What Is Somatic Experiencing and Who Can Benefit From It?

Somatic experiencing is a therapeutic technique most often utilized for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other issues related to trauma. This approach was developed by Peter Levine and involves using physical activities to deal with mental pain. One of the key concepts driving somatic experiencing is that those who suffer from trauma store large amounts of unused energy within themselves. When we do not process our trauma properly, the energy from our body’s threat response system remains stored inside of us. Somatic experiencing helps a person “discharge” this excess energy to heal from their trauma. The excess of energy can cause a person to be overly reactive, hypervigilant, on-guard, or detached from the present. If your child has experienced trauma in the past, somatic experiencing techniques can be incorporated into their treatment.  

The Flight or Fight Response

When faced with a threat, humans—and most animals—respond with a survival technique known as the “flight or fight” response. We get a burst of energy that we can use to either run from the threat or combat the threat. “Flight” can be any means of escaping or avoiding the danger, like running away or hiding. “Fighting” could be screaming, yelling, throwing objects, or attacking in self-defense. When a person “freezes” in response to a threat, the “flight or fight” energy builds up in their body and is not properly “discharged.” This energy remains stored in the body, causing disruptions to the person’s life in the form of trauma symptoms, such as:

  • Being hypervigilant or “jumpy”
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling anxious or depressed
  • Being irritable or having sudden shifts in mood
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling troubled or unhappy
  • Experiencing flashbacks

“Bottom-Up” Approaches to Treatment

Some treatment approaches for mental health issues like trauma can use a “bottom-up” approach. “Bottom-up” means that treatment works from the body to help the mind, rather than talking about or reliving the traumatic experience. In somatic experiencing, the focus is on discharging the excess energy through physical activities in a “bottom-up” approach to treatment. Your kid might do activities that can range from calming exercises to complex physical movements. Some somatic experiencing techniques have incorporated mazes to get a person moving as they encounter challenges along the way. The maze acts like a metaphor for the person’s life and the obstacles they face along the way.

Overall, somatic experiencing is an approach that starts with the body to work inward to heal the mind. When encountering a threat, several parts of our minds are activated. These components involve our basic survival instincts and not our higher-order brain functions. These responses are reactive, and when we are unable to act accordingly, we store the energy inside us. We can release this energy or “calm” the energy by some of the following techniques:

  • Grounding techniques
    • Grounding techniques encourage us to return to the “here and now.”
    • We can use our senses to ground us to reality when we’re experiencing a disconnect or anxiety.
    • Pay mindful attention to immediate surroundings, sensations, and internal feelings.
    • Use the five senses to remain grounded: what do you feel, see, hear, taste, or smell?
  • Calming exercises
    • Deep breathing and meditation can help us calm our excessive energy when feeling upset.
    • Self-massaging can help keep calm a person when they are feeling triggered or getting overly anxious.

The Impact on the Present

Trauma can cause a person to feel out of touch with the present moment. The traumatic experience creates a heightened sense of arousal that makes a highly reactive nervous system. The primary motivation revolves around escape and avoidance. People with trauma may feel detached from the current moment and need to relearn how to be calm in the present. Somatic experiencing teaches people how to be comfortable in the present. Their minds are operating as if there is a threat coming along at any moment. They might be continuously worried that something terrible will happen again without warning and they must be ready. When your kid experiences trauma, they may be overly defensive, on-guard, or detached from their surroundings.

Trauma can profoundly impact your child’s quality of life and ability to cope with stress. They might have difficulty concentrating and suffer in school. Your child might use substances, like drugs or alcohol, to decrease their heightened state of arousal. They may also engage in self-injurious behaviors, like cutting, as a maladaptive grounding technique to return to the present. Somatic experiencing can teach healthy ways to manage the physical symptoms of trauma to begin the healing process.

When our kids suffer from trauma, they might have developed a highly reactive nervous system due to excessive energies built up during the traumatic event. This excess energy needs to be “discharged” from the body to heal from the traumatic experience and retrain the nervous system to remain calm in the present moment. Your child can incorporate somatic experiencing techniques in their treatment to work on their trauma from the “bottom-up.” Treating trauma with only talk-therapy does not address the impact on the physical body. Trauma exists within the entire body. By relearning how to remain calm and collected in life, your child can regain control over their heightened state of arousal due to trauma. If your child struggles due to trauma and has difficulty with school and socializing, help is available to you. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Centers can help you and your child. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.

Leave a Reply