What is Somatic Experiencing?

jny published on
10 min, 1853 words

Categories: Mental Health

Peter Levine is a doctor who developed Somatic Experiencing after years of exposure to trauma as a medical doctor. He found that essentially there are indeed ways to almost measure, or at least observe, trauma as a physical manifestation in the body, how it happens, and how to treat it. This is only part of that explanation, and also in my own words. And I want to be explicitly clear that I am not a mental health professional nor a Somatic Experiencing practitioner. These are my thoughts as a patient; reference material will be listed at the end of the post.

I had a bone marrow biopsy today. Surprisingly, I was fully numbed up with fentanyl so that there was literally no pain, only a feeling of pressure, but Somatic Experiencing says that pain is not the only thing that matters.

The idea is that, despite me being numbed the hell up so that it only feels like someone is pressing against me firmly, everything about the Doctors intruding into my body and removing a part of it was actually still felt and experienced. Not by Jonny, but by Jonny's Body. So what would a body do if the ghost in the shell (Jonny) wasn't on the helm disconnected while it's being sliced open? It would flip the fuck out. And it does.

Gotta talk about the brain for a few sentences. Not to get too into it, but every message you receive from your nerves first passes through the brain stem, then up through the lower level, then continuing up until it finally registers in the Jonny part. It literally physically travels through these parts of the brain and is processed by each one along the way. The last stop, the Jonny stop, is the part that has critical thinking and problem solving. But every second counts in survival so those lower parts of the brain also try to detect danger and react, albeit in a less sophisticated way, even before it ever reaches Jonny to save those precious few seconds. It's why sometimes you can find yourself jumping back (or for some, throwing a fist) before even realizing it when you're startled.

SE posits that this extends to other parts of the body further down the line as well. That tissues or organs themselves do very very basic processing and "remember" dangerous input to try to react as quickly as possible to threats, based on past experiences. It's optimization, and it's also how trauma is literally stored in parts of the body. We are pattern recognition algorithms and we have become damn good at it.

So while Jonny is off in la la land thinking about how the Doctor said that they're making another season of Dexter, my body below the brain stem is going "WHAT THE FUCK, WE'RE UNDER ATTACK" but can do absolutely nothing about it. And Jonny is clueless, because they're on mute.

Think of the trauma stored in my hip as a spring and it gets wound tighter and tighter when it feels (correctly!) that it's under attack, because it is anticipating having to jump suddenly to defend the body. But because I was sedated, the threat never came. Or really rather, it never left. But the spring is still wound. The tension is still there. And it cannot just go away just like a spring can't suddenly be unwound without some sort of BOIOIOIOING. This is the nature of trauma in the human body. It is literally your body reexperiencing a past traumatic event, stored in the body, over and over and over to try to rid you of the threat that no longer exists. Believe it or not, nature has examples of this working and working splendidly. Humans, however, don't understand it logically, and so we interfere. Like numbing the body.

The way to resolve this is to unwind the spring. Release the energy. There's other therapies that focus on that that are equally fascinating that I can talk about if anyone is interested, though I'm less knowledgeable on them.

But for SE, this is where the "Experiencing" part comes in. His approach to unwinding the spring is to do it Somatically -meaning physically moving- and Experiencing -meaning.......reexperiencing the event. Mentally and physically putting yourself in such a way that you relive it, but in a safe way, and that's the crucial part. Otherwise it's just reliving the trauma without unwinding the spring at all, and the process repeats.

I was afraid of the pain that may come while lying there, but it never came. My hands were still trembling for an hour afterwards, and the usual response is "it's just nerves". But is it? Is it really? What does "just nerves" really mean in the body? It means trauma. Trauma is a medical entity.

This trembling, this was my body trying to release the trauma. "AUGH.....THE THREAT IS GONE.....BUT THE SPRING IS WOUND?......THE THREAT MUST STILL BE HERE! FIGHT! FLEE! FREEZE!" We don't see it that way because we see it as a bad thing. A thing we want to stop. SE says no, let it happen. ENCOURAGE it to happen.

Here's the text my therapist, who is a certified SE Practitioner, sent me today when I asked how to process it somatically:

Think about the procedure and allow your body to do any of the movements that it feels like it needs to make. Allow the shaking cause that's your body's way of releasing the stress from the procedure. Slow breaths out for as long as you can will slow your heart rate. You might also try walking around, cause your body might want to run away, if you can. If you have to stay in the room, remind yourself that you're safe right now and they aren't going to hurt you again today.

So what did I do? I lay in bed and shook around like a mariachi shaker looking like an insane person. It looked crazy, and to my mom, it looked bad. In essence I loosened control over the willful control I had over my body and let it do its thing. For me, this was shaking and twitching, sometimes tensing arms or legs very hard for a few seconds. This went on for at least half an hour. Yeah, we really don't do this as a society, right?

Because I've basically been practicing for this moment for years, I was aware of other ways that my body was still in "fight or flight" mode. Which it was. Because the threat was still there. Not the threat had been there, the threat was there in the room at that moment, and Jonny had to help Jonny's Body calm down, similar to how you try to help calm down a frightened dog. For me it was further Somatics, getting up and moving around (my body being allowed to "flee"), being mindful of my breathing (deep belly breaths == we are safe, we are not running away), and even just using my voice (believe it or not, the vibrations of the throat give a sense of agency to the body. That's why I sing even when I don't feel like it when I'm feeling triggered.)

After all of this, I was more or less back to the same me before the procedure. Of course you're thinking, but Jonny, if you had not done that stuff, you still would have returned to your normal self eventually. Yes and no. Yes, it would seem to me and everyone around me that I would, and because the danger wasn't actually still in the room, the spring would be stored away, so I feel normal! But it's still there, and it will come up later. Over and over. And if there are similar traumatic events -called triggers- it can get even more and more wound.

With what I did today -shaking, twitching, tensing, walking, talking- the idea is that even though the result seems the same, the spring was slowly and carefully unwound. It's not stuck in my body anymore. It's not going to come back out anymore. My body knows that the danger is in the past.

A closing note

One last thing that's extremely crucial for everyone knew to SE to know. SE is fantastic with resolving unresolved trauma from the distance past but DO. NOT. TRY. THIS. AT. HOME.

There's a reason that there are certified SE Practitioners. (a) they know more than I do, which is why I still texted my therapist. And more importantly, (b) this is a super simplified version of unwinding the spring. In reality, reliving the trauma is TERRIFYING and it's nearly impossible to do it alone without getting spun off into just being triggered. It WILL harm more than help. I had to deal with MASSIVE dissociation for over a year, and I had to have a therapist who was sitting across me not dissociating to guide me through it.

But I cannot stress this enough. This is not a DIY. This is serious professional medical practice. Seek a professional. The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute has a directory of licensed practitioners you can search.

Primary References

My absolute fav

The Trauma Spectrum by Robert C Scaer

This book literally changed my life by helping me understand my body and what was actually going on. It was only then I started to make real progress on the symptoms of (what I came to be diagnosed with as) cPTSD. It's why I use butterflies to symbolize overcoming trauma, because of the cover. It does two things very well:

  1. It's a great introduction to SE
  2. It explains how trauma is not an on/off switch. It's not "PTSD or no PTSD". It's a very broad spectrum. This is a notion we as a society desperately need to accept and further look into if we're ever to help our traumatized people (which is a LOT more than we think)

If it looks intimidating, Scaer has a much shorter book that's good in its own right, linked below.

Where it started

In an Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine This is Levine's first book on SE. I read Scaer first over and over so I'll forever be biased, but of course this is Levine who actually created SE so it's def worth reading.

A short primer

8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance by Robert C Scaer

Basically a very short summary of SE, but put in a way that's meant to be less scary (hence avoiding the heavy term "Somatic Experiencing" in the title). If you don't want to read a whole tome, read this.


The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. van der folk.

I haven't read this book but I want to, and turns out I even friggin own it. But I've heard it's great.