Somatic Experiencing™ explained

How SE™ Gets to the Root

Peter Levine developed SE™ by observing how wild prey animals are constantly exposed to threat but rarely show symptoms of trauma. But why? When a prey animal identifies a threat, their nervous system creates energy for a defensive response: either fight, flight or freeze (aka play dead). Once the prey animal experiences safety again, they discharge the survival energy by gently shaking or trembling. Humans have the same primal mechanism and desire for completion, but our rational brain often overrides the impulse for this kind of somatic release. If the energy does not discharge and the wave does not complete, the charge of energy becomes trapped in our system and the body believes we are still under threat. Thus, trauma symptoms begin.

 “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ‘triggering’ event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits.” ~ Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger

What kinds of events can cause trauma symptoms?

Often, people think of traumatic events as horrific, extra-ordinary events. And of course, trauma symptoms can result from “big T traumas” like car accidents, falls, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, war, discrimination, systemic oppression, natural disasters, or even medical procedures. Symptoms can also occur from witnessing someone else experience one of these.

There are also “little t traumas,” which refer to events that aren’t violent or life-threatening but can still cause distress or chronic overwhelm. Examples include losing a job, breaking up with someone, or being shamed by a social group.

Trauma can also be caused by stressors of ongoing conflict, chronic shaming, or cultural norms (ie. individualism). When stressors are ongoing or multiple stressors occur simultaneously, we can experience complex trauma.

Then there is ancestral or generational trauma that can be passed down epigenetically and energetically/spiritually. There is also birth trauma and developmental trauma (0-5 years old).

Ultimately, trauma symptoms can arise from anything that was “too much, too fast, too soon.” Or anything that created a sense of overwhelming helplessness.

Regardless of what event or events may have led to the symptoms that are keeping you stuck, SE™ taps into the body’s innate knowledge about what hasn’t been able to release and complete.

What does an SE™ session entail?

During sessions we begin with “resourcing”, which is the practice of inviting your mind and body to connect with something that brings a sense of “okayness” and safety. Doing so supports your capacity to contain uncomfortable sensations without getting overwhelmed. It also teaches your system that it can return to a state of calm.

We work with the “felt sense”—the “medium through which we experience the fullness of sensation and knowledge about ourselves” (Waking the Tiger). I guide you to become aware of and track your bodily sensations and impulses so you can allow the thwarted survival energy to release (via a spontaneous deep breath, gentle trembling, slowly pushing the space in front of you away, etc.). This process gives way to the waves of your nervous system settling and finding completion.

We “orient,” meaning we look around our environment. Orienting is a natural behavior and there are two kinds: defensive orienting, in which we scan for a potential threat; and exploratory orienting, in which we take in the world around us through our senses, experiencing pleasure and regulating the nervous system. In a session, we play with exploratory orienting.

We “pendulate” between difficult bodily sensations (or emotions) and pleasant ones. We can also pendulate between our inner experience and our exterior environment, including social connection. We do this to develop confidence in our system to move between alertness/action and settling/rest. Pendulation is the natural process of expansion and contraction. When we do move between opposite states like this, we restore the nervous system to a state of self-regulation and flow.

We also “titrate”, meaning we work with small pieces at a time so that you don’t re-overwhelm your system. If you’re sharing a story, I’ll often pause you and invite you to notice what’s happening in your body. By slowing down and inviting your awareness to current sensation, your nervous system will often carry out the completion of protective responses that it wasn’t able to do before. The process can be subtle and may take time.

Videos to Watch

I highly recommend listening to the whole series of short videos by Rachel English, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. You can access them here.

Books for More Learning

If you’re able, support your local independent book store or if you like audiobooks, look into

Contact me:

Emma Schurink

Searsmont, ME

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