20 min

Can Somatic Experiencing Help in Healing from Past Traumas?

Published on
April 11, 2024
River Braun
Embodiment Coach
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In the quiet moments, when the hustle of the world dims to a whisper, the echoes of past traumas can feel like unwelcome shadows, lingering and shaping how you move through life. You might notice it in the way your breath shortens at sudden sounds, or how certain places or words send a ripple of unease through your body. These reactions are not merely emotional responses but are deeply rooted in your physical being, telling tales of past pain that your mind and body have not forgotten.

This is where the gentle power of somatic experiencing steps into the light—a therapeutic approach that honors your body's wisdom as a pathway to healing. Developed by Dr. Peter Levine, somatic experiencing moves beyond traditional talk therapy by focusing on the body's role in trauma recovery. It's based on the understanding that trauma is not just a psychological issue but a physiological one that resides within the body's very cells and fibers.

Somatic experiencing provides a means to navigate through the stormy seas of past traumas towards a calmer shore. It invites you to tune into your body's signals, to listen and learn from them, and to engage in a healing process that acknowledges and releases the stored energies of trauma. This approach doesn't ask you to relive your pain but to witness and gently renegotiate your experiences, allowing for the possibility of transformation and liberation from the grip of the past.

Embracing somatic experiencing is like beginning a dialogue with your body, one that has the potential to shift the narrative from one of survival to one of thriving. It's a journey towards healing and rediscovering a sense of wholeness and connection within yourself.

The Nature of Trauma

Trauma is more than a moment of fear or a memory of a bad day; it's an event that overwhelms ordinary human adaptations to life. It's those moments that strip us of control, dignity, and connection, leaving us feeling powerless and disconnected from a sense of belonging or meaning. Trauma digs deep, challenging our very understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

But trauma's grip extends beyond the confines of our psychological experiences. It takes residence in our bodies, manifesting as physical reminders of our most vulnerable moments. Our nervous system, caught in the echoes of past traumas, can find itself locked in patterns of hyperarousal or numbing long after the initial event has passed. These reactions are not just emotional scars but somatic memories, where trauma lives within our physical selves as much as it does in our minds.

The sensations—a quickened heartbeat at a sudden noise, a tenseness in shoulders in specific settings, or an unexplained heaviness in the air—serve as the body's way of recalling the trauma. It’s as though our bodies become containers for these overwhelming experiences, holding onto them in the language of muscle memory and reflexive responses.

Recognizing that trauma impacts both mind and body in such profound ways illuminates the importance of addressing both in the healing process. This understanding calls for therapeutic approaches that do not solely navigate the cognitive and emotional realms but also engage directly with the body's unique story of trauma. 

Somatic experiencing, for instance, offers a path to healing that honors the body's role in trauma, aiming to release and resolve the physiological aspects of trauma and, in doing so, foster a deeper, more holistic recovery.

Foundations of Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing (SE) emerges from the insightful work of Dr. Peter Levine, a therapist who recognized the profound impact of trauma on the body's natural equilibrium. His observations of animals in the wild led to a pivotal insight: animals instinctively shake off the physical tension after a life-threatening event, essentially 'releasing' the trauma from their bodies. 

Intrigued by this natural mechanism for coping with and recovering from stress, Dr. Levine developed Somatic Experiencing as a therapeutic approach that applies this wisdom to help humans resolve the symptoms of trauma. 

Since its inception, SE has offered a groundbreaking perspective on healing, emphasizing the body's inherent ability to self-regulate and return to balance after traumatic events.

The core principles of Somatic Experiencing rest on the understanding that trauma disrupts the body's natural rhythms and that healing involves restoring these rhythms through the body's innate capacity for self-regulation. Key principles include:

1. The Triune Brain Model

SE incorporates the concept of the triune brain, which consists of the reptilian (instinctual), limbic (emotional), and neocortex (rational) brain systems. Trauma affects all three systems, and SE works to harmonize these parts, restoring a sense of safety and balance.

Let’s explore this a little further.

Imagine your brain as a house with three different levels, each responsible for different types of thinking and feeling. This is the idea behind the triune brain model, which helps us understand how we respond to the world around us, especially when we're dealing with trauma.

1. The Basement - The Reptilian Brain: This is the oldest part of our brain, like the house's basement. It's in charge of our basic survival instincts — think about automatic things your body does without thinking, like your heartbeat or blinking. When you're startled by a loud noise, it's this part of the brain that decides if you should freeze, fight back, or run away.

2. The Main Floor - The Limbic System: Moving up, the main floor of our brain house is where our emotions live. This part helps us feel love, fear, anger, and joy. It's also where we form memories, especially emotional ones. If the basement is about surviving, the main floor is about feeling.

3. The Attic - The Neocortex: The top level of the brain is the newest and most advanced. It's like the attic where we do all our complex thinking and planning. This part helps us solve problems, think about the future, and use language. It's where we can consider our actions and their consequences before we make a move.

When we experience trauma, it's like a storm hitting our brain house, affecting all three levels. The reptilian brain might go into overdrive, making us feel constantly on edge. The limbic system might flood us with strong emotions or flashbacks. And the neocortex might struggle to make sense of what happened or find it hard to plan for the future.

A Somatic Experiencing practitioner is like a skilled repair person for our brain house, helping to fix the storm's damage. It works to bring peace to the basement, comfort to the main floor, and clarity to the attic. By addressing how trauma impacts each part of the brain, SE helps restore a sense of safety and balance, making the whole house — or in this case, you — feel secure and whole again.

2. Titration

This principle involves gradually exposing the individual to the traumatic memory or sensation, avoiding overwhelming the nervous system. By 'dosing' the experience in manageable increments, the individual can process the trauma without retraumatization. Essentially, you are in charge of how far and how fast you want to address these past traumas.

3. Pendulation

Pendulation refers to the natural rhythm between states of imbalance (dysregulation) and balance (regulation) in the body's physiological state. SE guides individuals to oscillate between these states, facilitating the release of traumatic energy and the return to equilibrium. 

This is one of the factors that makes SE techniques more effective than traditional talk therapy–you are never diving headfirst into those painful memories and feelings. Instead, you are expertly guided into a space where you can observe the story–almost as an outsider, which enables you to have a little more objectivity and allows you to revisit the trauma from a place of curiosity, rather than being re-traumatized as a participant.

4. Completion of Survival Responses

SE holds that traumatic responses are survival instincts that were thwarted at the moment of trauma. The therapy helps individuals complete these survival responses, releasing pent-up survival energy and allowing the body to recognize that the traumatic event is over.

What does this look like in a coaching context?

Example 1: The Unfinished Fight

Imagine someone who experienced a mugging. During the event, they might have felt an intense urge to fight back but were unable to do so, perhaps because they were overpowered or froze in fear. This unexpressed energy remains in the body, contributing to feelings of anxiety or restlessness. In SE therapy, the individual might be guided to safely express this energy through controlled movements, such as pushing against a wall or a therapist's hands, allowing them to "complete" the fight response. This can help diminish the trapped energy and restore a sense of empowerment.

Example 2: The Frozen Flight

Consider someone who experienced a car accident and, in the moment, wanted to escape but couldn't move. This thwarted flight response might leave them feeling perpetually on edge, as if they're still trapped. In therapy, they might be encouraged to physically simulate running or fast walking in place, facilitating the completion of this flight response. Engaging in this controlled physical expression can help their body understand that they are now safe and free to move, reducing ongoing tension and hyper-vigilance.

Example 3: The Incomplete Freeze

For someone who froze during a traumatic event, like being publicly humiliated, their body might still carry the weight of that immobilization. They may experience moments of dissociation or numbing in daily life as a continuation of this freeze response. Through SE, they might engage in gentle trembling or shaking exercises, a natural way animals shake off stress, allowing the body to "thaw" from its frozen state and signaling that the danger has passed.

Example 4: The Hindered Submission

In situations where neither fight nor flight is possible, a person may resort to a submissive response, essentially playing dead to survive. Someone who experienced such trauma might later struggle with feelings of helplessness or depression. SE might involve exploring ways to slowly and safely "wake up" the body from this state, using breathwork or gradual movement, helping the individual reclaim their sense of agency and vitality.

These examples illustrate the nuanced approach SE takes towards healing, acknowledging the body's wisdom and capacity to move through trauma. By facilitating the completion of these survival responses, individuals can release pent-up energy and begin to heal more holistically, fostering a profound sense of relief and closure.

5. Resource Building

Before delving into trauma work, SE focuses on building resources — internal and external supports and skills that an individual can draw upon to maintain stability. This foundation ensures that individuals have the resilience to engage with the healing process.

Somatic Experiencing stands out as a testament to the body's wisdom and capacity for healing. By grounding its practices in these core principles, SE offers a path through trauma that is gentle, respectful, and profoundly transformative, inviting individuals to reconnect with their body's natural state of balance and peace.

The Body's Wisdom: Tuning into Somatic Signals

The concept of the body as a holder of trauma invites us to view our physical selves not just as passive vessels but as active participants in our healing journeys. This perspective shifts the focus from a solely cognitive understanding of trauma to one that recognizes the body's integral role in both storing and signaling unresolved trauma. Our bodies communicate through a language of sensations and responses, offering clues to the hidden impacts of past experiences.

Bodily sensations — such as a tightness in the chest, a knot in the stomach, or a sudden chill — can serve as signals of unresolved trauma. These sensations are the body's way of bringing attention to areas that require healing. For instance, a tightened chest might not just be a random occurrence; it could be the body's reminder of a past event that elicited fear or helplessness, with the physical sensation mirroring the emotional response from that time.

Similarly, responses like an exaggerated startle reflex or an inexplicable urge to flee from certain situations echo the body's survival mechanisms. These are not mere overreactions but somatic memories, the body's attempt to protect itself based on past traumas. Recognizing these responses as meaningful allows for a deeper understanding of trauma's presence in the body and opens up pathways for addressing and healing these wounds.

Tuning into these somatic signals requires a gentle, attentive approach. It involves cultivating a mindful awareness of the body's messages and learning to interpret and honor these signals without judgment. This process is akin to learning a new language — the language of your own body — which can guide you toward understanding and integrating traumatic experiences.

By acknowledging the body's wisdom and its role in signaling unresolved trauma, individuals can engage more fully in their healing process. This somatic awareness becomes a powerful tool, illuminating the path to releasing trauma and reclaiming a sense of wholeness and well-being.

It May Not Be YOUR Trauma…What?

Ancestral trauma, the psychological and emotional imprints from the traumas experienced by previous generations, suggests that the echoes of our ancestors' hardships can resonate within us, sometimes in ways we might not fully understand. This concept extends the understanding of trauma beyond the individual's lived experiences to include the collective and inherited effects of trauma that can permeate through generations, living in our DNA and manifesting in our bodily responses and emotional patterns.

The Legacy of Ancestral Trauma

Ancestral trauma posits that the traumas endured by our forebears — from wars and displacement to personal tragedies — don't simply vanish with time. Instead, they can be passed down, leaving an indelible mark on subsequent generations. This transmission can happen through genetic changes resulting from severe stress, known as epigenetic inheritance, where the effects of trauma alter the way genes are expressed, without changing the DNA sequence itself.

Recognizing Ancestral Trauma in the Body

Just as personal trauma can manifest as physical sensations and responses, ancestral trauma can also express itself through our bodies. Unexplained fears, anxieties, or physical symptoms may, in part, be echoes of our ancestors' unresolved traumas. Understanding this can be a crucial step in recognizing why certain patterns emerge in our lives and in our families, patterns that seem to have no direct link to our own lived experiences.

Healing Ancestral Trauma through Somatic Experiencing

Somatic experiencing offers a path to healing not just personal trauma but ancestral trauma as well. By tuning into our bodily sensations and responses with curiosity and compassion, we can begin to unravel the threads of trauma woven into our being across generations. This approach allows for a deep, cellular level of healing, as we acknowledge and release the inherited trauma stored within our bodies.

Engaging with the concept of ancestral trauma through somatic experiencing involves creating a space where these ancient wounds can be brought to light, honored, and addressed. It's a process of connecting with our lineage in a profound way, recognizing the strength and resilience passed down through generations, and taking steps to heal not only ourselves but our ancestral line. In doing so, we can break the cycle of trauma, freeing future generations from the burden of unresolved past pains.

This holistic approach to healing underscores the interconnectedness of personal, familial, and ancestral histories, emphasizing that our journey to wholeness encompasses not just our own experiences but those of the generations that came before us. By acknowledging and healing ancestral trauma, we honor our lineage, embrace our legacy, and pave the way for a future unburdened by the past.

What Does Somatic Experiencing Look Like?

So, you might be asking yourself, what might your journey through Somatic Experiencing look like in a coaching context?

It’s a good question! Let's go over what you might expect:

1. Creating a Safe Space

Your SE session begins with the establishment of a safe, comfortable space. Your practitioner will spend time getting to know you, your background, and your goals for therapy. This initial conversation is crucial for building trust and ensuring that you feel secure and understood.

2. Resource Identification

Before diving into any trauma work, your practitioner will help you identify 'resources' — these could be internal strengths or external support systems that make you feel safe and grounded. Focusing on these resources throughout the session helps maintain a sense of safety and balance.

3. Gentle Engagement with the Trauma

Rather than asking you to recount traumatic events in detail (which can be retraumatizing), your practitioner will guide you to gently notice any bodily sensations, emotions, or images that arise when you think about a particular experience. This approach respects your pace and comfort level, ensuring you're not overwhelmed.

4. Noticing and Tracking Bodily Sensations

Much of SE revolves around noticing and 'tracking' how your body responds as you lightly touch upon traumatic memories. You might be asked, "What do you notice in your body right now?" This could be anything from a tightness in your chest to a feeling of heaviness in your limbs. These sensations are clues to where trauma may be 'stuck' in your body.

5. Pendulation and Titration

These are two key techniques in SE:

  • Pendulation is the process of moving back and forth between sensations associated with trauma ('activation') and those that feel safe or neutral ('deactivation'). This helps you learn that you can safely experience and move out of traumatic sensations.
  • Titration involves breaking down the traumatic experience into small, manageable pieces, ensuring you're not overwhelmed and can integrate each piece before moving on.

Let’s look at some examples of what this might look like in a coaching session.

Imagine you're sitting in a comfortable, safe space with your Somatic Experiencing practitioner. You've been discussing a particular event that always seems to tighten your chest and quicken your breath, signs of 'activation' or distress in your body due to past trauma.


Your practitioner gently guides you to notice the tightness in your chest. Then, they invite you to shift your focus to your feet planted firmly on the ground, a sensation that feels grounding and safe — this is the 'deactivation.' You notice how your breath begins to slow, and the tightness eases as you focus on the solidity beneath you. Your practitioner then gently guides you back to noticing the tightness in your chest, and again back to your grounded feet. 

This back-and-forth, this 'pendulation,' teaches you that you can move into and out of distressing sensations safely, providing a profound sense of control and safety.


Instead of diving deep into the traumatic event all at once, your practitioner asks you to bring to mind just the very edge of the memory — maybe the moments leading up to it. You notice a slight tension in your shoulders but nothing overwhelming. You stay with this sensation until it starts to dissipate, grounding yourself with the feeling of the chair supporting you. Only then, and at your pace, might you move a step closer into the memory, always ensuring the sensations remain manageable. 

This 'titration' breaks the overwhelming experience into smaller, digestible pieces, making the process of confronting and healing from trauma more manageable and less daunting.

Through pendulation and titration, you learn to navigate your body's traumatic responses with a newfound sense of agency and safety, visualizing a path through which healing becomes non-threatening.

6. Discharge and Release

As you become more attuned to your body's sensations, you might begin to experience natural responses to trauma, such as shaking, crying, or deep breathing. These responses are your body's way of 'discharging' or releasing the pent-up energy associated with the trauma. Your practitioner supports you through this process, helping you understand that these responses are healthy and normal.

7. Integration and Closure

At the end of a session, your practitioner will guide you back to a state of balance and integration, ensuring you feel grounded and present before leaving. This might involve revisiting your resources or engaging in a grounding exercise. The aim is for you to leave feeling more settled and empowered, with a sense of having made progress in your healing journey.


Every SE session is uniquely tailored to your specific needs and pace. The goal is not to dive headfirst into traumatic memories but to gently unravel and release the trauma stored in your body at your own pace, supporting your journey toward healing and wholeness.

Benefits of Somatic Experiencing for Trauma Healing

When you are able to process your past trauma through methods like Somatic Experiencing, the transformation can be profound, touching every aspect of your life. Here are some of the remarkable benefits that may emerge from this journey of trauma healing:

  1. Restored Sense of Safety and Trust: Individuals often regain a fundamental sense of safety within themselves and in their relationships, restoring trust in people and the world around them.
  2. Reduced Physical Symptoms: Many physical manifestations of trauma, such as chronic pain, tension, and fatigue, may significantly diminish or even disappear.
  3. Emotional Regulation: People are more able to manage and express emotions in healthy ways, reducing instances of overwhelming fear, anxiety, or anger.
  4. Enhanced Resilience: Individuals develop a stronger capacity to cope with stress and adversity, finding it easier to bounce back from challenging situations.
  5. Improved Relationships: With better emotional regulation and communication, relationships can become more meaningful, supportive, and fulfilling.
  6. Greater Presence and Mindfulness: There's a newfound ability to live in the present moment, appreciating life with mindfulness and gratitude.
  7. Increased Vitality and Energy: Releasing the physical burden of trauma can lead to a surge in energy and vitality, allowing individuals to engage more fully in life.
  8. Enhanced Self-Esteem: Overcoming trauma can significantly boost self-esteem and self-worth, fostering a stronger sense of identity and confidence.
  9. Freedom from Intrusive Thoughts and Memories: The grip of trauma on the mind loosens, leading to fewer intrusive thoughts and flashbacks, making room for more positive and constructive thinking.
  10. Expanded Capacity for Joy and Connection: As the weight of trauma lifts, individuals often find it easier to experience joy, connect with others, and engage in activities they love.
  11. Healing of Intergenerational Trauma: The healing process can also impact familial patterns, potentially stopping the cycle of trauma for future generations.
  12. Empowerment and Agency: There's a powerful sense of empowerment that comes from navigating the healing process, leading to a greater sense of control over one’s life and choices.

The journey through Somatic Experiencing paves the way for a life not defined by trauma but enriched by a deeper understanding of oneself and an enhanced capacity for healing and growth.

Finding a Qualified Somatic Experiencing Practitioner

Embarking on your healing journey with Somatic Experiencing requires a guide who is not only skilled but also deeply compassionate and attuned to your unique experiences. Here are some tips to help you find a trained and experienced practitioner:

  1. Check Certifications: Look for a practitioner who has completed comprehensive training in Somatic Experiencing techniques. 
  2. Experience Matters: Seek out a therapist with experience in addressing the type of trauma you’re working through. It’s beneficial if they have a background in working with similar age groups or issues.
  3. Compatibility is Key: The therapeutic relationship is foundational. Ensure that your practitioner’s approach and demeanor resonate with you, offering a sense of safety and understanding.
  4. Ask About Their Methods: A good practitioner will be open about their methods and how they apply SE in their practice. This can help you gauge if their approach aligns with your healing needs.
  5. Consider Logistics: Location, session frequency, and cost are practical considerations. Some practitioners offer virtual sessions, providing flexibility for those with busy schedules or limited access to local therapists.

Are You Ready To Work Through Your Past Trauma and Live a Life You Crave?

Somatic Experiencing stands as a beacon of hope for those navigating the complex terrain of trauma recovery. Its emphasis on the body’s wisdom and capacity for healing offers a transformative path beyond traditional talk therapy. By engaging with SE, individuals can reclaim a sense of safety, vitality, and joy, stepping into a life not defined by past traumas but enriched by a newfound sense of empowerment and resilience.

If you feel called to explore how Somatic Experiencing techniques can illuminate your path to healing, I invite you to reach out. An exploratory call can provide the clarity and confidence to take that first step towards recovery. Together, we can discuss your unique journey and how SE can support your healing process, ensuring that you find the approach that best meets your needs.

Don't let the past define your future. Schedule an exploration call with me today, and let’s begin the journey toward reclaiming your life with courage, compassion, and the transformative power of Somatic Experiencing techniques in Embodiment Coaching.

Professional Scope Notice: I am not a licensed medical professional, mental health provider, or a member of the clergy. As an Embodiment Coach, my services are not a substitute for professional healthcare or mental health services, nor do they constitute medical or psychological advice. The guidance offered through my services is for personal growth and should not replace the advice given by medical or mental health professionals. Always consult your healthcare provider for any health-related issues and before making any substantial changes to your health regimen.