What is Somatic Experiencing®?

Somatic Experiencing® is a dialogue-based technique that focuses on the body to heal trauma. To understand how it works, it helps to understand how wild animals stave off trauma.

Wild animals are rarely traumatized

You see that zebra in the picture? It’s in trouble. That lion has ambushed it and it’s seconds away from death. At the final moment before the lion pounces, the zebra collapses…plays dead. And physiologically it is close to death. It’s frozen. All of its life processes have drastically slowed and it’s numb to pain—a mercy.

But it’s this zebra’s lucky day. This death feigning is so convincing that the lion is tricked into walking away. The unhurt zebra gets to live. Next comes the crucial bit.  

As the zebra comes out of freeze, it starts to tremor and shake. It’s discharging all of the pent-up adrenalin and power that got buried under the freeze. It might also stand up and buck or kick to dispel the urge to fight back that got trapped in its limbs. Then it calmly returns to grazing—not traumatized.  

But humans…get traumatized

Ideally, after coming out of a collapsed, helpless freeze state, we would do exactly what the zebra did. We’d shake. We’d kick or punch or run. We’d let all of that massive survival force move through and dissipate. But…we don’t.

Instead, we tamp down these natural urges. We stop the shaking. We don’t punch or kick or run. And that survival energy implodes inside and starts cycling through our nervous system, where it slowly creates havoc. We become traumatized.

Somatic Experiencing® can help

All of the body’s instinctive ways of releasing trauma are still there. They just need a little help to emerge. Somatic Experiencing® practitioners (SEPs) “talk” directly to the body physiology—where both trauma and resilience are stored.

The body speaks in sensations and feelings, in imagery, movements, and symptoms. So, trauma may be sensed as a buzzing energy, as tension or compression, or as a flash of imagery. There may be terror or rage layered on top.

Practitioners and clients use attention and dialogue to track this somatic language together, starting with anything that helps ground and stabilize you, like a calm feeling in the belly. From there, bite-sized pieces of trauma can process.

Once you can safely tune in to the way trauma is holding in your body—say, as constriction or buzzing—it will typically transform. Trapped energies discharge, frozen parts thaw, and defensive urges move through the limbs.

Trauma can heal. It is not a life-sentence. 

Learn more or schedule

I offer remote Somatic Experiencing® sessions combined with craniosacral therapy from western Massachusetts to people everywhere. To learn more or schedule an appointment, visit my Somatic Experiencing page.

Moments of Presence

I remember being on a family road trip once and stopping at a picnic ground. My 11-year-old self stood overlooking a pond encircled by weeping willows and geese. I took a bite of my cheese-and-mustard sandwich…and the flavors exploded in my mouth. The sharp creaminess, the sourness. How had I never noticed how good cheese and mustard tasted? I felt so awake, so alive. I savored each bite in slow motion.

Most of us can probably remember a moment like this, when our chattering brains quieted down and something else came forward, something profoundly alive and aware. A moment of presence, of being. These moments were easier in childhood, I think, easier before adult responsibilities, before trauma took its toll.

Boulders in the path

For me, it’s been a long journey back to moments of presence. One of my biggest obstacles was trauma.

Trauma drove me out of my body for a long time. When I finally learned to come back, I found my body revving like a race car, ready to jump at the slightest sound, mind and nervous system scanning ten steps ahead for danger or freaking out over stuff that made no sense…now.   

Unresolved trauma makes it so hard to be in your body—versus your head or the stratosphere. The body is where the aftermath of trauma is stored. Why would you want to hang out with that? But the body is also where life happens. Where now happens. Without awareness in your body, there’s no presence.

Bodywork helped me

My first time trying to meditate went about as well as you’d expect. I was jumping out of my skin. I needed more help than sitting alone with my trauma symptoms. I was fortunate to find bodywork, which helped me safely re-connect with my body, and craniosacral therapy specifically, which became a lifelong practice in presence.

Craniosacral therapy is, fundamentally, about being present with my inner stuff—both the luminous and the painful—in a grounded and coherent enough way that I can be present with your inner stuff. I was terrible at it at first, but I loved it so much I kept trying. Eventually, I improved.  

Over the years, somatic bodywork has opened me up to positive experiences in my body—pleasure, empowerment, wholeness. And from these bigger, more comfortable, more regulated places, it’s been easier to sit with and transform the trauma pieces.

Slipping into being

Lately, I find myself more often slipping into a different state of being. I would have called it lazy before. Now it feels languid. Like there’s room to breathe.

I can sometimes float back to my 11-year-old’s ease, marveling at how good the rain smells through our window screen, slipping into being.

The Relational Field

Take a moment to look at the photo accompanying this article. This little girl is being held—cradled—within a profound holding field. And it’s not just the physical embrace. Look at everyone’s faces, their smiles. There’s joy here, love, acceptance…qualities that are palpable, energetic. How different would this group hug feel if everyone were angry? Or sad?

In biodynamic craniosacral therapy, we call this space the relational field. It gets called other names, too…therapeutic presence, holding environment, held space. All refer to a shared field of awareness and energy, centered by a practitioner who is grounded, heart-centered, and deeply listening.

Think of this field like stepping into a warm, energetic bath. You may not consciously feel it—though perhaps you will—but your whole self responds. And it’s perhaps the most important aspect of any healing session.

The electromagnetic heart

Consider the fascinating research being done on the human heart field by the HeartMath Institute. Both the brain and the heart generate electromagnetic fields. This activity is what doctors measure as brain waves and electrical signals on EEG and EKG machines. But the heart field is by far the larger and more powerful, extending several feet around the body. And it has some interesting characteristics.

For starters, our heart fields intermingle. They are detectable between people near each other—even when they’re not touching.

Second, the heart field contains data. The heart encodes and processes information, such as emotions, transmitting it electromagnetically throughout the body…and beyond.

Third, the electrical coherence of your heart field changes depending on your emotional state. Emotions like anger or frustration make it less coherent. Emotions like love, compassion, and appreciation make it more.

Add all that together and HeartMath postulates that a practitioner’s caring emotions may get electromagnetically transmitted to their clients, perhaps even at a distance. More research is needed, but in my professional experience, this transmission definitely happens, including at a distance.

The ground of healing

The relational field is the entry point to healing together. It’s where we meet, in this warm energy bath. The more coherent, grounded, and caring I can be, the more your body can attune to that, let go, and settle. And that’s when the body’s self-healing mechanisms really turn on. That’s when the deepest healing processes start.

Not everyone had this kind of attuned relational field growing up, first in the womb, and later in the holding environment of the family. For many of us, that field did not often—or ever—feel like the little girl’s field in the picture. But those early experiences can be rewired in connection with a skilled person. The relational field is the ground where this healing emerges.

Allostatic Load

Maybe you can identify. You take decent care of yourself…eat your veggies, sleep okay, exercise, and don’t overindulge. And yet, you’re often exhausted. Even if you rest all weekend, you sometimes don’t recharge. What gives?

The answer will be slightly different for everyone. (But spoiler alert, it’s stress and trauma.) And the intricacies can best be explained using the model of allostatic load.

The cost of doing business

Think of allostatic load in terms of the price you pay each time your body responds to a stressor. Every time you fight a virus, argue with family, struggle with pain, or even just exercise, you’re expending energy. And then you’ve got to eat, drink, relax, and sleep to recharge.

In an ideal world, we’d fully recharge each day. But this modern world is not so ideal for our ancient organism.

Instead, chronic stress typically whittles away at our energy. Day by day, we add a bit more debt to the load and slowly get depleted. So, allostatic load is this cumulative wear-and-tear that chronic stress takes on the body.

How this often plays out

Let’s say you’ve got decent reserves, so most days you handle the load just fine. But then comes a particularly stressful day, where you barely eat or drink, let alone sit down. At a certain point, you splutter out. Now it’s going to take much more rest and fuel than usual to recharge.

What if this happens day after day? Or you start out depleted? Like if you live with…

…unmanaged chronic infections like Lyme or covid
…unresolved trauma
…ongoing, systemic stressors like racism

What if the demands pile up overwhelmingly high? Welcome to overload.

Allostatic overload

At some point, too many demands will outstrip our ability to replenish. Then, no amount of food, drink, or sleep can keep up with the output. We’ve reached allostatic overload.

We either keel over or pull the energy from somewhere. That somewhere is the fight-or-flight system. So, all the stress hormones and changes meant to help you lift a car? They’re now helping you go to work.

But this “fuel” has a high cost, especially over time. Eventually, tissues break down, chronic fatigue sets in, or chronic diseases appear.

Giving ourselves a break

Many of us have been fueling on stress physiology our entire lives—we’ve had to. It feels normal. So, when we “reset” after a stressful period, it’s back to a baseline that’s still quite draining.

And then we wonder why we’re still tired. It’s because we are tired.

The paths out of these cycles are many, but the first step is trusting your body. If you feel tired, you likely are. There are reasons, even if you don’t know them. So start by giving yourself a break. And then, really, give yourself a break.

Some Favorite Relaxation Techniques

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You reach the end of a long, stressful day and finally get to relax in front of the TV. But when you go to bed, your mind’s still racing and your body’s keyed up. That blue light from the screen—and most shows—is stimulating. So your body never actually gets to relax.

To reduce the toxic effects of chronic stress, and actually relax, you’ve got to elicit your body’s relaxation response. This restful state slows your breathing and heart rate, relaxes muscles, and lowers blood pressure.

But what relaxes you may differ from what relaxes somebody else, so it pays to try different techniques. Here are some of my favorites.

World’s Most Relaxing Song

Dubbed the “world’s most relaxing song,” Weightless by Marconi Union was engineered to be relaxing. Collaborating with sound therapists, the musicians chose non-repeating melodies that let the brain switch off and an underlying beat that slows from 60 beats per minute to 50 over eight minutes, letting your heart entrain and slow down.

Learn more and listen here.

Relaxing Acupressure Points

Acupressure involves massaging specific points along energy meridians. Several of these can relieve stress. I rub central points on the soles of my feet whenever I need to draw energy out of my head and calm down. And the point between my eyebrows really helps with anxiety (and draining my sinuses!).

For simple guidance with diagrams, see this post.

Restorative Yoga: Legs-up-the-Wall

Yoga offers several wonderful poses for relaxing and restoring mind and body. One of my favorites is legs-up-the-wall pose. I often do this to relax and relieve back tension. It’s also great to do right before bed, as it can leave you feeling deeply still and sleepy.

To learn this and other restorative poses, see this article.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

Long revered by yoga practitioners, alternate nostril breathing is a great way to relax and reduce stress. This simple breathing technique helps calm the nervous system and balance the mind and emotions. I use it to settle my mind before morning meditation. But it’s also a good sleep aid, helping ease stress and anxiety.

See this article to learn it.

And if you missed them, here’s a look back at some of my past articles offering more techniques:

When a technique’s working, your body will slowly shift into rest-and-digest. So, if you feel relaxed or your tummy starts gurgling…you’ve got a winner.

Navigating the Pandemic Anxiety Field

Ever walk into a room full of people and pick up a vibe? Perhaps there’s a pervasive sense of warmth and fun. Or maybe it’s the opposite, everything looks fine on the surface, but feels hostile underneath.  

As humans, we are finely tuned social creatures. We pick up a great deal of information from body language, facial expressions, and yes, from the energetic emotional vibe around you. Even if you don’t consider yourself “sensitive” or “empathic,” you are still affected by the emotional energy signature from others, especially if it’s strong.

Cue the pandemic. Now we have a worldwide energy signature supercharged with anxiety and other painful emotions. For simplicity’s sake, I’m calling it the Pandemic Anxiety Field. And on top of our very real, present-time fears and struggles, it seems to be the extra punch that’s sending people off kilter.

So, if you’re feeling extra off-kilter or in crisis, as so many of my clients are, it might be worth considering whether this feeling is all yours. Try asking yourself this: How much of this is mine and how much am I picking up from others?

To determine what’s yours, you may need to sit with the sensations and feelings you’re having. Just notice them. See if you can differentiate what’s arising within you—and feels like yours—from what’s affecting you from without. Because even just the realization that you’re feeling stuff that’s not yours can bring relief.  

Now, on the flip side, some of what you’re feeling is going to be yours even when it feels foreign. That’s because this pandemic-induced anxiety field is also stirring up a lot of ghosts. By this I mean, your unconscious feelers pick up painful emotions out there, and then that outer “stuff” resonates with and wakes up old emotional wounds and traumas in you, bringing them to the surface.  

Regardless of origin, if you continue to feel unbalanced by an emotional state, it’s time to stop focusing on it. What you need is a counterbalance. For example, if you feel overwhelmed and lightheaded, then you need something grounded. You might walk on the beach, sit on the ground against tree roots, or eat nourishing, protein-rich foods. Likewise, if you’re feeling scared or panicky, then focus most of your attention on something that feels safe, like a warm comforter, a happy memory, or your puppy dog. 

And if you’re still struggling to rebalance or determine what’s yours, then reach out to me for a quick call or a session. It’s often much easier to find yourself when you’re held in clear relationship by someone else.