Skip to the main content.

4 min read

The Ultimate Guide to Somatic Experiencing: Alternative Trauma Therapy

Key Takeaways:

  • Somatic experiencing therapy utilizes the idea that trauma can become "trapped" in the body.
  • There is some evidence to suggest that somatic experiencing can be an effective treatment for PTSD and other trauma-related conditions.
  • Somatic experiencing relies heavily on the passive sensations your body is constantly aware of.

Somatic experiencing is an alternative treatment for trauma and PTSD. Developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine in the 1970s, somatic experiencing is a form of therapy that utilizes a bottom-up approach to target symptoms of trauma that linger in the body.

While not as thoroughly studied as some other forms of therapy, somatic experiencing does have some evidence to support its efficacy.

Often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), somatic experiencing is gaining momentum, with over 12,000 trained practitioners in the field at the time of writing.

Let's explore this alternative form of therapy more closely and determine if it may be right for you.

Somatic Experiencing Resources on This Page:

What does somatic experiencing do?

Effectiveness of Somatic Experiencing: Is SE evidence-based or not?

When should I go to somatic experiencing therapy?

Somatic Experiencing Therapy in Brooklyn, NY: Williamsburg Therapy Group

What does somatic experiencing do?

Somatic experiencing is designed for those with PTSD or who have experienced trauma in the past.

In essence, somatic experiencing utilizes the idea that symptoms of trauma and stress accumulate in our bodies over time.

Here's the theory behind somatic experiencing therapy:

When an animal (for example, a human) faces a physical threat, one of a few things may happen. Most commonly, they fight, flee, or freeze. When they freeze, or essentially play dead, their muscles contract, and tension permeates their entire nervous system.

After this occurs, that tension has to be released somehow. That's why people often shake or shiver after a scary or traumatic event.

However, if the tension never gets released, it's preserved in the body. This eventually manifests, according to SE experts, in the symptoms of PTSD and trauma.

The idea behind somatic experiencing is that one can learn to release that tension through instruction, and by doing so, both the symptoms and the root causes of trauma can be addressed.

How Somatic Experiencing Works

Somatic experiencing is a specific treatment that considers the individual as a whole, rather than focusing solely on the trauma they have experienced. This approach, known as somatic therapy, acknowledges that trauma can impact all aspects of a person's being and seeks to address these effects in a comprehensive and integrated way.

Somatic experiencing practitioners undergo certification by Somatic Experiencing International, ensuring they meet the standards for providing trauma treatment. While the general framework of somatic experiencing remains consistent, the approach may be tailored to your unique case, considering the nature and severity of your trauma.

Through somatic therapy, our practitioners at Williamsburg Therapy Group guide you in accessing and releasing the physiological and emotional energy trapped in your body as a result of trauma. By gently exploring bodily sensations and allowing the natural healing mechanisms to engage, somatic experiencing promotes the resolution and integration of traumatic experiences. Incorporating somatic therapy as part of your treatment can provide a more complete and effective approach to healing from trauma.

SE practitioners are certified by Somatic Experiencing International to ensure they meet the standards for treating trauma.

Of course, depending on the nature and severity of the trauma in question, there may be some differences in how your particular case is handled. In general, though, you can expect the following steps:

SE Step #1: Pre-Therapy Briefing and Paperwork

At this point in treatment, you and your therapist are becoming familiar, taking care of any logistical concerns, and exchanging thoughts and questions about the upcoming therapy.

SE Step #2: Baseline Trauma Measurements

Once you are ready to begin, your therapist will start by asking you about your symptoms and assessing how your body reacts to trauma and stress. This will give them context, areas of focus, and a general plan for the treatment itself.

SE Step #3: Treatment and Pendulation

After the preparation, your somatic experiencing therapist will begin the process of treatment. This often involves guiding your attention to how your body is feeling and the sensations that exist within you even when stationary.

Another part of treatment is called pendulation, or going back and forth between states of being triggered and states of calm. This is a deliberate strategy used by SE therapists to show you how to self-regulate. By repeatedly feeling and experiencing the process of calming down after a trigger, patients eventually learn to do it themselves.

Note that this pendulation occurs in a safe context; your therapist will be constantly watching for signs that things are going too far or getting too distressing. You can trust them to keep things productive rather than terrifying.

Effectiveness of Somatic Experiencing: Is SE evidence-based or not?

There is some evidence to support the effectiveness of somatic experiencing as trauma therapy. More work needs to be done before anything definitive can be published, but there are many studies with very promising results.

Randomized and Controlled Studies

A randomized controlled outcome study published in 2017 found that, compared to a control group, 44% of participants in a standard course of somatic experiencing treatment reversed their PTSD diagnoses within 15 weeks.

Non-Randomized, Non-Controlled Studies

Several non-randomized or non-controlled studies have been published that seem to support the efficacy of somatic experiencing treatment. We should note, however, that in the scientific community, non-randomized and non-controlled studies are not considered true evidence.

However, several of these less academically rigorous studies corroborate on the effectiveness of somatic experiencing and lend some anecdotal credence to the practice to supplement the more rigorous study mentioned above.

Taken together, along with the testimonies of people who have undergone the therapy, these studies can begin to paint a picture of an alternative yet often effective treatment for trauma.

When should I go to somatic experiencing therapy?

Somatic experiencing is an option for those who struggle with PTSD or symptoms of trauma. There are several kinds of therapy that can treat these problems, and each has varying levels of evidence to support it.

The typical course of action is to first speak with a physician about any physical symptoms that are present. It's safer to rule out any potential physical reasons for your symptoms.

Once you have ruled out any physical symptoms, you should talk to a mental health professional about your options. They will be able to make treatment recommendations, which may include somatic experiencing therapy.

Somatic Experiencing Therapy in Brooklyn, NY: Williamsburg Therapy Group

We're proud to offer somatic experiencing therapy to our fellow Brooklyn residents. Get in touch with us to find out your options.

Book a Therapy Session in Brooklyn Today

A woman with postpartum depression

How Postpartum Depression is Treated

Pregnancy, birth, and the immediate aftermath of parenting are times of enormous change and upheaval in a person's life. Pregnant and postpartum...

Read More
a teen in therapy

Effective Therapy Activities for Teens

Most of us understand that there is some difference to how therapy sessions are structured for teens and adults. However, many parents may be...

Read More
therapy office in austin

What Should I Do If I'm Attracted to My Therapist?

A strong therapeutic relationship can be essential to success in therapy, but when the professional relationship begins to take on romantic feelings...

Read More