Somatic Experiencing® for Nervous System Balance

A living system in balance benefits those around it.

In a previous post, I spoke about Somatic Experiencing® (SE) as a therapeutic approach for resolving event-based traumas. Whether the impact is a carry-over from a physical injury, accident, or unforeseen event, the surprise element can upset our sense of balance and leave a lasting imprint on our wellbeing. Often, the lingering shock to our nervous system is so profound, we lose our ability to manage ordinary mental tasks and physical routines. When this after-shock continues unattended, it becomes the new normal and our quality of life is compromised.

In this post, I am broadening the scope of SE to include all physical ailments and/or emotional conditioning linked to coping with high levels of stress. While adverse home conditions in childhood may not develop into full-blown health conditions, we are at higher risk for developing chronic health disease as adults. Some of the early risk factors linked to higher rates of cancer and heart disease, for example, include verbal, physical or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect, or witnessing the abuse of another family member. In addition, the ways we learn to respond to stress as adults may predispose us to autoimmune or syndromal (difficult to diagnose) conditions like irritable bowel disease, lupus, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or simply, challenging symptoms like migraines, seizures, allergies, and rashes. A simple explanation is when we are chronically exposed to stressors out of our control, our immune system (the ability to defend the body against disease) is compromised and our body’s natural capacity to restore a healthy balance is weakened.

One aim of SE is to model self-regulation for clients who struggle with the ill effects of nervous system (NS) dysregulation, like panic attacks, dissociation, or depression. For example, learning more reliable strategies to settle their nervous systems, clients become more skilled at recognizing depleted energy reserves or what kinds of support they respond to best. A sign of optimal functioning in body and mind is when we feel effective at getting things done, rather than helplessness at seeming challenges. The tendency to catastrophize is also lessened. 

We know from neuroscience that our minds are intrinsically linked to what we feel in our bodies. A sad story, for example, might mirror sadness in the body with rounded shoulders and heaviness in the chest. Oftentimes, posture becomes slumped, vocal cords muted in tone and tempo, and facial expression dulled when recounting unpleasant memories. Perhaps the most pervasive impact on our system is a loss of vital energy, or the body’s ability to perform essential functions that sustain life. When we experience this kind of shut-down emotions get muted, everything requires more effort, pleasure eludes us, and we likely feel stuck or frozen.

SE practitioners are skilled at noticing subtle facial expressions (e.g., tension in the jaw, eye twitches), body gestures (clenched fists), posture and repetitive movement patterns, even word choices signaling possible NS dysregulation. With practice, clients monitor symptoms by noticing changes in heart rate, breathing, body temperature, muscle tension, and pain; especially when recalling stressful life events or past traumas. This approach builds clients’ capacity to self-regulate their NS with increased clarity of thought and action. Deepening clients’ self-awareness, builds physical resilience, peacefulness in mental outlook and improved coping. A singular term for this body-mind alignment is coherence (pp,77-85), or the order and wholeness intrinsic to a living system in harmony. The body’s vital organs and tissues work in unison  when the component parts hum along at their specialized functions benefiting the whole organism. The beauty of a coherent NS at times of peak stress is an optimal immune response, with the least impact on the NS and physical health.

Greater coherence supports harmonious regulation for optimum digestion and elimination, heart health, efficient breathing, and bone stability. Coherence in the body supports ease at mental tasks and in interpersonal relationships. When we are in resonance (synchrony) with others we can empathize and show compassion with minimal effort. A useful maxim is, “Regulation anywhere supports greater regulation everywhere (p.83).” SE therapy supports you at uncovering your innate capacity for finding and sustaining NS balance and vitality.


A Body-Based Approach to Trauma Recovery: An Overview of Somatic Experiencing®

lions bonding

Mammals are wired for safety and connection. When safety goes offline –it’s hard to connect.

Trauma occurs when an event, or a series of events, overwhelms our ability to respond effectively to our circumstances. When an individual’s sense of safety is breached it sends their nervous system into overdrive and elicits a survival response such as fight, flight, or freeze. If there is a successful resolution of the incident there may be no lingering damage. When an incident is less successfully maneuvered, however, a physical and/or emotional injury is sustained keeping the survivor locked in defense mode. While the same conditions may not be experienced as “traumatic” by someone else, to a survivor of a car crash, for example, there may be a panic reaction each time the familiar intersection is negotiated. Coping strategies, like taking alternate routes to avoid feeling vulnerable, can help to a degree but will likely compromise the individual in other ways. When an overwhelmed nervous system stays locked in perpetual overdrive, mobilized by fear and anxiety, it is wearing on one’s long term health, and not optimally adaptive for negotiating future challenges.

elephants bonding

“The fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation.” —THEODOSIUS DOBZHANSKY

Somatic Experiencing® (SE) Therapy is a mind-body approach to healing trauma. Unlike more conventional talk therapies, it engages sensory tracking, supportive touch (with consent), and meaning-making through an appreciative lens of the body’s natural survival tendencies. It teaches individuals to recognize their nervous system activation when physically or emotionally threatened, and it helps them find ways of recovering self-agency once nervous system balance is restored.

Developed by Peter Levine, PhD*, who observed that animals living in the wild experience constant threats by predators, but do not show signs of post-traumatic stress. He theorized that animals can withstand recurring threats by immediately discharging the energy built up in their bodies, returning to a state of homeostasis (body equilibrium) once safety is restored. In contrast, human beings do not routinely practice this vital task of clearing out nervous system activation, in the aftermath of a traumatic incident. *Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1997;

Based on these scientific principles, SE helps individuals renegotiate their trauma stories by helping their bodies to complete self-protective responses; an SE term for the survival impulses that get shut down or suspended during trauma. For example, a yell for help stifled by an assailant’s hand, the impulse to brake an out-of-control car, or the failed attempt to rescue a drowning victim. When successful, SE clients get stronger at mediating challenging life circumstances and dispense with lasting traumatic imprints as they restore nervous system balance. At its core, SE believes all of us are whole, even in the bleakest moments of brokenness, and that we are not helpless in fostering our healing. SE is about partnering with you to restore wholeness in body and mind; offering witness as you turn on your, “I can do!” switch.

Antelopes bonding

If it isn’t safe to connect and play, maybe SE can help…

Given the rising tide of hate crimes in the United States, personal trauma stories are intersecting with a national experience of horror. Peter Levine, writing in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings, stated “…societal trauma is not limited to war-torn areas or inner cities. It exists all around us and affects us all, especially our children. Trauma disconnects us from both ourselves and the world around us. We cannot feel connected to one another if we are not connected to ourselves — and when we feel disconnected from others, we are more apt to be violent. In a state of disconnection, it is easier to externalize the “other,” to blame them for our unresolved post-traumatic distress, and to dissociate from any pain we cause them.” (Levine, Peter A. Study Guide: Healing Trauma; Restoring the wisdom of the body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 1999, p. 23 of enclosed pamphlet; 1st edition of book.)

Rabbi Tarfon, a sage of the ancient world (70-135 C.E.), was fond of saying, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot, 2:16).” Bridging these ancient and modern imperatives for individual action to benefit the whole, the importance of healing from trauma was never more clear.