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.

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.

Wishing You a Very Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays from snowy Massachusetts!

I’ve moved my life and practice from the west coast to the east coast. It took a while to cross the country and find my bearings, but I’m finally settling in.

Along the way, I stayed in an historic mission home through a California heat wave, crossed the Mojave Desert in 112-degree heat, slept in 6 motels with my cat, decompressed at a New England horse farm, and landed (finally!) in a snug house near Northampton, Massachusetts, home to Smith and neighboring Amherst colleges.

And now it’s a winter wonderland outside!

As someone who’s spent the last two decades in San Diego, I’d forgotten how breathtaking snow is. I’d worried about the ice and slush and cold, but overlooked the stillness and beauty. The other day, wind gusted snow powder off rooftops into a bright blue sky, where it billowed and sparkled like diamonds. It was stunning.

So, from this season of quietude, when the earth’s energy pulls deep underground, I hope you find stillness and beauty as well. And whatever your holiday traditions, I wish you warmth and joy!

Perceiving from a Distance

My first distance sessions were a revelation. Not only could I perceive at a distance, but I could actually perceive much more. It was eye-opening. Profound. So today, I’d like to try to convey what those perceptions are like for me—and how exquisite it is to sense the health in a body.

Sensing with my hands

You’d think that without being able to physically touch, I wouldn’t be able to feel with my hands. But actually, it’s the opposite.

During distance work, my hands act like antennas. I intend to touch a part of the body, let my hands tune in, and then sit back while information and sensations flow in. I can feel the shape of bones and where they’re stuck. I can feel tight tissues release. I can feel fluids pulse and flow. I can feel so much.

Of course, these are just my perceptions from the outside. I always check in to verify whether they match your perceptions from the inside.  

Then there’s remote viewing

One of my instructors once likened craniosacral therapy to remote viewing. So, I figured I’d be seeing clear images of the inside of the body. I wish! For me, it’s more like a cross between seeing and feeling.

For instance, let’s say I’m “holding” the head and feel a tethered pull down the spine. If I wait, an image will often come into my mind of the exact vertebra that’s stuck. But that image is nothing like a photograph. It’s more like a blurry X-ray seen from the corner of my eye while simultaneously feeling the bone. Yet it informs me clearly.

Resonance in the body

And finally, there’s the sensing that comes through my whole body. It’s like turning into a radar dish. And through resonance, I can sense full-body states like agitation or harmony. Or, occasionally, a switch flips inside me and I feel what’s happening for the client inside my own body. 

The beauty of it all

But none of that conveys the immense beauty I perceive. Clients often ask me what I’m sensing, and by that they almost invariably mean what’s “wrong.”

But imagine watching water bubble up in the desert, creating green fields and rivers. Or witnessing some deep intelligence beyond your comprehension release and realign tissues in just the right order, healing what was hurting. Or watching every cell breathe in a slow-motion expansion and contraction, while liquid light flows up the spine.

These are the kinds of wonders that happen when the body’s healing mechanism turns on. These are the wonders I’m privileged to perceive.

Letting Your Emotions Move

If you were to grade your ability to process emotions, would you pass? Fail? Not be sure? Let me give you some context.

The word emotion comes from the Latin emovere, meaning “to move.” So at their most basic, emotions are something that want to move.

More specifically, emotions are an energy that wants to move. And the way that energy wants to move is as a wave that crests and passes after a couple minutes.

These waves of emotion can feel big, sometimes overwhelming. But they’re here to help us survive, function, and connect. Without emotions, we’d all have been saber-toothed tiger snacks long ago.

Learning the wrong lessons

The problem is that, for all but a few, no one ever taught us how to manage our emotions in a healthy way.  

Maybe you learned to ignore and stuff down your feelings. You feel angry about something, but then tell yourself you don’t or shouldn’t feel angry because…reasons.

Or you learned to avoid your feelings. You drink, smoke, watch TV, exercise, socialize, have sex…anything to avoid feeling that.

Others learned to ruminate on the emotion, feeding it with negative thoughts until it festers. Or they learned to blindly act on feelings, letting them explode or take over.

Getting all plugged up

But tamping down the energy of our emotions—not giving them healthy channels to flow through—can have serious consequences. It can cause:

  • Dulled vitality and depression
  • Broken or unfulfilling relationships
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Higher risk of illness

So, get them flowing

The basic steps for processing emotions are simple:

Step 1: Identify the feeling.
When you feel an emotion surfacing, the first step is to name it. What are you feeling? Is it one emotion or several?

Step 2: Feel the feeling.
Sit with the emotion, without judgment, and let yourself feel it. Try to:

  • Distinguish the felt-sense of the emotion from the cause. Thinking about the cause can re-trigger the feeling, making emotions churn, not process.
  • Track the wave of emotional energy. If we don’t re-trigger emotions with our thoughts, the wave will crest and pass within minutes.
  • Give it a channel to move. Sometimes emotions need expression. Try moving your body, journaling, drawing, singing or any form of creative expression.

Step 3: Take action if needed or let it go.
Once the wave has passed ask: Is there any action I need to take?

Sounds simple, right? In practice, processing emotions can get complex, especially with trauma. If you try these steps and feel numb, overwhelmed, or confused, you’re not doing it wrong. You’ve just got extra challenges to navigate. The help of a skilled guide can make all the difference.