Everything you need to know about Somatic Experiencing®, the trauma-focused therapy endorsed by Dr. Gabor Maté
We’ve recently talked about the best-selling “The Body Keeps the Score” by psychiatrist, author, researcher and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, in our recent article about EMDR, but today, we’re going to look at it from a slightly different angle.
In van der Kolk’s book, known as the Trauma Bible, he also broaches the subject of Somatic Experiencing®, a fascinating and extremely effective healing modality used to release the hold that trauma has on us and our everyday lives. Somatic Experiencing® has also been endorsed by celebrated Canadian physician, author, and subject of the film “The Wisdom of Trauma,” Dr. Gabor Maté, who recommends Somatic Experiencing® (alongside, for example, EMDR) as a trauma-healing modality.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about Somatic Experiencing® and how it can help you heal from different types of traumatic events.
What is Somatic Experiencing®?
Somatic Experiencing® is a resiliency-focused trauma treatment modality, and a powerful tool that helps address nervous system dysregulation and its impact on both our physical and mental health.
The practice derives its name from the Ancient Greek “σῶμα,” pronounced soma, meaning the body of life, or the body living in its wholeness. In other words, somatic literally means “affecting the body,” which is befitting, as Somatic Experiencing® is a leading-edge type of therapy that focuses on natural bodily responses instead of just the thoughts and emotions that may have stemmed from a traumatic event.
The approach was developed by trauma therapist Dr. Peter Levine Ph.D, who believes that “trauma is a fact of life, (but it) does not have to be a life sentence,” over the course of fifty years. Following his observations of how animals retained some type of fight-or-flight response long after a traumatic event like a predator attack was over, Dr. Levine devised a method for successfully helping patients release any stress energy they may be holding on to, and in turn, experience relief from PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms.
The science behind Somatic Experiencing®: how the body stores and is impacted by trauma
As J. Scott Janssenwrites, Somatic Experiencing® is “based on the assumption that trauma is an experience that affects and imprints the body, so it's essential to engage the body in the healing process.”
In the same article from the September/October 2015 Issue of Social Work Today, Janssen quotes Susan Pease Banitt, author of “The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD from the Inside Out” saying the following on the relationship between trauma and PTSD: "If social workers are not asking their clients about their bodies, they are missing out on reams of information. Neuroscience shows us that PTSD affects many systems of the brain and body directly: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which governs the endocrine system; the entire nervous system; the circulatory system; and others."
It’s common for trauma victims to dissociate or feel disconnected from their bodies, and as such, a bodily-centric approach to releasing the trauma and healing from its symptoms can be extremely effective
Traumatic events of any type can leave either a transitory or lasting impact, and sufferers can be so negatively affected as to get stuck in permanent stress responses like fight-or-flight or freezing. Somatic Experiencing® offers a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to processing and healing trauma through bodily interventions that follow the SIBAM framework: Sensation, Imagery, Behaviour, Affect, and Meaning.
Sensation: notice what bodily sensations you are currently experiencing
Imagery: let the practitioner guide you through interactive or guided scenes
Behaviour: allow the practitioner to observe your natural responses
Affect: notice how you are used to displaying feelings and emotions
Meaning: reflect on the therapy and its effects
The benefits of Somatic Experiencing®
Empirical research has backed it up as effective in the treatment of depression, PTSD symptoms, chronic pain, veteran trauma, fear of movement, and post-disaster symptoms in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and tsunamis in India and Thailand.
In one particular study, “ 90% of the 150 participants in one study reported either no symptoms or a reduction in symptoms at an eight-month follow-up interval following a single 75-minute session.”
Somatic Experiencing® has also been found particularly effective in the treatment of toddler trauma and attachment issues, including in monozygotic twin studies, as well as in treating dissociation and brainspotting. Some studies have found that the practice was successful in treating women suffering from spousal abuse and in helping prison communities ––Somatic Experiencing® is mostly known for treating PTSD, sure, but that is not all it is good for!
How to know if Somatic Experiencing® is for you
We recommend starting to familiarise yourself with Dr. Levine’s work, so you can decide if you’d like to pursue an interest in Somatic Experiencing® therapy. Dr. Levine is the author of several best-selling books on trauma, including “Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma;” “In an Unspoken Voice, How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness;” and “Trauma and Memory, Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past” among many others.
You can find a complete directory of Somatic Experiencing® practitioners accredited by Dr. Peter Levine and his organisation, who provide training in this particular type of therapy, on the Somatic Experiencing International site. Here is a complete list of UK-based therapists trained in Somatic Experiencing® with Dr. Levine.
If you’ve been struggling to process a traumatic event of any kind, no matter its scale or gravity, we hope this deep-dive into the many benefits of Somatic Experiencing® has been helpful in guiding you towards the next possible step in your healing journey. Explore the list of therapists above and schedule a consultation to learn more about the Somatic Experiencing® method ––happy healing!