Somatic Experiencing is a very subtle method of bringing regulation back to a dysregulated nervous system. Some of the symptoms of dysregulation are obvious, some are less so and some conditions develop due to chronic stress or loading of the physiology – mentally, physically and/or emotionally – whereas others can develop from acute shocks or incidents, or a series of them.
Somatic Experiencing was developed by Peter Levine after he discovered, by chance, that trauma is what gets stuck in the body as a result of an event or experiences. Trauma is not the event itself.
Somatic Experiencing and Somatic Practice give your system, your body, your physiology an opportunity to release and move on from whatever experiences may still be locked in the cells. For some this may be an identifiable trauma or series of traumas, for others it may be chronic and ongoing stress, regardless, Somatic Practice and Somatic Experiencing can help to return regulation to a dysregulated system.
Peter was working with a young woman who had suffered severe migraines and pain for years. She had come to him for a Rolfing session and during the treatment Peter noticed that her legs had begun to spontaneously judder and move. On instinct, he encouraged her to consciously track and gently exaggerate the movements which resulted in the woman finally processing a very early childhood experience involving surgery and anaesthesia, something she had not remembered until that moment. By encouraging her body to move, her physiology found and enacted the escape that she could not complete as a child. Her migraines and pain subsided significantly thereafter.
What is dysregulation?
The autonomic nervous system is in charge of most of our basic survival requirements and has two branches. The sympathetic branch is in charge of getting our body ready to run, fight or shut down when under threat or when in danger. When we are not under threat or at risk, the parasympathetic branch is in operation and is in charge of digestion, keeping the heart and breath rate at a steady pace and maintaining healthy blood pressure.
Admittedly, the autonomic nervous system and its branches are far more complex than this, but the basic operation of it is that when we are at risk, the sympathetic branch is in charge and when it is established that we are safe, the parasympathetic is dominant. Our physiology is designed that we function in the parasympathetic state, most of the time. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to function in short bursts, using enormous amounts of energy to defend or flee, when we are exposed to true threat or danger, such as needing to leap out of the way of an oncoming vehicle. This is when you really do want your sympathetic or fight/flight nervous system to be functioning at 100%!
Unfortunately, most of us are functioning as if we are running for our lives all day, every day. The mind may be experiencing each day with the narrative that everything is ‘fine there are no imminent life threats’, but the body is stuck in survival mode and running out of petrol. Some of this is down to our fast paced culture and the ‘need to keep up’, some of it is due to having experienced a traumatic event and though the mind may know the event is over, the body does not. Some of it is down to not getting basic needs met in the early years of life despite the best intentions of the caregivers, which can be:
- early hospitalization
- childhood illnesses
- growing up in war torn and/or violent environments
- emotionally unavailable caregivers
- early loss of one or more caregivers
- having one or more caregivers with depression or mental health or behavioural conditions and/or addictions
In cases when any of the aforementioned are present or occur in the first three years of life (preverbal), the physiology is left feeling under-supported and has to adapt in ways that are short-term effective for survival, but long term unhealthy and often times debilitating. When trauma is preverbal, we are left without a narrative as to why we are feeling or behaving the way we do and this can sometimes lead to syndromal conditions and unhealthy self-soothing behaviours such as emotional eating and other compulsive urges. (Examples of syndromal conditons are Migraines, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue)