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What is SE (Somatic Experiencing)and how does it help?

What is SE?

Somatic Experiencing is a trauma/stress resolution technique developed by Dr. Peter Levine. Somatic means "relating to the body, especially as distinct from the mind." By experiencing the body in a certain manner in relation to traumatic or stressful events and working with the nervous system, the negative impacts of these events can be mitigated and resolved. 

What is trauma?

Trauma might be the most misunderstood word in the human language. Usually when people hear this word, they think of really horrible things - abuse, war, or physical assault, for instance - that may not apply to them. In reality, we have all experienced trauma on some level. To add to the seeming mystery, 10 people who experience the same event won't all be traumatized; some will, and some won't. 


Trauma simply means that someone has experienced an overwhelming event - something that happened too fast, too soon, or too much for their body to be able to process in the moment. Essentially, trauma is survival energy generated by the nervous system (think fight or flight) that did not get dispelled in the moment. It can happen as a result of a relatively big, shocking incident (car accidents, assault, natural disaster, witnessing a death, etc) or many small incidents, what some would call "death by a thousand paper cuts" (a baby that is ignored each time it cries, the micro-aggressions BIPOC folks experience on a daily basis, a partner with unpredictable outbursts, etc). Regardless of the type of trauma, SE can help.

What are the symptoms of trauma? 

The symptoms of trauma are many, and typically don't materialize until weeks or months later. Additionally, being a nervous system phenomenon, trauma is stored in our bodies and symptoms might not appear until the system has reached a critical capacity. Someone with a history of multiple traumas over the years may be ok and then experience what seems to be a relatively minor trauma that suddenly tips the balance and, bewilderingly enough, symptoms appear - the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Symptoms of trauma vary from person to person, but can include some of the below:

  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks

  • No longer wanting to do any activity that acts as a reminder of the traumatic incident

  • Flashbacks and/or nightmares and night terrors

  • Chronic pain

  • Syndromes (IBS and Fibromyalgia, for instance)

  • Tension

  • Hyperarousal and/or hypervigilance

  • Dissociation

  • Feeling helpless

  • Exaggerated emotional and startle responses

  • Mood swings

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Feeling stressed out more easily or frequently

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Depression

  • Psychosomatic illnesses (they seem to have no known cause that can be addressed)

  • Disconnection from family and friends


This is a short, and by no means exhaustive, list. Additionally, just because you experience one or more of the above doesn't automatically mean it's related to trauma. Lastly, I'll say that the word "trauma" has been highly stigmatized. In living with trauma, there is nothing wrong with us. On the contrary, our body is doing exactly what it was meant to do - we just have some unfinished business to attend to. It doesn't mean we are "weak" or have a mental problem - our autonomic nervous system is simply needing a little rebalancing. In other words, it's something our nervous systems do automatically that no amount of rational thought will be able to overcome. It's a body problem, not a mind problem. Therefore, you can't fix it with the mind. This is where SE comes in.

How does SE help?

To answer this question, I'll ask you to humor me for a moment as I get into the nerdy science of it. And perhaps that's one of my favorite aspects of SE - it is completely scientific, with observable symptoms, and observable outcomes. Some of the interventions I use with my clients might seem a little weird, but we make it fun and they are based in science. The relief they bring? Pleasantly surprising.  

When our senses interpret a perceived or real threat, the nervous system responds by initiating the threat-response cycle. It mobilizes an immense amount of energy for a fight or flight response (freeze responses happen too, but that gets a bit more complicated for our purposes here). We use this energy to eliminate or escape the threat. When the threat is gone, our bodies dispel any excess energy that remains. If the body is unable to use this energy or discharge it, it remains locked in the body and unable to complete the threat-response cycle. This energy lurks in our bodies, which want to complete the cycle and will look for the next opportunity to do so. For instance, if you were involved in a car accident with a red car, the next time you see a red car or approach the intersection where it happened, your body might mobilize that energy again.

In the work of SE, a practitioner will work with a client by watching for activation in the nervous system (which indicates we've found that stored energy) and gently guiding the client through it's safe and titrated release. SE sessions do not look like traditional trauma treatment models that ask the client to talk at length about the incident (aka exposure therapy). In fact, true SE sessions include very little talking by the client and a lot of time to allow for the body to complete the interrupted cycle, with both client and practitioner tracking what is happening in the body as it works out this energy. Some clients choose to share a lot of details about the incident, and some wish to share very few - either way, SE is very effective. 

What results can I expect?

Trauma can suck vitality from our lives and leave us feeling as though we are going through the motions of life, a shell of our former selves. While we cannot wipe painful events from our memories, we can mitigate their impact on our everyday activities, bringing joy, health, and vitality back into our daily life. I know what it feels like to experience some sort of incident that left me unable to participate in the activities that had previously brought me so much satisfaction, fun, and connection; that took me out to places in the world few others venture, bringing serenity and a sense of wildness that feed my soul. Through SE, I found that it doesn't have to be that way.  

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