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.

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.

Try this Adrenal Reset

Ah, the hard-working adrenal glands. They sit like mushroom caps atop our kidneys and pump out stress hormones when we need them. And if we’re stressed all the time? They just keep pumping them out….

Even when we’re deeply exhausted but so tired-wired we can’t sleep.

Even when every little sound makes us jump.

Even when the anxiety won’t quit…or we’re having panic attacks.

The good news is we can connect to our adrenal glands—and through them our body’s entire stress response system—to interrupt this stress cycle. I learned this simple adrenal reset in a recent training with Kathy Kain, who specializes in bodywork for trauma recovery. You can do this technique on yourself.  

Here’s how it works:

Get comfortable and sense or imagine your adrenals. Hold on, you say…you don’t where those are? No problem.

Your adrenals sit on top of your kidneys, which are near the bottom of your ribcage, next to the spine. The kidneys themselves are red and fist-sized. The adrenals are their lumpy, cream-colored caps.

So, sense or imagine your adrenals…in whatever way comes naturally. You might visualize the actual organs—or see imagery, colors, or energies. You might get more of a feeling-sense…like pulses, temperatures, tightness, or softening. You might even want to hold the area with your hands to get a better feel.

Next, pick one adrenal to start with. I usually start with the one that’s changing in some way. If you’re not sure, dealer’s choice. You’re going to work with both anyways.  

Now, simply be curious. You’re not trying to change anything. What you are doing is being extra attentive to any signs of slowing and settling—here and in your whole body.

Your attention is the powerful tool here. So notice changes like:

  • Softening, widening, or expansion
  • Temperature changes (like cool becomes warm…or…overheated cools down)
  • Soothing color changes
  • Energies slowing down
  • Taking a deep breath or breathing easier
  • Slowing heart rate
  • Feeling more relaxed overall

You may notice that these changes come in cycles. So you settle a bit, and then a new layer of activation shows up and slowly dissipates. Then you settle slightly deeper.  

Continue until you feel slower and calmer. Then do the other adrenal. You’ll likely find it goes faster than the first one. Keep going and enjoy the settling.

Congrats! You’ve interrupted your stress cycle.

This can be a great way to short-circuit a stress response in the moment…like during a panic attack. But it’s even more effective when practiced regularly over time. In this age of frazzled nerves, we’ve often got to retrain our bodies to relax.

What Is Somatic Bodywork?

Most people have a clear idea of what therapeutic bodywork is—it helps relax and heal the body. And most have at least a basic understanding of talk therapy—it treats the mind. But what about this thing that works with the whole of you: somatic bodywork?

What is it?

Somatic bodywork is any type of bodywork—whether it’s massage, reiki, or craniosacral therapy—where you and your practitioner consciously work with your inner perceptions. It combines bodywork with verbal skills, and it works with a lot more than muscles.

Somatics works with the whole of you: your physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts; your intuition and imagery; your spiritual insights. It can facilitate deep healing of old wounds and trauma, but it is definitively not talk therapy.

A comparison to massage

If you’ve had a therapeutic massage, your practitioner probably checked in on pressure and hopefully checked you were OK during work on painful spots. But most exploration of your inner state stops there. If the massage brings up feelings or memories, these may be managed skillfully, but the focus is on releasing tissues.

But bodywork can bring up a lot. Our body stores unhealed experiences for a safer time, and then nonverbally brings them up for healing—as sensations, symptoms, feelings, and more. So what if those were the focus? That’s somatic bodywork.

How does this work in practice?

To start a session, I often ask clients to get comfortable and turn inwards. I’ll ask: What do you notice?

You might say my shoulders are tight…or I feel revved up. This is just an initial sense of the terrain, an invitation to turn inward. I’ll do a craniosacral therapy hold somewhere comforting, like your feet. And we’ll wait for settling.

Once your body slows, it generally brings up an issue. Perhaps pressure arises in your chest. I may hold your shoulders to help track and we’ll be curious: Is it like a weight? A squeezing? Is there a color? An emotion? As we keep noticing, the sensation will usually change. It may decrease, you may sweat as heat discharges, or you may grow sad and cry.

Do you know why you’re crying? Not always. You don’t have to know to heal. But you may get an insight: I felt unloved as a child. I won’t analyze why—I’m not a therapist. We’ll acknowledge what’s here now. How is it for you to realize that? Perhaps you feel sad but relieved.  

Constantly seeking health

The body is constantly bringing up old issues in an effort to heal—but it needs our attention. If we can speak its language, and truly listen, the body will heal itself.