How to heal from trauma with somatic therapy
Written by Kianna Morgan, a therapist in training and MSW student. Kianna is passionate about trauma-informed practices and enjoys writing as a way to share empowering information with people suffering from trauma and chronic stress.
What is Somatic Experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a neurobiological approach for resolving trauma symptoms and relieving chronic stress. It is a talk and touch-based approach that aims at noticing and tracking body sensations and the rhythms of nervous system activation.
Developed by Dr. Peter Levine, Ph.D. in medical biophysics and Psy.D doctorate in psychology, SE has been effectively supporting people experiencing symptoms of chronic stress and trauma for decades.
So, how does the polyvagal theory relate to Somatic Experiencing?
While Dr. Peter Levine developed SE before the polyvagal theory was introduced in 1994, the polyvagal theory affirmed much of what was being experienced by SE providers and has come to be integrated into the work.
According to Dr. Stephen Porges, an expert in behavioral neuroscience, the autonomic nervous system is what drives much of behavior, determines how we react to stressors, and dictates whether an experience is traumatic.
The autonomic nervous system, through the vagus nerve, determines (by sensing safety vs. threat) whether we can be connected to ourselves and/or others. This ability to connect also happens to be one of the primary ways humans soothe themselves, so is fundamental to our thriving.
Additionally, the polyvagal theory identified the physiological (body-based) responses to stressors and trauma that come from our autonomic nervous system. Because SE helps us identify and track these sensations in our body, this can then help us understand what is happening in our nervous system. Through tracking and exploring safety with our provider, we can begin to settle and soothe our nervous system.
So, how can Somatic Experiencing help me resolve trauma and calm my body?
Trauma and stress that are stored in our bodies cannot be resolved with thought focused interventions alone. This is because trauma and our reactions to triggers are not in the thinking and speaking part of our brain. They are deeper down in the survival part of our brain that necessarily operates faster than we can think.
This is why you may intellectually know something to be safe (like bungee jumping), and yet it can feel so threatening. Your body and your brain function at different operating speeds. Luckily, SE was created to engage with the fast acting vagus nerve and helps us activate the part of it that lets us feel safe and experience resilience.
Because SE recognizes that stress is a natural part of life that affects all of us, it can also provide you with the tools necessary for remaining resilient in the face of that reality. Working with SE, you can learn how to move between a state of arousal and a state of calm. Then, eventually expand into social engagement with pendulation. Our clinicians will help you connect with your body while healing from a dysregulated nervous system and body.
Why does my body not know that the trauma is over when my brain does?
Trauma that goes unresolved becomes imprinted in our bodies. We get stuck in the autonomic activity that initially helped us survive. Our brain may know that the trauma is over, but our body still lives as if the threat is still very real and present.
This can help explain why you might feel on edge, or startle when a friend comes up behind you. The pent up energy in your body might make you feel as vigilant as a soldier on the battlefield. As a result, your body may respond as if the traumatic experience and toxic stress is still happening.
Fortunately, our SE providers can support you and help your body realize that the trauma is over through Somatic Experiencing. When the body returns to safety, the body and mind can once again function as a supportive pair.
Red Beard Bodywork is a team of therapists that fuse the polyvagal theory, movement therapies, and trauma informed interventions such as Somatic Experiencing to support you on your healing journey.