When people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma, it can be confusing and overwhelming to decide which type of recovery is the most suitable. Oftentimes the most effective approach will be a range of individualized therapies delivered in harmony, although in an outpatient setting this is not always practical nor available.
With so many options and often conflicting advice online, there’s a concern that these people who need the most help might be unable to decide how to proceed and “make do” living with their pain. Thankfully there is a peer-reviewed, proven approach to therapy that provides an alternative method that has helped thousands of people address their trauma: somatic experiencing.
Read the guide below for helpful information on what to expect from a somatic experiencing sessions, as well as details on the research that indicates its benefits.
What is somatic experiencing?
Created by psychologist Dr. Peter Levine over the course of more than 45 years, somatic experiencing is in its simplest terms a way to engage therapy clients in being able to recognize their internal feelings and sensations to address traumatic experiences. This differs from other methods of therapy that focus more on explicit retelling of such events.
Levine has repeatedly said that his goal in creating somatic experiencing was to help clients be able to identify their internal sensations whether those be visceral (meaning feelings) or musculoskeletal, which is a scientific way of saying physical reactions. Other therapy methods directly confront the traumatic event that has caused the enduring stress whereas somatic experiencing approaches the incident indirectly to help people identify experiences in their own bodies that they can embrace to help overcome stressful feelings like helplessness.
What does somatic experiencing treat?
The approach can be used to help treat a wide range of traumas, including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as physical and mental health problems associated with traumatic events, and therefore can apply to many people.
By way of example, somatic experiencing can be an invaluable tool for helping someone to overcome lingering defensive reactions and other stressful responses associated with childhood emotional neglect. Through this novel therapy, the client can learn to identify what is triggering such stress and learn to control and overcome it.
But that’s just one possible situation in which somatic experiencing can help; it has proven over the years to be a valuable therapeutic tool to respond to a host of different traumatic events and PTSD.
What can you expect from an experiencing session?
There are several examples available to view online, though the easiest way to describe a typical session is to imagine two people — the client and the therapist — sitting across from each other. From here, the duo will engage in a conversational back-and-forth that is designed to help the client understand and harness their feelings to the benefit of resolving their trauma.
The therapist might begin by asking the client to get comfortable in their chair, and then to express in words how that comfort makes them feel physically. From there the conversation could build to trying to encourage the client to a state of greater relaxation, deferring any explicit conversation about the traumatic event that is causing the client stress.
As the client starts to make progress in feeling sensations of relaxation and relief, the therapist might gradually start to ask tangential questions about the traumatic event. But the therapist is always careful to avoid triggering any intense recall of the incident, because that could trigger the sensory overload that leads to stressful physical or emotional responses.
The conversations will continue in this way to help the client build a recurring series of positive visceral or musculoskeletal experiences that will assist greatly in overcoming trauma.
Does somatic experiencing work?
Yes, and thousands of survivors will tell you that it does. It works by helping people learn to become aware of sensations in their body that they can use to their benefit as a route for confronting and releasing internal tension caused by their trauma.
But beyond anecdotal evidence, scientific research also appears to be on the side of proving that somatic experiencing works, because there are least two peer-reviewed studies suggesting benefits from the method — including a profile of a case study with Dr. Levine.
Levine talks about his idea of pendulation, which is the natural sense of flow within a person’s body between contraction and expansion. In other words he uses somatic experiencing to help clients experience the flow of sensations associated with feelings both negative (the type that make a person physically or emotionally contract with stress) and positive (the type that encourage a person to relax and expand in an emotional sense).
In a peer-reviewed paper published in Frontiers of Psychology in 2015, Dr. Levine and other researchers concluded that somatic experiencing could lead to fully resolving symptoms associated with traumatic and chronic stress through guiding clients’ attention to their internal experiences both physical and mental. And they also found that somatic experiencing can be a beneficial supplement to traditional exposure and cognitive therapies.
And if you have any doubts about relying on a study led by the creator of somatic experiencing, it’s easy to find other research online that backs up his conclusions.
For example, the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 2017 published a peer-reviewed paper by a group of researchers in Israel that conducted a random study of more than 60 people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who underwent somatic experiencing. The researchers said they found “positive results” that indicated the method “may be an effective therapy method,” although they called for further research to identify the groups that would most benefit from it.
Is somatic experiencing right for you?
If you believe that somatic experiencing might be a useful strategy for dealing with your stress and trauma, it’s worth exploring with a professional therapist in an outpatient or residential rehab clinic environment. The method has unquestionably helped many people overcome trauma although at it’s most effective somatic experiencing is combined with a range of individualized therapies and holistic practices.