Releasing the effects of trauma
Somatic Experiencing™ is trauma counselling with a difference, using less words and more emphasis on the sensations, emotions and movement arising in the body. The word ‘Somatic’ refers to the body, and we use ‘Experiencing‘ to say that the resolution of trauma happens in the present time, putting the memory in the past, so you can move forward in your life unburdened by previous events.
Somatic Experiencing is a form of nervous system regulation. If you are stressed or anxious, you can learn to feel relaxed and calm more of the time. If you tend to be depressed or low in energy and mood, you can learn simple ways to feel more optimism and aliveness. With practice, this can ‘reset’ your nervous system to a new balance, giving you more sense of choice and possibility, improving relationships and renewing your zest for life.
While PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder is well known, post traumatic resilience can also occur, leaving the person stronger and more engaged with life than before. With a background of thirty years work as a family doctor (GP) in Scotland and New Zealand, I bring a compassionate understanding of the challenges that people face, and a deep trust that recovery is possible
As I am retired from medical practice, I no longer give medical services such as writing prescriptions, and am pleased to now be working in a way that is complementary to and supportive of mainstream medical practice. Over the years I have been privileged to assist many thousands of people and I am deeply grateful to them, and to my colleagues and teachers.
What to expect in an appointment
Appointments usually last an hour. At your first appointment we will spend some of the time discussing your goals from treatment as well as asking about your general health. A Somatic Experiencing session starts seated on a chair or couch, while we talk about the reasons you came for help. From time to time you will be asked to share an impression of the sensations that you feel in your body, such as warmth, coolness, shakiness, etc and I will teach you ways to track, or follow these sensations with your awareness which helps them to release and come to a place of balance.
In most appointments you will be invited to move or stand for some of the time to try out techniques and simple exercises that help your nervous system to access the normal healthy responses that help to keep you safe in the world. Examples might include slowly looking around the room, or standing and moving with a sense of your own personal space. Somatic Experiencing may appear simple at times, but the effects can be powerful.
Another way that Somatic Experiencing differs from conventional trauma counselling, is that touch can be used to help balance your nervous system if you choose. Touch work is especially helpful when it is difficult to find the words – for example trauma occurring early in life, or where the memories are a bit confusing. Touch or contact can be given sitting in a chair or lying on a massage couch. No clothing needs to be removed and it is not a form of massage, more a light placing of the hands then allowing time for your nervous system to adjust. While touch can be very helpful, is not an essential part of SE. You will always be asked your consent before any contact is made, and you can choose not to have touch or contact at any time.
Peter Levine developed Somatic Experiencing™ after noticing that animals in the wild are often under threat, but seldom show signs of trauma. He realised that trauma in people occurs if ‘fight and flight’ are prevented and we go into the ‘freeze’ response, where the intense survival energy generated is put on ‘pause’.
Once the person is safe, this large amount of energy can be released with shaking and heat. But if this natural release does not occur, the charge is held in the body and the person still feels as if they are under threat years later. This can lead to anxiety, physical symptoms or dissociation, as their physiology is still in an ‘emergency’ state.
Somatic Experiencing works by gently releasing this traumatic shock from the body and nervous system, thus transforming the symptoms of trauma and freeing up the person’s energy and vitality. In a SE session, clients gradually learn awareness and tolerance of sometimes unfamiliar body sensations as they move through. The client is also supported to complete the self-protective movements and defensive responses that were prevented at the time of the trauma.
Talking therapies such as counselling are a ‘top down’ approach, which uses the uppermost and newest parts of the brain. In contrast, Somatic Experiencing is a ‘bottom up’ approach, with less talking and more attention to information stored in the lower sub-conscious parts of the brain where the emergency systems are based.
Peter is the author of many groundbreaking books on trauma including ‘Waking the Tiger’ and ‘In An Unspoken Voice’.