing along to your favorite song, feeling present and at ease (neutral). You suddenly hear sirens and realize there are flashing lights coming up fast in your rear-view. You look down at the dashboard. You’re speeding. You panic as the possibility that you could get pulled over hits you. You quickly shut off the music, you grip both hands on the wheel, you’re now sweating, you feel heat, your heart’s racing, your eyes narrowly focus on the rearview mirror (activation). You start to make your way to the shoulder as the car slows down. Now on the side of the road, you hold your breath as the police car flies past you. You let out a loud and relieving “AGHHH, THANK GOD!” followed by a brief moment to literally shake if off through your hands and limbs. You might even laugh and let out an audible “WHEW.” You take a few deep breaths (Mobilization). After you’ve oriented back to the present moment, you creep back onto the road and slowly return to a state of ease—heart slowing, body temperature cooling, relaxed muscles, music back on (de-activation).
This is a beautiful example of your systems natural ability to pendulate between activation (triggered) and de-activation (not triggered). The problems exist when the experience is something that either feels like too soon, too fast, or too much–which then overwhelms the nervous system, causing us to get stuck in the Activation and Mobilization stage.
This was the case for me, after an assault in 2009 by a stranger who helped me to change my flat tire. During the experience, I was overpowered by the perpetrator when my nervous system tried to Mobilize and fight back to protect myself. With trapped survival energy of cortisol and adrenaline still stored in my body and physiology, I became stuck in an activated state of Fight. Following the assault, I became angry, resentful and full of rage—qualities that were in direct opposition from the gentle nature I always had. I became someone I didn’t know.
It all took a turn in 2011, when a few weeks after my perpetrators sentencing hearing, I was out one night with someone who was drinking and driving. (I always say this was a good indication of being at one of my lowest points in life.) After he was pulled over and arrested, the police officers tried to pull me out of the passenger's seat to give me a ride home. However, in my impaired state, I had a flashback of the night of my assault, of a strange man touching me in a car. I snapped, as my nervous system violently went into a trauma reenactment, desperate to complete the threat response cycle of Fight that was incomplete from the initial assault.
This chapter of my story provides the perfect example that when our nervous system is left trapped in survival, protective states can create Stuck Personality Types that aren’t inherent to who we are:
1. FIGHT: the angry one
2. FLIGHT: the overachiever or anxious worrier
3. FREEZE: the “lazy” introvert
4. FAWN: the people-pleaser
Through a body-first approach of healing the nervous system and releasing the chronic stress energy (adrenaline and cortisol) that has become stuck and stored in the body, we can easily come back to the restored, regulated and authentic versions of ourselves.
Slow, Gentle and Present Self-Healing
Somatic Experiencing isn’t fixated on the past. It focuses more on how that traumatic event or experience is impacting you today in the present. That’s because trauma isn’t found in the event, but in the nervous system. Now, this doesn’t mean that we minimize or avoid pain, because we know that avoiding isn’t the same thing as healing. Instead, we equip you with somatic tools to welcome in and process the discomfort in a tolerable way. We validate and create a greater capacity within your nervous system to be with your trauma. We’re ultimately aiding your nervous system in becoming more resilient, which will help you to not just heal, but also better manage stress and challenges in your everyday life.
Once learned, these somatic practices can be done on your own, without having to rely on years of costly assistance by a medical professional. It’s true, you get to harness your innate tools from within, so that you can self-heal in the ways your body was built to. These are small and convenient practices, easily woven into your everyday life, that can give you profound relief. And, over time, the cumulative effect will create greater resilience in your nervous system’s natural ability to move through activation.
Within Somatic Experiencing, you take small and tolerable steps towards healing, or what we Somatic Experiencing Practitioners (SEPs) call “titration.” Just as you’d titrate slowly off a medication you’ve been on for a long time to minimize harmful side effects. Titration gives your nervous system a chance to slowly catch up to the present and regulate (or get unstuck), without further overwhelm or exacerbation of symptoms. The goal is to stretch you without stressing you—taking one piece of armor off at a time, which in turn creates sustainable healing. No Band-aid approaches here.
This modality of healing proves to us that treating trauma does not mean you have to be curled up in a ball in your therapist’s office, sobbing in agonizing pain as you are told to relive your traumatic situation over and over again to “get over it.” Somatic Experiencing is quite the opposite—it is gentle and should never be overwhelming.
Somatic Experiencing invites in those who have become prisoners to a life lived in survival mode. It offers a reprieve and a roadmap so you can better understand the wisdom and inner workings of your nervous system. Once learned, you’ll quickly accept that there is, in fact, nothing wrong with you. The way you feel, think, and behave, although perhaps seemingly self-destructive, has merely been an armoring of self-protection—a necessary response to a traumatic environment or experience. Instead of self-criticism or defeat, you’ll begin to see that depression or anger or fear are natural, instinctual responses to an overwhelmed nervous system, merely trying to protect you. You are not broken and you do not need to be fixed. You just need to get back in the driver’s seat of your life and body. And we’re honored to do that work alongside you.
Somatic Experiencing Demo
I offer two Somatic Experiencing sessions per month at no additional cost for clients in the Body-First Healing Program! Check out this SE demonstration between Britt and Healing Hub Practitioner Meg to get an idea of how powerful and transformative an SE session can be.
If you'd like to experience this inner transformation first-hand in the Body-First Healing Program, I invite you to apply for the program here.
Apply today for the Body-First Healing Program!
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