Somatic Experiencing Can Help Heal Food and Weight Problems

What is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic Experiencing is a powerful body-based therapy that allows you to move through and heal issues that keep you from living the life you want. Somatic Experiencing (SE) is the result of the life-long work of Peter Levine, PhD, who spent over 40 years developing this system to relieve stress and trauma, the same stress and trauma that can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders

The Threat/Response Cycle: Using Food to Manage Stress

The key word here is cycle. When faced with a threat or stress, the body responds by mobilizing energy to deal with that stress or threat. This is the activation phase. Then, when the event is over, a similar response occurs, but in reverse. This is the deactivation phase.

Mobilizing the energy back out of the body and re-establishing a kind of equilibrium: a state of relaxed alertness. Activation without deactivation is an incomplete cycle, and can leave a lot of energy stuck in the body, creating symptoms and discomfort, such as:

  • overeating, undereating, emotional eating, drinking, angry outbursts, etc. It can also eventually cause physical problems, such as neck and back pain, thyroid and immune problems (due to the impact on the nervous system). It can lead to disorders such as eating disorders, and can cause trauma symptoms.

Imagine you’re out hiking, worrying about an upcoming meeting at work, and noticing the variety of plants and trees around you, and…suddenly you’re face to face with a bear. Immediately, and involuntarily, activation of the stress/threat response kicks in: adrenaline pumps, heart rate speeds up, muscles tense, eyes become focused only on the bear and perhaps an escape route. The mind sharpens and considers only what’s necessary for survival (the worries about that upcoming meeting have vanished). Your stomach stops digesting your lunch – you can digest that sandwich later – if there is a later.

Thankfully, the bear took one look at you, decided you weren’t a threat or food, turned around and walked away. (Feel free to pause here and take a deep breath).

Now that you’re safe, your body can complete the cycle: the deactivation phase. First, all that energy that got mobilized in the activation phase (to run like you’ve never run in your life) will need to be discharged. You might shake or tremble, cry, have several sighs of relief – however it does it, your body lets that energy out. Once that’s done, the heart rate calms back down, eyes relax and can take in the whole environment you’re in again, digestion resumes, and the mind will once again be free to ponder, and worry about trivial problems (though your perspective might have changed). Congratulations: a complete cycle.
If only life and dealing with stress were that simple though, right? 

Some of us have several bears a day coming at us in the form of job insecurity, being late and stuck in traffic, a big fight with our spouse and a possible divorce, a sick child, money problems, – I could go on, but I bet you get the idea. So many activations of our stress response, so few opportunities to complete them and re-regulate. And stress accumulates. Symptoms can appear, with no ‘obvious’ origin. But there is a way to manage this. Part of it is understanding how your body works. Part of is is having good help to get the accumulation of stress relieved. And, lastly, learning how to build resiliency in your own system so you can continue to thrive in the stressful world that is the reality that humans live in now.

Somatic Experiencing (SE)® will help reduce symptoms, such as emotional eating, and restore a sense of goodness in one’s body, and in one’s life. 

When we experience something overwhelming enough it has the potential to leave an imprint of trauma on our nervous system. All animals have a hard-wired-into-the-nervous-system way to respond to overwhelm: when fighting, fleeing, or hiding are not viable options, we freeze. This freeze state is meant to be short term, and temporary. And coming out of the freeze state requires the body to be able to mobilize all of the energy that got “frozen” mid-fight or flight. This can happen in a variety of ways, but that discharge is essential for the completion of the stress response cycle. 

When the energy of activation stays stuck in the body, it will persist in trying to do it’s job – attempting completion of the activation/deactivation cycle. This can show up as chronic muscle tension, a slightly elevated heart rate all the time, shallow breathing, scattered thinking – basically shadows of our threat response that are going off chronically and taking a lot of energy to do so.

Symptoms of accumulated stress, or trauma, can range from being irritating, to exhausting, to utterly miserable. And, the more they’re focused on, the worse they can become. What they’re really needing is support. What a suffering nervous system needs is relief. What could be more relieving in a crisis than for it to be over? For the threat to be gone. For the danger to be passed – and to know you’re safe. To know everything is OK – to know that you’re OK.

So, we practice that in whatever way is accessible in the moment. Funny, many of us actually have to learn to tolerate feelings of ease. But in time, it can become more comfortable, and even familiar to know what safety feels like. And as that balance begins to tip, the content of what left us traumatized can begin to soften and dissolve. Leaving more space in our body, mind, and spirit for the goodness we all need and yearn form

Trauma is Accumulated Stress

The word ’trauma’ is frequently misunderstood. It’s often thought of as a problem in the mind. It conjures up the suggestion of something horrible having happened: war, rape, natural disasters, etc. While the mind is part of what trauma effects, the roots of trauma are held in the body. And there’s no one thing that causes trauma. Trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event. 

What is intensely overwhelming to one person could be experienced completely differently by another. Another way to think of it is accumulated stress in the body, instead of “trauma”.

What creates trauma is anything that’s overwhelming in such a way that the nervous system cannot regulate completely back to neutral afterwards. It’s like the stress gets frozen in time in the body, waiting to be released, or for the stress to be over with. Even after the actual event is passed, the feelings of distress can linger. Sometimes for years or even decades. And, one of the mysteries of trauma is that symptoms can take years to develop – which in and of itself can be confusing, and also potentially overwhelming.

Symptoms of trauma can also manifest from repetitive seemingly unimportant stresses. Since a healthy nervous system relies on regular intervals of rest for release of activated energy in response to stress, and regulation afterwards once the stress has passed – it becomes clear how the incessant nature of our modern world is enough to create overwhelm in a nervous system.

Accumulated stress in the body effects many people’s lives – sometimes very adversely. There are the “obvious” causes, such as war, rape, or natural disasters, and those are very serious events to live through. But there are plenty of other ways a person can be suddenly or continually overwhelmed in life. Enough so that they become disconnected from the goodness in their body, and in their life, which over time can be devastating.

And, when the origin of these experiences or symptoms is a mystery, that by itself if an ongoing stress. Thank goodness in Somatic Experiencing we don’t have to know the story or root of the problem to solve it!

What it Looks Like

Somatic Experiencing® is essentially a study of how energy moves through complex systems. There is an optimal organization of body rhythms, systems, and structures – and endless variations from the ideal. No two systems are the same. But every one has the potential for better organization within their organism, and more ease of energy movement through it.

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When a nervous system is faced with a stress that creates overwhelm, and doesn’t get a chance to settle fully afterwards, it can be difficult to regulate back to a state of ‘normal’. This can result in chronic over/under-stimulation of the nervous system and resulting body functions. We try to manage it by overeating, undereating, working out, drinking, drugs, overworking, angry outbursts, blaming others when we feel terrible. Over time, symptoms can manifest, such as eating problems, eating disorders, panic attacks, anxiety, chronic pain, thyroid or autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, etc.


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The good news is, recovery from trauma is possible. With Somatic Experiencing®, we can explore together what keeps you locked in, how to find the way out of the cycle of trauma, and back to your best health. Your nervous system is hard-wired to know how to recover from both cumulative and traumatic stresses. 

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Every person has their own constellation of life experiences that have gone well (and not so well). So the way we unwind what’s stuck is totally individual. In an SE® session we follow your body’s intelligence and can use any combination of the following tools:
– talking
– movement
– breath
– sensation awareness and tracking
- images or ideas that come to mind
- orientation to the environment through looking around, listening, and feeling our external environment

We’re always working with the body. Whatever shows up in a session I’m always tracking cycles of activation and deactivation in your nervous system and looking for opportunities for completion and settling. This allows you to feel more comfortable in your body, and gets you in touch with the hunger/satiety signals, allowing you to quit eating when satisfied more easily.

It’s in the felt sense of safety that the nervous system regulates back to neutral, allowing true resolution of the trauma. You can know in your mind that there’s no tiger in the room, but until your body knows – and relaxes because it knows there’s no tiger – there will always be a kind of constant, usually unconscious awareness of ongoing threat. As long as there is that unconscious awareness of threat, you will return to food to try to manage it.

We will work together to explore how your body knows safety and comfort. With SE, we are practicing and rebuilding a kind of resiliency in your nervous system. This not only helps resolve the accumulated stress in your body, but will equip you with the ability to be less susceptible to future impacts. Because life is full of possible stresses and traumas, but suffering from them does not have to be a life-sentence.