Somatic Experiencing is a therapeutic technique based on a theory by Peter Levine. He theorizes that trauma is stored in the body and released through a discharge, ideally at the time of the incident. I remember a year and half ago I learned that a young client had died accidentally and suddenly. I called my supervisor, and being a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner she instructed me to pay attention to my body. Sure enough, I was trembling all over. Also, I kept returning to sit on a decorative stool in my office, as opposed to the couch or therapist’s chair, both of which I regularly sit on. No one sits on the decorative stool and I have still no idea why I kept finding myself sitting on it that day.
There has been almost no research done on Somatic Experiencing, which is unfortunate because there is more and more awareness in the trauma field that trauma is often accompanied by somatic symptoms. This year at Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, 14 different workshops focused on psychotherapy treatment related to the body. As always, research follows practice, so while we’re waiting to learn how somatic work plays out in controlled trials, here’s some principals from Somatic Experiencing that are consistent with evidence-based trauma work. These principles tend to be especially helpful when building capacity for emotion regulation, which is compromised in individuals who have complex trauma.
Orienting—this skill is very basic, and is kin to grounding. Basically, someone is encouraged to spend time orienting themselves to the space that they’re in. As a society of people who spend a lot of time with our noses in computers, tablets and smartphones, taking a few moments to connect with our physical environment can be refreshing. While observing the space, you also check in with your body. Inside, is there movement? Butterflies? Warmth or emptiness or heaviness? When we practice checking in, it’s surprising just how much is going on that we never notice. It’s another way to be present.
Titration—Ever used a funnel? Most of us have either used one or seen one used in the kitchen or garage. One purpose of the funnel is to slow the flow of whatever is being poured. If you’re someone who gets overwhelmed by emotions, imagine what it would be like to still notice and feel them, just in a less overwhelming way. One way to do this is to observe them. This is consistent with techniques that show up in different forms of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapies. Like above, while observing those emotions, notice what’s going on in the body. This is also key in trauma processing, since you want people to be activated but not overwhelmed.
Pendulation—Most of us experience various levels of activation, both positive and negative throughout the day. We get up, get frustrated while stuck in traffic (negative activation), get bored, get good news and get exited (positive activation). For most people these ups and downs are normal and tolerable. Someone with complex trauma doesn’t pendulate like they should and they get too activated and then don’t get de-activated easily enough. So, in Somatic Experiencing, people work on using their body awareness to have more control over how intensely they feel things. This can also help prevent dissociation, which tends to happen when someone gets overwhelmed.