Somatic Experiencing in Short
The body is wise. It remembers what the mind forgets, and it knows how to self-regulate and heal itself. Contemporary trauma treatment has largely focused on cognitive processing of traumatic events. But there is another way to help people heal and process trauma that involves paying attention to the body. And using this information as a guide for healing.
In this week’s episode, I interviewed Kelsey MacDougall, a Clinical Counsellor, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, and Holistic Nutritionist. She is a believer in our innate ability to heal, in body, mind, and spirit. Her own healing journey started in her teen years, after spending her entire childhood struggling with her physical health and in a chronic state of distress.
Kelsey has spent nearly two decades on her own healing, on various levels. It is truly her passion to support others in their own healing journey.
With everything she has learned and continues to learn, she is able to support you in your own journey from a place of empathy and compassion.
“All emotions, even those that are suppressed and unexpressed, have physical effects. Unexpressed emotions tend to stay in the body like small ticking time bombs—they are illnesses in incubation.”
- Marilyn Van Derbur
As a strong believer in the mind-body connection, Kelsey primarily works with clients from the lens of Somatic Experiencing. It is something she describes as a "body-based psychotherapy". She uses this work to help her clients get more deeply connected to themselves. Through this work, along with other approaches such as nutrition, mindfulness, and exploring attachment, Kelsey supports her clients in reconnecting to themselves again, in body, mind, and spirit.
What Is Somatic Experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing is a body-focused, integrative psychotherapy approach that can help release trauma from the body. In essence, it lets the body complete its self-protection cycle, so we can heal and release the energy tied to trauma, shock, or traumatic experiences.
Somatic Experiencing was developed by Dr. Peter Levine in the late 1970s. It is based on his study of animal behavior, developmental biology, and neuroscience, as well as his own experience in martial arts training and therapy practice with traumatized people.
Somatic Experiencing also incorporates principles from other approaches such as Gestalt therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Nonviolent Communication, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and Energy Psychology techniques such as The Sedona Method®.
The Effects of Trauma on the Body
Trauma is a natural part of life. As humans, we encounter all sorts of stressors that can cause trauma throughout our lives. We can perceive anything as traumatic, if we feel it exceeds our ability and resources to cope with it. This differs from person to person, which is why we all experience trauma in different ways. Not only do we experience trauma in physical, mental, and emotional ways, the effect of trauma can remain with us long after the actual event or events.
Our bodies store trauma in various places, including in the nervous system, muscles, organs and tissues. The body can also store trauma as chronic pain and illness, physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches or heart problems, and behavioral symptoms like insomnia or panic attacks. This means even if the trauma was mental or emotional, we can experience physical symptoms as a result.
If you have experienced trauma at some point in your life, therapy may be one option to help heal and process this trauma. But it is important to take care of your physical self as well. For example, if something frightening or traumatic happens to animals, you may see them running quite fast, shaking and making vigorous physical movements in the aftermath. This allows animals to complete their trauma cycle and remove the trauma from their body. As humans, we generally do not complete this trauma cycle, which is how trauma can become stuck in the body.
Somatic Experiencing can help process difficult emotions through completing the trauma cycle. This can include touch therapy techniques like holding positions for extended periods of time while breathing deeply into them and other somatic techniques. In essence, the trauma cycle will physically be completed, helping you process trauma.
Somatic Experiencing and Resilience
Somatic Experiencing is a trauma-sensitive approach that helps us heal from traumatic experiences. It is based on the idea that our bodies are designed to help us recover from trauma. Using Somatic Experiencing during this process can help us restore balance in the mind and body. Somatic Experiencing emphasizes the importance of experiencing your emotions fully, rather than suppressing them or covering them with food or alcohol.
When we avoid feeling our emotions, we tend to experience more stress and anxiety because the energy associated with those feelings remains stuck in our bodies. Although overeating and substance abuse may become coping strategies after experiencing trauma, they will not help you heal or process trauma in the long run.
Most likely, at some point these strategies will lead to more symptoms or make it even harder to manage. If you experience more trauma, this will be added to what you have already experienced. Since you are already unable to cope, you may find even small issues become problematic quickly.
Somatic Experiencing can help heal and process the trauma we have experienced. In addition, it can also help build more psychological resilience to trauma. This means we have more resources available and feel more able to cope should we encounter trauma in the future. If we understand what trauma is and how it affects us, we can learn the skills needed to better cope and manage.
How Does Somatic Experiencing Work?
A Somatic Experiencing practitioner will likely help you focus on your body to start with. During this process, you might be asked to describe how it feels in your body when you think about certain triggers or situations. This can be done through verbal descriptions, drawing pictures of what you feel in your body, or using props that represent different feelings (like a rubber ball for anger).
Next, the practitioner may guide you in noticing sensations and feelings in the body. You may be encouraged to stay with these sensations and feelings rather than attempting to avoid them. This may involve directing attention back to any physical sensations that arise during these sessions (for example, asking if you notice any changes).
A certified Somatic Experiencing practitioner will be able to provide a safe space for you to explore these feelings and sensations in. They will also understand what happens to you during the sessions and can provide guidance and support for your healing journey. It is important that you feel comfortable with your practitioner, so you can fully benefit from the sessions.
Who Can Benefit From Somatic Experiencing?
Some examples of who might benefit from Somatic Experiencing could include individuals who have experienced trauma and may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms can include having flashbacks about a traumatic event and avoiding things that remind you of the trauma. For a PTSD diagnosis, you should contact your primary care provider or mental health professional.
You may also benefit from Somatic Experiencing if you have witnessed trauma and feel you are affected by it. This could include natural disasters or witnessing an accident or a crime. You may also benefit if you are working in a profession that requires you to witness trauma frequently, like paramedics, firefighters, or police officers.
Somatic Experiencing is a psychological therapy that works to heal trauma and promote resilience by helping people reconnect with their bodies. It was developed by Dr. Peter Levine, who believes that the symptoms of PTSD are the result of a disconnection between mind and body. The goal of this approach is to help people develop an awareness of their inner experience, allowing them to become more attuned with their bodies so they can move forward in life in a healthier way.
I think the bottom line is that Somatic Experiencing helps people tap into their innate healing abilities and learn how to regulate their nervous system. Although it is becoming more well-known, it may be a while before Somatic Experiencing is used in a widespread capacity to treat trauma.
Be sure to work with a certified practitioner, and follow your own gut feeling on whether you connect well with your practitioner. If you feel uncomfortable or uneasy, choose a different practitioner. It is important to trust your practitioner, so you can participate and experience the sessions fully for your own healing benefit.
It certainly seems to be a promising approach and something to try out on your healing journey.
Many practitioners combine Somatic Experiencing with other approaches and techniques and you may find a combination that works well for you.
Everyone is unique and everyone’s trauma is unique. And your approach to healing needs to fit your individual situation.