Treating Trauma with Somatic Experiencing: How it Works and What to Expect

Treating Trauma

Trauma isn’t always about violent shocks like automobile accidents or gun fire, but it is about perceived threats and how these threats affect the human mind and body. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly half of all Americans will experience at least one major trauma in their lifetime and they may require professional help to overcome it. The need for trauma counseling is exploding and the demand for therapeutic alternatives to medication is keeping pace.

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a bold individualized approach to treating trauma without medication. It is a method of treatment which is expanded to include not only the thoughts and emotions associated with a traumatic event but the natural somatic (bodily) responses as well. A key component of Somatic Experiencing paired with trauma counseling involves helping the patient develop and utilize self-regulating strategies which allow them to fully process and release trauma in a safe way on their own terms. 

How Somatic Experiencing Works

Somatic Experiencing is a type of therapy which simultaneously involves the autonomic nervous system and the central nervous system. To understand its value and how it works, one must also understand a little bit about the systems of the body most affected by trauma. These systems are the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the central nervous system (CNS), and the somatic nervous system (SNS).

The anatomic nervous system controls the network which triggers the fight or flight response along with the system which maintains homeostasis. The somatic nervous system controls voluntary muscle movements and all reflex arcs which are immediate responses to stimuli. The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord.

When you experience trauma these three systems go into overdrive and release massive amounts of energy. This energy must run its course and be completely discharged through events such as shakes and trembling. If this phase doesn’t complete its cycle, then the body can perceive that it is still under threat causing dysregulation and dissociation. While you may eventually relax and carry on as usual, certain triggers can restart the cycle. 

What to Expect From an SE Session 

Somatic Experiencing practitioners embrace a bottom-up method when it comes to trauma counseling, starting with bodily sensations before incorporating cognitive skills into a session. Many SE practitioners follow a method known simply as SIBAM to guide clients through using their bodies to begin processing trauma. This method is Sensation, Imagery, Behavior, Affect, and Meaning.

Sessions are often pendulated, meaning they alternate between incorporating a small amount of traumatic material and a place of strength or comfort. Pendulating between the traumatic and the positive sensations allows the patient to fully process the trauma in a safe way. Clients typically experience a heightened sense of awareness to their physical responses as they learn the strategies that will help them self-regulate. 

Move Through Trauma to a Better You

Trauma can keep you trapped in a cycle of misery and self-destruction until you find a way to move through it. Somatic Experiencing is a form of trauma counseling that can help you acquire and apply the skills you need to self-regulate through adversity in a natural, healthy way. Skills like breathing and grounding exercises or sensation awareness are techniques that can help you release physical tension and experience the vitality of wholeness once again. If you’ve already experienced trauma, Somatic Experiencing can help you move through it to a better you.


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