Counsellor's Corner: The Somatic Experiencing Approach in Counselling

The Somatic Experiencing Approach in Counselling

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a naturalistic approach, and is one of the approaches that can be used in counselling to help people resolve and heal from trauma. It was developed by Dr. Peter Levine and is supported by research. Somatic means “of, or relating to the body” and Experiencing means “to encounter or undergo; to be affected by what one meets with”. So it is an approach that helps a person encounter or pay attention to the experience of the body to create healing.

Ever wonder how wild prey animals can be chased by a Tiger or a Lion, barely escaping with their life, and then get up, literally shake it off and carry on with their day? SE is based on the observation that wild prey animals, though threatened routinely, are rarely traumatized. Animals in the wild utilize innate mechanisms to regulate and discharge the high levels of arousal energy related to defensive survival behaviours. These mechanisms provide animals with a built-in “immunity” to trauma that enables them to return to normal in the aftermath of highly “charged” life-threatening experiences.

SE is a holistic approach to dealing with trauma that brings the body’s experience into awareness, while also paying attention to thoughts, emotions, images, behaviour. You might relate to going for a job interview and be aware of your mind racing with worried thoughts, then feeling butterflies in your stomach or having your throat get tight or dry when you try to talk. Or think of the last time you experienced a loss of some kind and you may have felt a heaviness come over you. These are ways that our body holds energy from different types of difficult experiences we go through in life. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. What is distressing or disturbing is different for everyone and can include things like care accidents, loss of any kind, falls, surviving abuse as a child, being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Here are some key points about using Somatic Experiencing in counselling:

• SE employs awareness of body sensation to help people “renegotiate” and heal rather than relive or re-enact trauma.

• SE’s guidance of the bodily “felt sense” allows the high survival energies to be safely experienced and gradually discharged.

• SE experience breaks down the release of trauma energy into small, incremental steps, rather than allowing large overwhelming flooding.

• SE has a number of benefits such as relief of traumatic stress symptoms, increased resiliency and increased regulation.

If you would like to learn more Somatic Experiencing here are some helpful books:

Levine, P (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Kline, M. and Levine, P. (2007). Trauma through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Levine, P. and Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma – The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Online Information about Somatic Experiencing:

Colleen Barss, MSW RSW