Somatic Experiencing® (SE) is an exciting style of therapy now offered by the Chicago Center for Psychotherapy. Here are answers to some common questions about Somatic Experiencing® to help familiarize you with what happens in a session and, to learn what kind of clients benefit from this type of therapy. Is SE right for you? Read on!
What is Somatic Experiencing®?
“The Somatic Experiencing® method is a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders” (traumahealing.org). By teaching the nervous system to move smoothly between states of rest and activation, clients are able to experience and learn to tolerate their anxiety, depression or trauma symptoms and then return to a healthy baseline (rather than getting “stuck” in a cycle of anxiety or depression).
I thought therapy was about talking…
The body often holds the answers to what type of healing we need, and using SE can help translate those signals in order to learn what is needed to heal the body. Although we certainly still talk during Somatic Experiencing sessions, SE is different from traditional talk therapy because there is an emphasis on bringing clients’ physical experiences into the room as well.
What happens in a SE session?
SE sessions are customized to the state of the nervous system that a client comes in with. Perhaps you are familiar with the terms fight, flight, and freeze. These states show up in specific ways in the body (based on factors such as muscle tone, micro-movements of the face, eye contact, etc.).
In a session, the therapist regularly assesses which of those “states” your nervous system is in and helps you shift your nervous system from a sense of threat to a resting state. For example, if someone comes in with a lot of flight activation (restless, anxious, concerned…), sessions will center around allowing the charge of that activation to release. This will naturally allow the body to regulate itself back to a settled, baseline state.
Even though you may only go through a few cycles of activation (fight/flight/freeze) and deactivation (coming down into a resting state) throughout a session, once the body recognizes that it can handle going from a charged state to a settled state, it will start to generalize and will be able to do that in the real world as well.
I’ve heard you use this term “regulation,” but I’m not sure what that is. What is regulation and how will it benefit me?
I’m sure you don’t need instruction on how to get stressed out, but occasionally, we lose sight of how to actually allow ourselves to relax! Somatic Experiencing works to teach your system how to regulate itself – meaning that the nervous system can flow smoothly between appropriate states of activation and settling.
When you are in a nervous system state of regulation, you have access to feelings of curiosity, sociability, and openness. Another major benefit of accessing a state of regulation is that the physical body is able to rest on a deeper level when it needs to. This means that working towards regulation can support immune health, cell repair, and digestion.
I’ve got some trauma that I know is there, but when I “go there,” things tend to get worse…
One of the guiding principles of SE work is that practitioners “titrate” the amount of stimulation that occurs, meaning that we add a little bit of “charge” at a time. The therapist continuously checks to make sure that your system is able to handle what you are working on and making sure you stay in the range of what you can handle. Over time, you will work to grow your capacity to handle the charge in your system, but sessions do not aim to “flood” you with more than you have the resources to handle.
Do I need to be in touch with my body to do Somatic Experiencing?
While the SE work often leads to increased connection with your body, being able to do so is by no means a prerequisite for doing the work. In fact, much of the work that occurs during a therapy session is a process of you and the therapist learning to decode your body’s unique set of signals. Most clients leave sessions feeling more in touch with their bodies and with a better understanding of how to take care of their nervous systems.
Who is SE good for?
SE is appropriate for anyone who is interested in gaining some insight into (and maybe even some control over!) their stress responses. It works particularly well with anxiety, depression, stress, trauma, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue. If you have a question about whether or not SE would be an appropriate fit for something you are working on, please feel free to contact Sara Moskowitz at email@example.com.
I’d love some more resources!
Here is a YouTube video of Peter Levine, the founder of SE, explaining some of the principles behind it. For more on the results of SE, here is a link to many peer reviewed articles on Somatic Experiencing®. If you’re interested in understanding more about each of the three states that your nervous system can be in, see below for a great resource created by Ruby Jo Walker, LCSW that explains the characteristics of each state.