Somatic Experiencing for Trauma by Dr Robb Kelly
Somatic Experiencing was originally developed back in the 1970s by Peter A Levene, PhD and is a body-centred therapeutic approach used to help free people from their trauma.
The word ‘trauma’ is frequently used in mental health circles these days. Yet different peoples idea’s of what trauma actually is can vary wildly.
When we look at trauma in its most basic definition, it is a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. As humans, when we experience trauma, we store it deep down within ourselves. It affects us emotionally, physically and spiritually.
There are a few broad examples that easily fit this basic definition, such as experiencing sexual abuse, physical abuse or surviving a war or near-death experience. These are common causes of trauma.
Lesser talked about is the causes of trauma that involve family dysfunction, critical parenting, emotional abandonment and bullying. Simply put, the human brain cannot differentiate between a war at home or a war in Afghanistan. Trauma is not so much about the event, but our brain’s response to the event. It can be anything that disrupts our sense of safety and security. This in turn can disrupt the normal functioning of the nervous system.
The effects of trauma
Trauma results in emotional dysfunction which interferes with the normal processing of thoughts, feelings and experiences. As a result, the body can continue to react as if it is still under threat, well after the traumatic experience has ended.
As a way of living with trauma, a person can turn to all sorts of unhealthy coping mechanisms just to find some relief. This of course can include drugs and alcohol, but also extends to unhealthy addictive behaviours such as sex and gambling, for instance.
Being stuck in a ‘fight or flight mode’ affects a person on every level imaginable. They can experience physical symptoms as well as emotional. Anything that remotely relates to the traumatic event or events can act as a trigger, even though there is no real threat.
Somatic experiencing is a naturalistic treatment that provides the opportunity for a person to fully process a traumatic event. This is important, as unresolved trauma is never fully processed due to the body and brain adopting the fight or flight mode.
By addressing the trauma through the application of somatic experiencing, the person can be freed from this ‘stuck’ state.
What is somatic experiencing?
Unprocessed trauma can result in many negative and distressing symptoms. Symptoms such as hyper vigilance, aggression, shame, guilt and anxiety. These symptoms all result from denying the body the opportunity to fully process and heal from the traumatic event.
Somatic experiencing therapy helps a person to tune in to their underlying physical sensations.
How often do we experience a ‘gut feeling’ that we cannot explain? Or feel a tightness in our chest when recalling an unpleasant experience? Well, this is our body communicating with us. However, all too often we can ignore what our body is trying to tell us.
Dr Levene Phd, developed the somatic experiencing approach after observing how wild animals deal with a traumatic event. If a deer gets clipped by a passing car and doesn't die, it may stay down for a few minutes. Following this, its instinct is to rise on all fours and shake itself violently for a few seconds. Providing it isn't too badly physically injured, it then goes about its day.
When the deer shakes itself violently, it is in essence, releasing the trauma of being hit by a car.
Humans, on the other hand, don’t do this. Instead, we store our emotional and physical pain within us, sometimes, for weeks, months and even years. All this physical pain and pent up emotion distorts our thought patterns and impact our central nervous system. This can lead to self-medicating in an attempt to escape or numb the painful emotions.
Self-medicating painful emotions is a self-defeating behaviour. Whilst self-medicating, we are not learning how to process thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. For some people, this can result in developing a deadly addiction.
Applying somatic experiencing to trauma
A somatic experiencing therapist can use any number of mind-body exercises to guide a patient to focus on their underlying physical sensations. This is so that the patient can really learn to listen to what their body is telling them, giving them the ability to unfreeze themselves from being stuck in fight or flight.
A somatic experiencing therapist may use some well known therapeutic techniques that connect the mind and the body, including breath work, visualisation, grounding techniques and so forth, with the focus on developing sensation awareness.
Speaking from my personal experience …
Before achieving my sobriety, I was a hopeless, chronic alcoholic. It wasn't until my mid 40’s that I grasped the connection between trauma and my own alcohol addiction. Even with my advanced training in psychology, I couldn't quite see the connection.
I was aware that things from my past bothered me, but I found it easier to just not talk about them or dwell on them. Trauma, however, isn’t so easy to avoid. Trauma leads to fear-based thinking, which is just as toxic as drugs and alcohol to our bodies and minds.
I came to understand that I suffered from PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder. My disordered and negative thinking, intrusive thoughts and memories, and my exaggerated response to being startled - all left me feeling like I had no control. I was in a constant state of fight or flight, due to my subconscious brain being highly activated.
For me, trauma therapy was a turning point. A point where I regained control over my constant internal battle. I learned to ‘experience’ the unwanted thoughts and emotions, even the most painful ones. In doing so I was able to regain control of my emotional state.
The link between trauma and substance use disorders
Not everyone who suffers a trauma will experience debilitating effects, but I have yet to meet someone with a substance use disorder who doesn’t have trauma.
In addiction recovery, it’s paramount that underlying trauma is unearthed and processed. I call it “returning to the scene of the crime.” I have used somatic experiencing therapy in my own recovery and in my practice with my own patients. I’ve found it to be an effective extended therapeutic tool. One that can help people struggling with the symptoms of trauma to free themselves from the burden.
Author - Dr Robb Kelly, PhD
Robb Kelly leads the Recovery Group, which provides an array of life-coaching services for addiction recovery and mental wellness.