Somatic experiencing

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Somatic experiencing is a form of alternative therapy aimed at treating trauma and stressor related disorders like PTSD. The primary goal of SE is to modify the trauma-related stress response. To achieve this, its major interventional strategy builds on bottom-up processing. Clients’ attention is directed to internal sensations, (interoception, proprioception and kinaesthesis), rather than to primarily cognitive or emotional experiences. [1] It was developed by trauma therapist Peter A. Levine.[2]

Sessions are normally held in person, and involve a client tracking their physical experiences.[3]: 255–256 Practitioners are often mental health practitioners such as social workers, psychologists, psychotherapists and marriage and family therapists, but may also be nurses, physicians, physical therapists, members of the clergy, massage therapists, Rolfers, craniosacral and polarity therapists, practitioners of the Feldenkrais Method, yoga therapists, first responders, crisis center staff, educators, mediators, members of the clergy, chaplains, coaches, etc.[4][5]

Unlike some of its sister somatic modalities (biodynamic craniosacral therapy, polarity therapy, etc.), somatic experiencing is not listed as an exempt modality from various massage practice acts in the United States,[6] and is not eligible to belong to The Federation of Therapeutic Massage, Bodywork and Somatic Practice Organizations, which was formed to protect the members' right to practice as an independent profession.[7] Members of the Federation each have a professional regulating body with an enforceable code of ethics and standards of practice, continuing education requirements, a process of certifying and ensuring competency and a minimum of 500 hours of training. Somatic experiencing practitioners do not meet any of these criteria unless they are already certified or licensed in another discipline. Given that the model has a growing evidence base "for treating people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)" that "integrates body awareness into the psychotherapeutic process", it is questionable whether or not it can be practiced by any profession that does not include psychotherapy or the treatment of mental disorders within its scope of practice.[8][9] SEI instructs participants that they "are responsible for operating within their professional scope of practice and for abiding by state and federal laws".[10]

Somatic experiencing therapy is used for shock trauma[11] in the short term and developmental trauma[12] as an adjunct to psychotherapy that may span years. Somatic experiencing attempts to promote awareness and release physical tension that remains in the aftermath of trauma.[3]: 43–50[13]: 38–40

Theory and Methods[edit]

Somatic Experiencing is heavily predicated on Wilhelm Reich's theories of blocked emotion and how this emotion is held and released from the body.[14] Many western somatic psychotherapy approaches owe their inspiration to either Reich or Elsa Gindler. Gindlers vision preceded Reich's and greatly influenced him. Gindlers direct link to the United States was Charlotte Selver. Selver taught thousands of Americans her "sensory awareness" method at Esalen Institute, including Peter Levine. Somatic Experiencing, like many of its sister modalities,is beholden to both Gindler and Reich. Each method has its own twist that differentiate it in style "in a manner alike to the different sects of an overarching religion" and even becoming "cult-like" at one time. [15]

One element of Somatic Experiencing therapy is "pendulation",[3]: 255 the natural intrinsic rhythm of the organism between contraction and expansion. The concept, however, and its comparison to single celled organisms, can be traced to Wilhelm Reich, the father of somatic psychotherapy.[16] Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos, both psychiatrists, built upon Reich's foundational theories, developing Bioenergetics, and also compared the rhythm of this life force energy to a pendulum.[17][18]

After reportedly having a "profound" dream Peter Levine believed he had been "assigned" the task "to protect this ancient knowledge from the Celtic Stone Age temples, and the Tibetan tradition, and to bring it to the scientific Western way of looking at things....".[19] Levine also credits a vision in a dream to how he came up with the healing vortex concept originally, despite it being part of his mentors model and originated with Ahsen's bipolarity concept.

Peter Levine indicates that during the 1970's he "developed a model" called SIBAM,[20] which broke down experience into five channels of Sensation, Image, Behavior, Affect and Meaning (or Cognition). SIBAM is considered both a model of experience and a model of dissociation.[21]This claim is not supported, however. Arnold Lazarus, who wrote the first textbook on Cognitive Behavior Therapy, developed Multimodal Therapy in the early 1970's, and unlike Levine, is widely cited for his contributions during that decade. Multimodal Therapy was similar to the SIBAM model in that it broke down experience into Behavior, Affect, Sensation, Image, and Cognition (or Meaning).[22] Lazarus even incorporated Eugene Gendlin's Focusing method into his model as a technique to circumvent cognitive blocks. Incorporation of this "bottom up" "felt sense" method is shared by both SE and Multimodal Therapy.[23] Lazarus, like Levine, was heavily influenced by Akhter Ahsen's "ISM unity" or "eidetic" concept.[24]In 1968 Ahsen explains the ISM this way: "It is a tri-dimensional unity. . . . With this image is attached a characteristic body feeling peculiar to the image, which we call the somatic pattern. With this somatic pattern is attached a third state composed of a constellation of vague and clear meanings, which we call the meaning."[25] It is important to note that sensation, for Ahsen, included affective and physiological states.

Ahsen went on to apply his ISM concept to traumatic experiences which is strikingly similar to Peter Levine's later developed model..[25] In the SIBAM model, like in the ISM model, the separate dimensions of experience in trauma can be "dissociated from one another".[26]

In the Somatic Experiencing method there is the concept of "coupling dynamics" in which the "under-coupled" state, where the traumatic experience exists, not as a unity, but as dissociated elements of the SIBAM. Ashen's description clearly matches this concept. In Ahsen's model there is the "principle of bipolar configurations" in which "every significant eidetic state involves configuration . . . around two opposed nuclei which contend against each other. Every ISM of the negative type has a counter-ISM of the positive type."[27] Levine credits his inspiration for the counter vortex to a dream and not Ahsen.[28] Additionally, treatment of "post traumatic stress through imagery", like SE, "emphasizes exploitation of the somatic aspect over the visual component of Ashen's ISM model because of the strong emotional and physiological components that present themselves frontally in these cases."[29]

SE insists it "is not a form of exposure therapy" in that it "avoids direct and intense evocation of traumatic memories, instead approaching the charged memories indirectly and very gradually".[30] However, one of the very first exposure therapies, systematic desensitization, which was developed by Joseph Wolpe in the 1940s to treat anxiety disorders and phobias, meets this description exactly.[31] Wolpe states that it "consists of exposing the patient, while in a state of emotional calmness, to a small "dose" of something he fears" using imaginal methods that allow the therapist "control precisely the beginning and ending of each presentation".[32] This graduated exposure is similar to the SE concept of "titration". In SE people "gently and incrementally reimagine and experience" and are "slowly working in graduated "doses"".[33] SE uses "Resources", which are defined as anything that helps the client's autonomic nervous system return to a regulated state. This might be the memory of someone close to them, a physical item that might ground them in the present moment, or other supportive elements that minimize distress. Wolpe also relied on relaxation responses alternating with incremental or graduated exposure to anxiety provoking stimuli and this practice was standard within cognitive behavioral protocols long before Somatic Experiencing arrived on the scene as a trademarked approach in 1989.[34]

This is similar to how Gestalt Therapy looked at the trauma in the 1950's "as unfinished business" that included gestures, feelings and images.[35] Standard cognitive behavioral understanding of PTSD and anxiety disorders was grounded in an understanding of fight, flight freeze mechanisms in addition to conscious and unconscious, preprogramed, automatic primal defensive action systems.[36] In the face of arousal, "discharge" is facilitated to allow the client's body to return to a regulated state. Discharge may be in the form of tears, a warm sensation, unconscious movement, the ability to breathe easily again, or other responses which demonstrate the autonomic nervous system returning to its baseline.[37][38] The intention of this process is to reinforce the client's inherent capacity to self-regulate. The charge/discharge concept in Somatic Experiencing has its origins in Reichian therapy and Bioenergetics.[39] Levine's predecessors in the somatic psychotherapy field clearly understood the dynamics of shock trauma and the failure of mobilization of fight or flight impulses in creating symptoms of anxiety neuroses and to maintain a chronic "state of emergency". They also understood that healing involved completion of this "charge" associated with truncated fight or flight impulses.[40][41]

Somatic Experiencing is also predicated on the Polyvagal Theory of human emotion developed by Stephen Porges. Many of the tenets of the Polyvagal theory incorporated in the Somatic Experiencing training are controversial and unproven. The SE therapy concepts such as "dorsal vagal shutdown" with bradycardia that are used to describe "freeze" and collapse states of trauma patients is controversial since it appears the ventral vagal branch, not the dorsal vagal branch, mediates this lowered heart rate and blood pressure state. Neurophysiological studies have shown that the dorsal motor nucleus has little to do with traumatic or psychological related heart rate responses.'>Grossman, Paul (2/1/2007). "Toward understanding respiratory sinus arrhythmia: Relations to cardiac vagal tone, evolution and biobehavioral functions". Biological Psychology. 74 (2): 263–285. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2005.11.014. PMID 17081672. S2CID 16818862. Check date values in: |date= (help)[42]</ref>[43][circular reference]

Somatic Experiencing is used for both shock trauma and developmental trauma. Shock trauma is loosely defined as a single-episode traumatic event such as a car accident, natural disaster such as an earthquake, battlefield incident, physical attack, etc. Developmental trauma refers to various kinds of psychological damage that occur during child development when a child has insufficient or detrimental attention from the primary caregivers.[3]


Two randomized controlled studies of Somatic Experiencing as a treatment for PTSD were published in 2017 .[44][45] One study showed positive results indicating Somatic Experiencing may be an effective therapy method for PTSD and concluded that further research is needed to understand who shall benefit most from this treatment modality. The other study on chronic low back pain and comorbid PTSD showed that an additional brief Somatic Experiencing intervention significantly reduced the number of PTSD symptoms compared with the usual treatment alone, but that the addition of Somatic Experiencing to the treatment regime was no more effective than physiotherapy alone with respect to pain-related disability and distress. A 2020 RCT study by the same author found the additional SE intervention to physical therapy alone "did not result in any additional benefits in any of the outcomes."[46] A 2021 literature review noted that "SE attracts growing interest in clinical application despite the lack of empirical research. Yet, the current evidence base is weak and does not (yet) fully accomplish the high standards for clinical effectiveness research."[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kuhfuß, Marie; Maldei, Tobias; Hetmanek, Andreas; Baumann, Nicola (1 January 2021). "Somatic experiencing – effectiveness and key factors of a body-oriented trauma therapy: a scoping literature review". European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 12 (1): 1929023. doi:10.1080/20008198.2021.1929023. PMC 8276649.
  2. ^ van der Kolk, Bessel (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin. p. 217. ISBN 9781101608302.
  3. ^ a b c d Scaer, Robert C.: The Trauma Spectrum. Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. W.W. Norton & Company, N.Y. & London, 2005
  4. ^ "Admission Requirements". Somatic Experiencing Website.
  5. ^ Winblad, Neil (16 February 2018). "Effect of Somatic Experiencing resiliency-based trauma treatment training on quality of life and psychological health as potential markers of resilience in treating professionals". Frontiers in Neuroscience. 12 (70): 4. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00070. PMC 5820455. PMID 29503607. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  6. ^ "Energetic Healing Arts – Statutes – Exemptions – Requirements by State". One Tree Guild. Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  7. ^ "The Federation of Therapeutic Massage, Bodywork and Somatic Practice Organizations". The Federation of Therapeutic Massage, Bodywork and Somatic Practice Organizations. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  8. ^ Brom, Danny (2017). "Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A randomized controlled outcome study". Journal of Traumatic Stress. 30 (3): 304–312. doi:10.1002/jts.22189. PMC 5518443. PMID 28585761.
  9. ^ Page, Cory (April 2017). "National Assessment of Scopes of Practice for the Behavioral Health Workforce: April 2017" (PDF). University of Michigan Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center. Retrieved 9 March 2021.
  10. ^ Staff, staff. "Prospective students". students. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  11. ^ Keleman, Stanley (1989). Patterns of distress : emotional insults and human form. Berkeley, California: Center Press. pp. 15–18.
  12. ^ "Developmental Trauma: How useful is this framework?". The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 3 August 2018.
  13. ^ Scaer, Robert C. (2001). The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease. The Haworth Press. p. 275. ISBN 0789033348. Retrieved 6 February 2015.
  14. ^ Totton, Nick (2003). Body Psychotherapy: An Introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press. p. 120.
  15. ^ Wengell, Douglas (2008). Educational opportunities in Integrative Medicine. Quigley Books, Inc. p. 129.
  16. ^ Reich, Wilhelm (1945). Character Analysis. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. p. 395.
  17. ^ Lowen, Alexander (1973). Depression and the body : the biological basis of faith and reality. Baltimore: Penguin. p. 58.
  18. ^ John, Pierrakos (1987). Core energetics : developing the capacity to love and heal. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm Publication. p. 85.
  19. ^ LaPierre, Aline (Spring 2020). "A Shaman's Scientific Journey Conversation with Peter Levine" (PDF). International Body Psychotherapy Journal. 19 (1): 15–22. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  20. ^ Phillips, Maggie (1995). Healing the Divided Self (1st ed.). New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc. p. 158.
  21. ^ Rothschild, Babette (2000). The Body Remembers. New York: WW Norton and Company. pp. 67–69.
  22. ^ Lazarus, Arnold (June 1973). "Multimodal Behavior Therapy: Treating the BASIC ID". The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 156 (6): 404–411. doi:10.1097/00005053-197306000-00005. PMID 4711618. S2CID 39342413.
  23. ^ Lazarus, Arnold (1981). The practice of multimodal therapy : systematic, comprehensive, and effective psychotherapy. New York: Mcgraw-Hill. p. 233.
  24. ^ Sheikh, Anees (1984). Imagination and healing. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Pub. Co. p. 239.
  25. ^ a b Ahsen, Akhter (1968). Basic Concepts in Eidetic Psychotherapy. New York: Brandon House. p. 30.
  26. ^ Rothschild, Babette (2000). The Body Remembers. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 68.
  27. ^ Ahsen, Akhter (1968). Basic Concepts in Eidetic Psychotherapy. New York: Brandon House. p. 31.
  28. ^ Levine, Peter (20 April 2012). "The Stream of Life". Vimeo. Retrieved 5 March 2021.
  29. ^ Dolan, Anna T (1997). Imagery Treatment of Phobiats anxiety states and other symptom complexes. New York: Brandon House, Inc. p. 227.
  30. ^ Payne, Peter (February 4, 2015). "Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy". Frontiers in Psychology. 6 (93): 93. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00093. PMC 4316402. PMID 25699005.
  31. ^ Dolan, Anna T. Imagery Treatment of Phobias anxiety states and other symptom complexes. New York: Brandon House. p. 10.
  32. ^ Wolpe, Joseph (1981). Our Useless Fears. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 50.
  33. ^ Naparstek, Bellaruth (2004). Invisible Heroes. New York: Bantam Dell. p. 314.
  34. ^ Beck, Aaron (1985). Anxiety Disorders and Phobias. New York: Basic Books Inc. p. 246-249.
  35. ^ Perls, Frederick (1951). Gestalt Therapy. The Gestalt Journal Press. pp. Chapter 5.
  36. ^ Beck, Aaron (1985). Anxiety Disorders and Phobias. New York: Basic Books Inc. p. 37-53.
  37. ^ Schroeder, Vincent (2017). Buddha's Mom. p. 238. ISBN 978-0692582572. Retrieved 27 March 2021.
  38. ^ Totten, Nick (2003). Body Psychotherapy: An Introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press. p. 73.
  39. ^ Lowen, Alexander (1975). Bioenergetic Psychotherapy. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. pp. 49–54.
  40. ^ Lowen, Alexander (1972). Depression and the Body. Harmondsworth, Eng: Penguin Books. p. 66.
  41. ^ Boadella, David (1973). Wilhelm Reich: The evolution of his work. Vision Press. p. 107.
  42. ^ Andersen, Tonny Elmose; Ellegaard, Hanne; Schiøttz-Christensen, Berit; Mejldal, Anna; Manniche, Claus (2020-12-31). "Somatic Experiencing® for patients with low back pain and comorbid posttraumatic stress symptoms – a randomised controlled trial". European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 11 (1): 1797306. doi:10.1080/20008198.2020.1797306. ISSN 2000-8198.
  43. ^ "Polyvagal theory". Wikipedia. Retrieved 8 June 2021.
  44. ^ Brom D, Stokar Y, Lawi C, Nuriel-Porat V, Ziv Y, Lerner K, Ross G (2017). "Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study". Journal of Traumatic Stress. 30 (3): 304–312. doi:10.1002/jts.22189. PMC 5518443. PMID 28585761.
  45. ^ Andersen T, Lahav Y, Ellegaard H, Manniche C (2017). "A randomized controlled trial of brief Somatic Experiencing for chronic low back pain and comorbid post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms". European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 8 (1). doi:10.1080/20008198.2017.1331108. PMC 5489867. PMID 28680540.
  46. ^ Andersen, Tonny Elmose; Ellegaard, Hanne; Schiøttz-Christensen, Berit; Mejldal, Anna; Manniche, Claus (2020-12-31). "Somatic Experiencing® for patients with low back pain and comorbid posttraumatic stress symptoms – a randomised controlled trial". European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 11 (1): 1797306. doi:10.1080/20008198.2020.1797306. ISSN 2000-8198.
  47. ^ Kuhfuß, Marie (July 12, 2021). "Somatic experiencing – effectiveness and key factors of a body-oriented trauma therapy: a scoping literature review". European Journal Psychotraumatology. 12 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1080/20008198.2021.1929023. PMC 8276649.