Healing Trauma in the Somatic Nervous System

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Author Name: Mia Barnes
Date: Tuesday February 21, 2023

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Sadly, trauma is all too common, with 60% of men and 50% of women experiencing at least one traumatic event — such as physical or sexual assault, medical trauma, child abuse, accidents, natural disaster or witnessing a death. For some, it nestles itself in the somatic nervous system, carrying long-lasting crippling effects on the body and mind.

If you’ve ever felt trauma and now struggle to release its grip on you, restoring the somatic nervous system may provide relief. Here’s what you need to know about somatic experiencing for trauma recovery.

What Is the Somatic Nervous System?

The somatic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system, enabling movement and muscle control throughout the body. It also sends information to the brain regarding taste, smell, touch and sound. 

The somatic nervous system spreads throughout the body through cranial nerves from the brain and spinal cord. Some nerves are sensory and deliver information to the brain, while others manage your motor skills from the brain to your muscles. Typically, somatic nerve endings usually stop in your fingers and toes. 

Physical harm to the somatic nervous system may lead to a loss of feeling upon touch, numbness, a “pins and needles” sensation and referred pain. However, studies have shown that the psychological impacts of negative sensory experiences also get stored in the body as somatic memories.

Trauma’s Affect on the Somatic Nervous System

Trauma ultimately rewires the brain after posing a threat to one’s body. The onset of sudden or chronic stress on the nervous system stimulates physical changes and reactions.

Sensory processing entails registering, arranging and regulating sensory information to issue an appropriate bodily reaction to stress. When a person experiences sudden or chronic trauma, the somatic nervous system holds onto the event, leaving a “trauma imprint” on muscle memory. At its worst, this occurrence could result in a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. 

The most common side effects of trauma on the somatic nervous system are pain and fatigue — however, constant thoughts and feelings about pain may make it increasingly challenging to handle. Sometimes, somatic symptoms are so dire that they affect people’s daily lives.

Addressing the effects of trauma on the somatic nervous system is crucial for relieving the body from a sense of threat. To achieve this, research has since pointed to a modern therapeutic approach called somatic experiencing.

Somatic Experiencing for Trauma Recovery

Somatic Experiencing (SE) essentially releases trauma-induced tension that gets trapped within the body. However, before diving in, long, deep breaths will help relax your overactive nervous system and prepare for SE. 

Practitioners follow a particular framework to address trauma imprints in the somatic nervous system, as follows:

  • Sensation: Gaining awareness of your body’s sensations
  • Imagery: Guided imagery in which you explain what you feel to the practitioner 
  • Behavior: The practitioner observes how your body responds to your internal experience 
  • Affect: The emotions you display during the guided SE experience, such as tone, speed of speech and word choice
  • Meaning: What you gained from the experience of SE

SE isn’t an overnight fix for the somatic system — instead, it’s a gradual healing process that addresses the cognitive and physical responses to trauma. Yet, a 2017 study discovered that 44.1% of individuals undergoing SE overcame their PTSD diagnosis. 

Although many professionals claim to know how to perform SE, the practice was developed by Dr. Peter Levine. Therefore, finding a therapist in the SE directory is the best way to ensure you choose an experienced practitioner with the proper training.

Leave the Past Behind You

Trauma can hinder the somatic nervous system’s ability to self-regulate, especially when trauma is chronic. In addition to developing coping skills and stabilized moods, SE can restore the body to a sense of safety. If leaving the past behind you with SE is frightening, remember that there’s happiness and meaning on the other side of your pain. 

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