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Somatic Experiencing

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Somatic Experiencing is a form of therapy that claims to relieve the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental and physical trauma-related health problems by focusing on the client’s perceived body sensations (or somatic experiences). It was invented by American Peter Levine and is partially described in his 1997 book Waking the Tiger. The evidence for the effectiveness of this therapy is mostly anecdotal.

The theory postulates that the symptoms of trauma are the effect of a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It further postulates that the ANS has an inherent capacity to self-regulate that is undermined by trauma, and that the inherent capacity to self-regulate can be restored by the procedures of Somatic Experiencing.

The procedure, which is normally done in a face-to-face session similar to psychotherapy, involves a client tracking his or her own felt-sense experience, much as is done in Eugene Gendlin's Focusing. Practitioners of Somatic Experiencing are often also psychotherapists, Rolfers or BodyWorkers. Certified practitioners must complete a training course that spans three years. The procedure is considered by its practitioners to be effective for Shock Trauma (see below) in the short term (typically one to six sessions). It is also considered effective for Developmental Trauma as an adjunct to more conventional psychotherapy that may span years.

Somatic Experiencing attempts to promote awareness and release of physical tension that remains in the body in the aftermath of trauma. This occurs when the survival responses (which can take the form of orienting, fight, flight or "freeze") of the ANS are aroused, but are not fully discharged after the traumatic situation has passed.

Somatic Experiencing uses procedural elements that have been observed to work anecdotally, but have yet to be subjected to a double-blind study. The process involves a guided exploration of the nature and extent of the physical dysregulation that is harbored in the body as a result of trauma. Techniques include "titration" of the client's experience. That is, in the initial steps of the procedure, barely noticeable improvements in the body (a slight loosening of tension in the chest, for example) are attended to at length. Another idea is that the client's experience should be "pendulated". Pendulation refers to the movement between regulation and dysregulation. The client is helped to move to a state where he or she is somewhat dysregulated (i.e. is aroused or frozen) and then helped to return to a state of regulation (loosely defined as not aroused or frozen). This process is done iteratively, with progressively more dysregulation being experienced by the client in successive pendulations. "Resources" are defined phenomenologically as anything that helps the client's autonomic nervous system return to a regulated state. In the face of arousal, "discharge" is facilitated to allow the client's body to return to a regulated state. Through this process the client's inherent capacity to self-regulate is restored.

Somatic Experiencing is considered by its practitioners to be useful for two broad categories of trauma: "Shock Trauma" and "Developmental Trauma". Shock trauma is loosely defined as a single-episode traumatic event such as a car accident, earthquake, battlefield incident, etc. Developmental Trauma refers to various kinds of psychological damage that occur during child development when a child has insufficient attention from the primary caregivers, or an insufficiently nurturing relationship with the parent. The most prominent kind of developmental trauma results in insecure or disorganized attachment.

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