Somatic Experiencing: What Is It?

Woman sitting outsideI would like to begin with a statement that I believe is an important one for me to make: I don’t consider myself an expert on Somatic Experiencing. I am a certified Somatic Experiencing (SE) practitioner, and prior to my SE training, I was a body-centered psychotherapist for twenty-six years. I am writing with the wisdom I have, using the expertise I have acquired from both my years on the planet and on the job, and from my heart and soul. My intention is to provide a view on a variety of issues and a way to work in psychotherapy through the lens of a Somatic Experiencing practitioner.

Slowing down. This is so often easier said than done. We live fast. Western culture promotes a fast-paced lifestyle, and this is evident in our work environments, our technology, our speed on the road, and our personal lives. The work of Somatic Experiencing involves slowing down. Achieving this goal is often challenging. Slowing down cannot be a demand, because demands apply pressure and promote rapidity. Instead, we can begin by simply bringing awareness to the revved up pace that has become normal.

Thinking is often a fast-moving process. It is a higher brain function. When we want to bring awareness to the symptoms of overwhelm and trauma, we have to be able to access the lower brain, and this requires understanding its language. The lower brain speaks in bodily sensations, such as tightness, breathlessness, pain, or burning. When we focus on our thoughts, we tend to override awareness of these important signals. Noticing these sensations involves letting go of the automated thought-following process, a task that is familiar to those who practice meditation or yoga. Recognizing physical sensations allows us to discover unresolved overwhelm or trauma. Even for those who experience a general sense of detachment from their bodily experience, the first step is simply to gain awareness of that lack of feeling.

We experience life as it comes. When it comes too fast, or with circumstances that deny the freedom to move, our ability to process our normal physiological responses is compromised. Under ideal circumstances, the nervous system triggers the release of stress hormones that eventually dissipate. In scenarios of extreme overwhelm, a shut down occurs and the physiological response is incomplete. This means that future unrelated circumstances can trigger the incomplete physiological response from the earlier event. For example, a person might lash out at a colleague or a friend for an innocent comment when it hits a nerve. This stored fight or flight response can surface at times that aren’t rational or particularly fitting for our normal reactivity, because the physical body remembers the older trauma and continues to try to complete the cycle of release. Suddenly, we find ourselves behaving in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise. We may act defensively in the course of a simple dialogue because of the unresolved trauma associated with surgeries, or car accidents, or with family conflicts experienced in childhood. We may even find that we react irrationally as a result of the body’s unfinished response to something like a dental procedure performed without anesthetics. Clearly, with our complex, diverse histories, it is not unusual to carry unfinished aspects from car accidents, surgeries, injuries of various types, and challenging childhood dynamics clustered together, narrowing our degree of resilience.

It might seem unlikely that a critical incident such as a car accident, tonsillectomy, or in utero shock could influence one’s ability to navigate relationships at work or in one’s personal life. I tend to be a skeptic until I have experienced something first hand. It might seem unlikely, but the unlikely could show itself to be profound.


Peter Levine, PhD; Raja Selvam, PhD, SEP; Diane Poole Heller, PhD, SEP; Nancy Napier, MA, SEP; Yiri Dollekamp, CMA, SEP

© Copyright 2010 by Sherry L. Osadchey, MA, LMFT, SEP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • frank H.

    June 24th, 2010 at 10:45 AM

    although we do come across situations where we are not able to do what we actually intend to and are not in control,all that has to be taken in our stride and we must again try to do better than before.because you just cannot afford to give up on anything.

  • shannon

    June 25th, 2010 at 4:52 AM

    Confused. . . still not exactly sure what somatic experiencing is. Are there many therapists using this technique with patients?

  • Sherry Osadchey

    June 25th, 2010 at 11:24 AM

    Shannon: A brief statement. Somatic Experiencing is a healing approach based on the understanding of how the brain and the nervous system are hard-wired to manage overwhelm and trauma. The training is taught all over the world and our numbers are growing in the US. If you look at the directory on you can get an idea of the number of practitioners using SE now. I hope this helps. Thanks for reading me.

  • Gary

    June 29th, 2010 at 12:16 PM

    Sherry: It seems that much of what you say is akin to a form of psychogenic displacement – the transfer of one experience into another experience with either good or bad results. Humans “transfer feelings” and repressed memorialized thought all the time. I don’t think our nervous system “stores it up”, I just think we remember it and respond accordingly. Memory, accurate or not, is powerful – and motivates our behavior in a most powerful way. You cannot “release” a memory (as we do not control them) – either you have them or you do not. The feelings about these memories is the real work – not the process of expressing them (which I believe you call a “release”).

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