Therapy for Psychological Trauma/Somatic Experiencing
“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” – Peter Levine
Have you gone through something highly stressful, overwhelming, or traumatic? Do you experience physical or emotional discomfort, or even pain, in reaction to certain situations? For instance, do you get a stomach ache after a confrontation, or does your chest tighten before you visit certain family members? Do you feel panicked when you are expected to perform or do you feel angry when your partner asks for your attention?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are not alone!
When we consistently have an uncomfortable or painful reaction to certain situations, our body is sending our mind a signal. If we have experienced trauma and it is left unresolved, it can oftentimes show up as physical or emotional challenges in the present day. Oftentimes the physical symptoms of trauma go undetected, as people go from doctor to doctor trying to identify it’s cause and find a solution. If any of this sounds familiar, you’ve come to the right place!
If you are ready to feel better, let me introduce you to a new approach to therapy that may be just the right fit for you.
My name is Rebecca Horner, LCSW, and I’m excited to offer Somatic Experiencing (SE) Therapy to my clients here in Charlotte, North Carolina. SE is a specialized form of psychotherapy that not all therapists are trained to provide. It focuses on the physical, biological experiences of your psyche, allowing you a chance to understand yourself and heal old wounds on a much deeper level than traditional talk therapy.
If you are ready and interested in getting started, contact me today! Read on to learn about SE and how it can help.
How can SE help me?
SE is all about helping your nervous system relearn how to regulate.
During SE therapy, your body re-gains the capacity to self-regulate, which restores its sense of safety and balance. In turn, stress hormones lower and the body can produce more “feel good” hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin. Your body and mind feel capable and ready to live life fully in the present, leaving the past where it belongs.
No matter what symptoms you are experiencing, SE can help you reach a restored sense of peace, mental functioning, and wellness. This can include stress reduction, resolved sleep issues, decreased physical pain and discomfort, and mood stabilization.
What is Somatic Experiencing?
SE is an alternative form of psychotherapy designed to help people recover after a traumatic event or string of events by focusing in on your physiological experiences – both in real time as well as while talking about the past.
“Trauma” in SE refers to any experience that was too much, too soon, or too fast for your nervous system to handle, especially if there was never a successful resolution. This means that what is and is not “traumatic” sometimes depends on how you were impacted by an event, not the event itself. There are certain things that are inherently traumatic, such as sexual abuse, active combat, and interpersonal violence.
There are other things that have the potential to be traumatic and in some circumstances definitely are. Some examples are car accidents, falls, infidelity in a relationship, repetitive relational patterns that occur in families where substance abuse and/or mental illness is present, medical procedures, or the death of a loved one. Trauma is truly anything that happened that was too much, too soon, or too fast for your nervous system to handle. Many people do not know that some of their life experiences would be considered traumatic, or that their past unresolved trauma may be the source of their current problems.
SE clinicians believe that the physical and emotional consequences of trauma, such as remembering the experience over and over (flashbacks), disturbed sleep, gastro-intestinal problems, back pain, or overwhelming fear, are the result of disruptions in the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS is responsible for regulating automatic body functions such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing. It is also home to our body’s built-in “fight or flight” survival response to trauma. Disruption occurs when trauma happens and the ANS, for one reason or another, doesn’t, can’t, or isn’t allowed to enact and complete the innate and necessary “fight or flight” survival response.
SE addresses these disruptions by offering a more comprehensive, body-based processing experience, which is why it works incredibly well for treating issues such as:
- Posttraumatic stress (and PTSD)
- Chronic stress
- Low self-worth
- Performance anxiety
- Difficulty in relationships
- Chronic feelings of loneliness/feeling “different” than everyone else
- Difficulty changing behavior/chronic feelings of confusion about own behavior, regularly asking yourself “Why do I keep doing this?….”
What does an SE session look like?
Somatic Experiencing is different than traditional “talk therapy.” It is a body-based, “bottom up approach” to the healing process. This means that instead of only exploring your mind’s experience of a traumatic event (through re-telling the event and then talking about it), we intentionally and carefully explore your body’s experience as well. In a typical SE session the therapist will greet you warmly, make appropriate conversation, and then discuss your concerns. You and the therapist take time to “settle in” to the room together and identify what you’d like to focus on that day.
With your expressed permission and consent, the SE therapist will gently guide you in examining your body’s experience while you recall what is bothering you—whether it is a bothersome physical symptom in the present or a disturbing memory from the past. This sometimes involves the suggestion to close your eyes and notice the sensations occurring in your body at that moment.
For instance, an SE therapist may say things like “As you tell me this story, what is happening in your body?” “Can you describe what you are noticing?” SE therapists spend time asking these questions and carefully paying attention to your answers for very good reason. Paying attention to and naming your body’s experience is a powerful entry point to healing.
As you notice you inner experience, with the guidance of a skilled SE therapist, you are efficiently led to useful information, insights about your true and authentic feelings, and clear opportunities for solutions. This is the “magic” of SE. The SE therapist stays fully present with you throughout this exploration process and ensures it is done in a titrated, safe and respectful way. The SE therapist sets the stage for your insight and healing and then allows it to naturally unfold.
I’ve seen SE help so many people, and I believe it can work for you.
How does SE work?
As Bessel van der Kolk shares in his book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, traumatic memories and experiences are held in the body just as much as the brain.
During a traumatic experience your healthy and normal “fight or flight” response was not able (for one reason or another) to fully engage or “complete the cycle.” Challenges or traumatic events therefore get “stuck” in your nervous system and are left unresolved. As a result your body “holds on” to the trauma—evidenced by various kinds of emotional and physical symptoms.
SE provides you with the time, space, and opportunity to notice what is stuck in your nervous system and gives you the skills and tools to resolve it. It is miraculous how once you take the time in a safe space to be curious about your body’s experience—wise and enduring solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems naturally appear, and your body heals itself.
What does therapy look like with Rebecca?
SE is not a “one size fits all” approach. Each SE session I have with clients looks a little different than the last, but the basic foundation of the approach stays the same. It is important to note that I would “check-in” with you throughout an SE session to ensure you fully consent to each step we take, and any questions or concerns you have are adequately addressed. SE is not something I “do to you”—it is something we do together, that can be interrupted or stopped at any time by either of us. In the hopes of clarifying things a little further, I will give you an example of what an SE session with me might look like.
After greeting each other, “settling in,” and choosing our focus for the day, I may suggest that you close your eyes and notice any sensations in your body. Then I may ask if there is a sensation that is particularly pleasant, and one that is particularly bothersome. I would spend time encouraging you to notice and “feel into” the pleasant sensation—where you feel it in your body, what it feels like exactly. For example, some people notice that their feet feel calm and steady on the ground. In the language of SE the calmness in your feet would be called a “resource”—or a part of your body that feels steady and safe. It is important to name a “resource” so that later on in our session, if you ever feel overwhelmed, we can re-visit that calm and steady sensation.
As you think about the topic or issue you chose to address that day, I would most likely ask where you may be feeling some “activation” in your body, or somewhere in your body that feels particularly bothersome. Examples of this may be that your chest feels tight, or your hands feel jittery, or your stomach feels unsteady. After you notice and name areas that feel “activated,” I may gently ask you to “stay with” the challenging sensation.
While you continue to pay attention to the challenging sensation, I would most likely ask a question like “Is this feeling familiar?” “Do you remember the first time you had this sensation?” “Are there any memories or images that arise when you notice this sensation?” “Are you having any feelings while observing this sensation?” This supportive and gentle exploration of what happens in your body and what comes to mind when you pay attention to your body’s experience is the heart of SE. It is the gateway toward healing.
No matter what happens next, I know and am trained in all the tools and techniques necessary to help you “move out” what is stuck, which facilitates the natural healing process. The typical SE nervous system exploration can go in a myriad of directions. It is not uncommon for memories of victimization to arise during this exercise. If an old memory arises in which you were mistreated in some way, I would suggest we take a moment to pause. Then I would most likely provide you with the opportunity to “do something different this time.” More on that later.
I will always ensure throughout any SE session and especially when exploring old memories that you stay fully in the present day. Sometimes this means I will remind you of the date and time, or remind you of your age and point out the safety of the current situation—you are in a contained private room with a trusted professional. It is not helpful, and can actually be harmful, for a client to “re-live” a traumatic moment. The goal is for you to recall a previously traumatic moment and renegotiate it in your current state of safety and control.
The re-negotiation of a memory is the process in which whatever is stuck in nervous system gets moved out. As bits and pieces of a memory or a whole memory rises to the surface I may ask questions like “What needed to happen then?” “What did you want to do at the time but couldn’t?” “As you recall this, what does your body want to do now?” These questions are meant to elicit a healthy and natural fight or flight response activation cycle within you. Most of the time clients instinctively know what to do, and if not I am there to help. In response to my questions you may say “Someone bigger and stronger than me should have been there to protect me” or “I wanted to run back home,” or “My body wants to fight back and…win.”
Whatever idea or creation comes to your mind at that time, together we will allow you the opportunity to experience that same memory differently than before. This time you are in a supportive and safe environment, and this time you will not be harmed, but taken care of. You will not be victimized again, you will be triumphant. Oftentimes as a client creates a different experience in their mind of a previously traumatic event, I will encourage them to slow down and notice what happens in their body as they experience this memory differently. During this process you are giving your nervous system the opportunity to experience a positive resolution to a previously overwhelming experience. In other words, you complete the cycle. To your nervous system, this is truly a healing balm.
Of all the therapeutic tools I have been trained in, SE is the most powerful and impactful. It truly has the capacity to take the “sting” out of any past painful experience—whether it was last week or 10 years ago. Something that you never thought you’d “get over” or be able to see from a neutral point of view suddenly ENDS. The trauma becomes integrated into your life and is now just one other thing that happened in the long history of your life. It no longer has a hold on you. The past is put back in it’s rightful place.
Let’s work together!
Want to learn more about my services? Interested in signing up for your first session? Contact me today to get started – I would love to hear from you.