How and Why Somatic Experiencing Works for Trauma Treatment

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Written by Clear Behavioral Health Therapist, Teresa Bertoncin, LMFT

As young children, we feel free, openhearted, and uninhibited—sharing all of ourselves with others. As we grow, however, we discover that the world can be a very painful place. Over time, we learn to protect ourselves. We build walls around our hearts, we become well-versed in denial, and we internalize negative beliefs and feelings. As “It’s my fault” becomes a familiar internal refrain, our defenses become more absolute and we protect ourselves with destructive behavior. Once our vitality becomes trapped behind internal walls with an artillery of emotional defenses, the flow of love and connection becomes suspended in both directions. We are unable to give or receive authentic emotions, and become more and more disconnected from our bodies, leaving us feeling isolated and alone. In this state, we become so skilled at looking out for what is wrong, it is so easy to pass over the wonderment of whatever is here.

Somatic experiencing helps us move beyond the cognitive process of understanding our struggles and trauma that are trapped behind our defenses. It’s a process that regulates the body’s primitive survival instincts, restores resilience, and inspires new possibilities.

The bottom-up approach of somatic experiencing is based largely around the idea of the body’s central nervous system freeze response. Animals in the wild whose lives are routinely threatened have the natural ability to recover from stress, trauma, and fear by physically releasing the pent-up energy accumulated in adverse situations. We as humans, on the other hand, use our higher levels of cognitive aptitude ineffectively to bypass this nervous system regulation with pervasive thoughts, negative beliefs about ourselves, feelings of shame, heightened fear, and judgment. We freeze and immobilize. This makes us less of a target. However, the energy that was once prepared for fight or flight gets stuck. As a result, our natural vitality is diminished and our body continues to respond as if it is under threat.  Somatic (meaning “of the body”) experiencing works to release this stored energy, and turn off this threat that causes dysregulation, reactivity, and dissociation. Somatic experiencing expands the focus of therapy by allowing us to feel a greater sense of connection, safety, and ease in our bodies and in the world.

Donovan Akita, a skilled somatic experiencing practitioner leads his widely popular groups at Clear Behavioral Health with empathy and compassionate understanding. He recognizes that addiction patterns, internalized beliefs, and other forms of internalized protection are trying to cover up what is authentic and vital in the present moment. Oftentimes, when treatment commences there is an eye on the exit sign, or ‘one foot out the door.’ This is because of an internal need to create safety. Exposed vulnerability is arguably one of the most common fears.

Akita models being with group members in a way that creates safety. He says, “When someone risks, I hold space for what is real for them in the present moment. It is an invitation to show up, instead of telling someone what they need or want. They learn to trust the process that something will reveal itself along the way.” Group members quickly understand that it is not about the performance, or about ‘the shoulds’ or ‘supposed to’ or the shame. Akita’s passion for the somatic experiencing method is evident as he shares how an individual in a group process will sense the internal permission or safety to reveal themselves, and how regulation occurs not just for one individual, but collectively for the entire group. “They learn how to do less, how to truly be in the moment, recognizing the pattern that has kept them stuck, finding the rhythm to let something in, accepting that there is room for them, and getting comfortable with that. Then as if [the group] is one giant nervous system release and one realization that they have been holding their breath for a long time. We all begin to feel the release, and ease, and freedom in our bodies, minds, and hearts.”

Clear Behavioral Health’s Donovan Akita, LMFT is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. To learn more about Clear Behavioral Health’s inpatient or outpatient treatment programs, contact our expert clinical team today!

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