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.