What Somatic Experiencing (SE) has to offer writers and readers

Ruth Shidlo, PhD

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-based therapy first developed by Dr. Peter Levine in the late seventies. Since then, it has been increasingly refined, and used with great success in many parts of the world, primarily as a trauma therapy. This is because trauma is understood as characterizing the response of one’s nervous system to a specific event (or events), rather than as characterizing the event itself. “The body keeps the score” (Van Der Kolk) and its inherent wisdom can be harnessed to help resolve trauma.

When faced with an imminent threat, certain elective physiological processes are inhibited, in order to free up resources for the Fight or Flight stress response. The amygdala (part of the limbic system that mediates emotion) sends out a distress signal to the hypothalamus, a “command center” that communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomous nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system springs to action, digestive processes are put on hold. Stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are released, and the heart beats faster than before, working hard as it pushes blood to the muscles and limbs, heart and other vital organs. Pulse and heart rate go up, and the person begins to breathe more rapidly. Extra oxygen is directed to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses, necessary for survival, become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

As Peter Levine has pointed out, surplus energy left over from that recruited to deal with threat will have nowhere to go, especially when Fight or Flight were not possible, or we responded with Freeze, a third and equally valid response of the nervous system to threat. Over time, this accumulation of energy may lead to symptom formation, as the body-mind remains in a chronic state of activation and stress. The “all-clear” signal has not yet fully registered.

In SE, we work with one physical sensation at a time, and learn how to release trapped energy in the body. This may require completing Fight or Flight responses, which were not possible at the time (e.g., a car accident, surgery), so that a natural process of releasing or discharging the energy did not occur.

Bottom line:

It pays to become increasingly attuned to our bodily sensations, something one learns and practices during SE. Moreover, all feelings have bodily referents. For example, sadness may be accompanied by one’s eyes tearing, a trembling of the chin, a wavering voice, bursting into tears; a sense of shame may be expressed by averting one’s eyes or looking downwards, joy by smiling or dancing. Being aware of our bodily sensations informs an emergent awareness of our feelings.

In SE, we practice utilizing convergent channels of multimodal information, all of which flow towards and co-create the overall “gestalt” we have of a certain object, person, situation–what Eugene Gendlin has termed, the Felt Sense. These channels are:


Image (whether visual, auditory, tactile)

Behavior (and the impulse toward movement)

Affect (feelings and emotions)

Meaning (thoughts, beliefs)

How is this relevant to the process of writing or reading?

For the writer, this bodily attunement and its expression can bring characters alive, especially when interwoven with additional channels, such as the character’s thoughts, feelings or behavior. This allows the reader to respond in similar vein, tapping into his or her own feelings.

It is not necessary to literally share an actual situation or an event with a character, for the reader to empathize with his or her plight – rather, it’s about conveying enough multimodal information for the reader to be able to understand the shared experience of an emotion e.g., what if feels like to experience the loss of a loved one, to be shamed and humiliated, to overcome what has hitherto seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Reading helps us be in touch with ourselves and work through our feelings.