Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a form of treatment for Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that doesn’t require clients to retell and/or relive their painful experiences. That’s a big deal. Here’s why…
Unlike Somatic Experiencing, Most Trauma Treatment Actually Makes Symptoms Worse
Typical PTSD treatment involves clients talking in detail about what they experienced. When we do this, our brains and our bodies re-experience the event. If retelling brings up fight/flight the client will notice their heart rate quickening and their body tightening up. This will usually be followed by unpleasant images that sometimes show up again in nightmares the following evening.
If on the other hand, retelling activates the freeze response in the body, the client won’t experience much discomfort or emotion when telling their story. They’ll be able to talk about it and have the experience that “I’m over it now.” But they may become a bit more forgetful. Or they may engage in intense behavior afterward – like addictive sex, speeding, multitasking, drugs or alcohol, etc – to simulate a sense of aliveness.
Either way, telling the story doesn’t usually do much. For some, it feels good to “get it all out there” and have another human being who knows their story. They feel a bit more connected to the clinician. But the rest of the symptoms still remain.
My Experience with Somatic Experiencing
I was a “classically trained” trauma therapist. I would have my clients would walk me through the story of their trauma(s) in counseling. Often they would weep. Many had been through horrible, horrifying experiences more than worthy of tears. I respected their courage and strength.
Others would tell their story with almost no emotion like they were reading a newspaper article. Though it would encourage them to connect to their experience emotionally, I understood their need to “turn it off.”
And of course, there were many who stopped therapy rather than addressing their PTSD. This made sense to me too, because I had run away from my own PTSD for years.
The work was rewarding, but as I mentioned earlier, I noticed that even when clients were able to connect with their experiences there wasn’t much relief.
They would still explode and/or shut down in marriages. They still reported feeling “keyed up” all the time, read – to fight or wanting to escape, even when they were at home safe. They’d still have invasive thoughts or images, or sometimes full on flashbacks. Many reported that their sleep patterns actually got a little worse after sharing.
Then I discovered SE.
Your Brain is Stuck. Somatic Experiencing Can Fix That.
When you look at the way science understands trauma, what you see if a brain that’s stuck.
SE gets the brain unstuck. In a way that talking just can’t.
When you get into danger your brain moves you into fight or flight. If it thinks you can’t escape it will move you into freeze.
A lot of times it gets stuck there.
That’s where my clients were. The ones who would weep were in fight or flight, and recalling the event brought them right back into it. Like they’d never left.
The ones who explained it like it was no big deal were in freeze. They got in freeze when it happened and they’ve been sort of numb ever since. (They usually dull the sense of numbness by being busy, getting addicted, or both.)
How to Get a Brain “Un-Stuck”
To get the brain unstuck we have to listen to the parts that are stuck, namely a part called the amygdala. The challenge is that the amygdala communicates mostly with sensation and smell. Words don’t get through.
So, simply put, we learn to follow the felt sense in a way that allows the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain to tell it’s story and settle.
And that changes everything.