Have you noticed that no matter how much time you spend in talk therapy, you still feel anxious and triggered? That is because talk therapy can keep you stuck in a pattern of reliving your stories, rather than moving beyond them. But, most of all, it’s because trauma doesn’t just reside inside your mind–much more importantly, it locks itself in other parts of your body. When left unresolved, that trauma continues to live there, impacting your life, your relationships, your sense of safety, and your ability to experience joy in very real ways.
In Moving Beyond Trauma, Ilene Smith will introduce you to Somatic Experiencing, a body-based therapy capable of healing the damage done to your nervous system by trauma. She breaks down the ways in which trauma impacts your nervous system and walks you through a program designed to process trauma in a non-threatening way. You will discover a healing lifestyle marked by a deeper connection with yourself, those around you, and with everything you do.
INTERVIEW WITH ILENE SMITH
What is somatic experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body therapy modality used to heal trauma. When an event happens too fast and we do not have the time or ability for self-protection or defense, this survival energy gets stuck in our body as an incomplete biological reaction. This stuck energy is what causes trauma symptoms and the nervous system loses its ability to maintain a state of balance. The trapped energy from the traumatic experience causes the nervous system to rush to a state of fight, flight, or freeze. SE works to help bring the nervous system back on-line by helping the individual restore their sense of safety. This can only happen when the body has a “biological completion” and the trauma energy has the opportunity to reintegrate back into the body.
While SE uses talking in the process, the talking is used to track body sensation and meaning attached to experiences, rather than bring the individual back into the event of the trauma. When we bring the body into the therapy process and facilitate a way for the individual to physically move through the experience with a sense of safety, the relationship to the experience changes and the stuck energy will discharge.
Why did you want to become a somatic experiencing practitioner?
When I went back to school in my early 40’s for a degree in mental health counseling, I knew I wanted to work with trauma. I was introduced to SE during my internship at an eating disorder clinic and felt as though SE was complimentary to talk therapy. I also felt as though it was the missing link for trauma healing. I became a student of the work as well as a patient because I believe you can only take a client as far as you are willing to go yourself. I was experiencing great results personally and began applying the principles of SE with my clients. The results were phenomenal. Clients with eating disorders and addiction were moving away from their maladaptive behaviors and finding deeper and more meaningful connections with themselves and others. I feel strongly and passionately that the body and the nervous system need to be part of the healing process for real and everlasting change.
What type of rewards do you get by helping others heal?
There is nothing more rewarding than watching a person go from surviving to thriving in their life. I have and continue to walk people through incredible healing journeys. I love being part of transformation and nothing feels better than being able to add value to other’s lives.
What is the focus on the nervous system related to this type of therapy?
While the nervous system is designed to be self-regulating, it has its limitations around trauma. Unresolved trauma, especially when trauma is chronic and accumulated, can lead to more extensive mental and physical health symptoms. The long-term effect of SE treatment is a restored sense of healthy nervous system functioning, which includes reduction in maladaptive coping skills, resolved sleep issues, and mood stabilization — to name a few. When the body gains the capacity to self-regulate, it restores its sense of safety and balance. In turn, stress hormones are lower and the body can produce more “feel good” hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin.
Unlike most therapy modalities which are considered “top down,” meaning they use our highest form of cognition, SE begins with a “bottom up” approach of sensorimotor processing aimed at guiding the client through the most primitive to the most complex brain systems. The therapist begins by guiding the client to track sensation and movements, helping a patient develop a felt sense of his internal states of tension, relaxation and respiration cycles. This is a powerful mechanism to regulate the autonomic nervous system.
What does unresolved trauma mean and how does it affect our bodies?
When trauma is unresolved our survival mechanisms of fight flight and freeze get stuck in the on position and our autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks into high gear. These states are only meant for acute situations for defense and protection. Our ANS contributes to how we regulate every state in our body including heart rate, breath, digestion and bladder. When our bodies are in stress physiology, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol start pumping through the body causing all sorts of imbalances both emotionally and physically. There have been many studies showing the impact of trauma and stress on the emotional and physical body. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study showed that the more emotional and physical abuse a person had during childhood the more likely they are to experience mental and physical health issues as adults. This body and mind are intrinsically connected and this is why bringing the body into the healing process is so important.
What happens in the brain when trauma is processed, or resolved?
When trauma is resolved a person will begin to see and move through the world with more vitality and ease. They will begin to have a more accurate ability to sense safety and danger and experience a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them. When trauma is resolved a person will feel more present, helping them better express themselves and understand their needs and desires. These changes in the nervous system and brain, reduce anxiety, depression and maladaptive behaviors used to cope with pain and discomfort. Ultimately the individual will feel more curious and resilient to face the ups and down of life.
How does this type of therapy build resilience?
SE works with the bodies most primitive instincts to help integrate trauma memories into the body. When this occurs, a person will experience a greater sense of safety within themselves. In other words, a person gains a sense of mastery over themselves and their feelings. It is a knowing that you can handle and tolerate what you are experiencing. Resilience is a byproduct of knowing you have the internal resources to survive and this is what we teach the body through the process of SE.
I love the title of your book, Moving Beyond Trauma. What can a life beyond trauma look like, and what kind of hope does it bring?
Thank you! When trauma is resolved we gain capacity to live our lives with more presence and intention. We can connect to ourselves and others and feel more curious to explore the things that we like. Ultimately moving beyond trauma allows the space to find passion and vibrance. I like to think of life after trauma as a healing lifestyle. A healing lifestyle is different for each person, but it is a life of self-care with body/mind alignment. It is a life beyond survival where an individual can and has the desire to grow and thrive.
Where can people learn more about somatic experiencing?
My book Moving Beyond Trauma is available on Amazon.
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