What is Somatic Experiencing® and How Does it Heal Trauma/Chronic Pain?

Dr. Sharlene Bird Visits EMH Physical Therapy

One of the things I love most about being in the healthcare field is learning from other practitioners. Through my years as a physical therapist treating chronic pain patients, I’ve found that a team approach works better than an isolated one. So, when Dr. Sharlene Bird, a clinical psychologist, came to talk to the EMH team I couldn’t wait to pick her brain!

Dr. Bird is a New York State Licensed Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist and Certified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapist who specializes in CBT and SE®. Say What? Let me translate the alphabet soup.

Dr. Bird has been in practice for over 20 years treating individuals and couples who experience sexual dysfunction and/or childhood trauma.

Initially, Dr. Bird mainly used a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach, aka “everything is in the head”.  However, over the past seven years, she’s been integrating Somatic Experiencing® (SE) with great results.

Somatic Experiencing® (SE)

SE®, developed by Dr. Peter Levine, focuses on the patient’s actual physical response in conjunction with the nervous system’s reaction to past traumatic experiences. There is a healthy range of responses to trauma which doesn’t wreack havoc on our physical and emotional stability.

In the graph below, you’ll see a normal range of responses: settling between being activated/heightened or relaxed/lowered.


image credit www.mindfulsomatictherapy.com/

Unhealthy levels are those responses that are outside of the “normal” range. If a patient is too elevated above the normal range they may be suffering with anxiety, panic, digestive issues, hypersensitivity to sounds (heightened startle reflex), sleep problems or chronic pain.

Too low under normal range and a patient may be suffering with depression, flat affect, lethargy, poor digestion or chronic fatigue.


image credit www.mindfulsomatictherapy.com/

SE® helps the body resolve physical and emotional trauma so one can reach a sense of being “settled.” By working with her patients on becoming present and mindful in a safe space, Sharlene helps her patients heal.

As a DPT I’m obviously focused more on the “body healing” side of things, but I understand that our mind plays a big role in how we process pain.

Releasing Trauma

With the SE® approach, Dr. Bird asks a patient, “As you recall that trauma, what begins to happen inside your body?” this allows the patient to focus on the senses their body is feeling. The simple act of being mindful of how the body feels when remembering a traumatic experience plays a large role in freeing trauma. The patient will then be able to resolve the stalled ‘fight-or-flight’ response that occurred at the time of their trauma. This treatment approach completes the loop to healing.

Dr. Bird works with patients for weeks or months to learn to read and help patients sense what is going on in their bodies in small manageable bits. She creates an environment that is moderately stressful, but still safe and controlled, to expand the capacity for creating new experiences and learning to “ride the wave.” The end goal is to re-establish a natural ability of the nervous system to shift smoothly between being activated and settled within the normal ranges.

Dr. Bird encourages mindfulness and sensory awareness and ended her presentation with a quote by Steve Goodier that is so fitting and helps us appreciate our bodies:

“You have a great body. It is an intricate piece of technology and a sophisticated super-computer. It runs on peanuts and even regenerates itself. Your relationship with your body is one of the most important relationships you’ll ever have. And since repairs are expensive and spare parts are hard to come by, it pays to make that relationship good.”

In today’s hectic world we can all use a reminder to be kind to ourselves and our bodies and keep that relationship “good.”

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If you feel like Somatic Experiencing® will help you on your healing journey, see the resources below for more information. Happy feeling & happy healing!


http://www.drsbird.net/: for more about Dr. Sharlene Bird

http://somaticexperiencing.com/: for more on Dr. Peter Levine and Somatic Experiencing®











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