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Somatic Experiencing as Trauma Therapy

September 21, 2021
All Points North Lodge

Trauma therapy seeks to get to the root causes of addiction and mental health problems related to past trauma by identifying traumatic experiences and offering whole-person care. Our experiences shape who we are, how we think and feel, and how we approach the world around us, including our relationships. In some cases, we can become scarred by traumatic experiences. If we don't recognize and address traumatic experiences, they can negatively impact our attitudes and behaviors.

For example, you may find yourself abusing substances as a form of self-medication. You may suffer from anxiety, depression, or other psychological conditions. You might wonder how you always seem to end up in hurtful relationships or puzzle over why you continuously push people away.

There are several components to trauma therapy, and together they help patients gain awareness, learn coping mechanisms, and recognize their self-worth as they work toward personal growth and healing. One potential method for treating trauma is Somatic Experiencing. Somatic Experiencing is a type of trauma therapy that can help patients suffering with the lingering stress and behavioral patterns associated with unresolved past trauma. Here's what you need to know about Somatic Experiencing as a form of trauma therapy.

What is Trauma?

You can't go through life without experiencing some form of trauma. The differences lie in the scope of trauma, when you encounter it, and how you react to it. Trauma can come in many forms. A traumatic event is an incident that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm.¹

Psychological trauma could result from a wide range of incidents, such as losing a loved one, humiliation, abuse, an automobile accident, a natural disaster, an act of violence, a serious injury or illness, and more. An experience does not have to be catastrophic to be traumatic. In some cases, people naturally heal from physical and psychological trauma. However, for others, the effects of the trauma can persist long after the initial incident.

Trauma Responses

Dr. Peter A. Levine, the developer of Somatic Experiencing, initially focused on studying animal responses to traumatic stress. He found that animals experience the near-constant threat of death but do not show the same signs of trauma that plague humans exposed to similar circumstances.

Dr. Levine found that animals in stressful situations generate a considerable amount of energy to deal with the threat. Still, that energy is quickly dispelled when the danger is gone, either through fight or flight. Some animals also freeze, flop, or fawn, which are more complex trauma responses.² When this occurs, they dispel the buildup of adrenaline and energy through a physiological response like shaking/trembling.

Humans, however, can become stuck in these survival responses; rather than releasing the physiological energy generated by a threatening situation, we fail to discharge it. This energy is stored in the body, perpetuating feelings that the body is under threat and leading to a variety of symptoms that impact behavior, potentially hampering your ability to function and move forward.

Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma

When you encounter traumatic events, the body's fight or flight response kicks in, releasing hormones like adrenaline that increase breathing and heart rate and cause muscles to tense in anticipation of fighting or fleeing. If the energy generated during trauma doesn't dispel, it can lead to sympathetic symptoms, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Hyperactivity
  • Restlessness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Emotional flooding
  • Irritation, hostility, and rage
  • Sleeplessness
  • Digestive problems
  • Chronic pain

You may also experience parasympathetic responses, such as:

  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Lethargy
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Disorientation
  • Dissociation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Poor digestion
  • Pain

These symptoms can have an overwhelming impact on your life, affecting your behaviors and ability to function. Somatic Experiencing can help you overcome the effects of trauma from a physiological standpoint and may be used in tandem with other forms of therapy as part of a whole-person approach to healing.

A hand dips into the water as a boat glides over a river.

Somatic Experiencing as Trauma Therapy

Well-known talk therapy options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are standard tools that help identify trauma and address past traumatic experiences. Somatic Experiencing differs from CBT and DBT because it deals not with the incident itself but with the physiological effects linked to the incident.

Somatic Experiencing is a body-oriented approach to trauma therapy that focuses not necessarily on the story or memory of what happened but also on the physiological response. While a specific event may trigger trauma, the actual trauma is related to the body becoming overwhelmed by the fight or flight response.

Using Somatic Experiencing, your therapist will help you explore suppressed emotions and the uncomfortable bodily sensations that accompany them. You'll learn techniques to help you dispel these emotions and sensations. By building a tolerance to these sensations, you can mitigate the impact of traumatic memories and events and then work towards changing your responses and behavior patterns.

How Does Somatic Experiencing Work?

First, your therapist will conduct an assessment to determine where you are stuck in a trauma response (fight, flight, freeze, flop, or fawn). Next, your therapist will share clinical tools to help you dispel stored survival energy and complete the self-protective motor response. This doesn't necessarily mean that you need to delve into the memories or thoughts associated with the event that acted as the catalyst for trauma (although you may find it beneficial to discuss the trigger with your therapist if you feel comfortable). Instead, this body-first approach focuses on the sensations associated with trauma and the patterns of behavior that develop in response.

Learning to cope with these physiological responses and build up a tolerance could include titration. In this case, a therapist will expose a patient to a small amount of stress related to trauma and learn to release energy slowly. Your therapist will oscillate sensations of cold and warmth, pain and pleasure, and contraction and expansion. Your therapist will introduce these sensations at a level that you can manage to help you learn how to avoid becoming overwhelmed by a trauma response.

The process also involves pendulation, where patients oscillate between a state of calm and the body's exaggerated response to trauma, helping the body settle into a state of homeostasis. In time, Somatic Experiencing can provide patients with the tools they need to cope with trauma and adjust resultant behavior patterns that negatively impact their lives.

Benefits of Somatic Experiencing

Whether you're experiencing sympathetic or parasympathetic responses to trauma, or both, the impact on your life can be immense. It may affect your ability to function and maintain healthy relationships. Whether you know the cause of trauma or not, you may feel powerless to change or completely stuck in a trauma response.

Over time, Somatic Experiencing can help patients learn to cope with stress in their everyday lives. In addition, Somatic Experiencing can reduce psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression, mood swings, and so on, along with physiological symptoms like racing heartbeat, muscle tension, pain, insomnia, fatigue, and more. In other words, Somatic Experiencing can help you regain balance, alleviate suffering, and reclaim your life.

Where to Get Trauma Therapy

A combination of behavioral therapies can offer you the best opportunity to address past trauma, work toward healing, and lead a healthier and happier life. This could include talk therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and even addiction treatment, depending on your particular needs.

If you're ready to learn more and take the first steps toward healing after trauma, All Points North Lodge is here to provide comprehensive, custom-curated care. Call us today at 855.235.9792 or contact us online or via LiveChat to get started.

 

Reference

  1. "Trauma and Shock." American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/topics/trauma.
  2. "How PTSD Occurs." Cotswold Centre For Trauma Healing, The Cotswold Centre For Trauma Healing, 16 Nov. 2019, cotswoldcentrefortraumahealing.co.uk/how-ptsd-occurs/.
  • "About." Somatic Experiencing® International, Somatic Experiencing® International, 20 Sept. 2021, traumahealing.org/about-us/.
  • Raypole, Crystal. "How Somatic Experiencing Can Help You Process Trauma." Edited by Timothy J. Legg, Healthline, Healthline Media, 27 Feb. 2020, www.healthline.com/health/somatic-experiencing#the-freeze-response.

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