Amanda Huffman, a clinical social work/therapist who uses holistic, integrative, evidence-based, & cutting edge approaches in her practice.
Amanda talks about Somatic Experiencing therapy and how it can help people with anxiety and OCD.
- How long does it take to become a somatic experiencing therapist?
- The theory behind somatic experiencing
- How somatic experiencing can help process trauma
- How is somatic experiencing different from other therapies?
- Amanda’s view on somatic experiencing and Christian faith
Links and Resources:
Carrie: Hope for anxiety and OCD, episode 66. Today on the show we are talking with Amanda Huffman. Who’s a licensed clinical social worker about somatic experiencing therapy. This one is a little bit near and dear to my heart because as I discussed way back in episode 10, I actually received some somatic experiencing therapy for myself before I started to date again, it was super helpful and allowed me to open myself up to another relationship after my divorce.
I loved talking through any body-based therapy because our body gets so activated when you’re dealing with anxiety or even with OCD. There are a lot of those similar symptoms internally that are very distressing. It allows us to tap into deeper places than simply doing talk therapy. And I hope you’re able to learn a lot from Amanda today. Amanda, I really believe that therapists choose modalities that align with them personally and professionally. How did you become interested in somatic experiencing?
Amanda: That’s a fun question, actually, maybe a little different than others. I started my early career, was in the psychiatric hospital and they trained me in dialectical behavior therapy. And so I developed this kind of, like, heart for working with people with trauma. I started to see it as like, you know, trauma’s really at the root, what prompts the suffering, be it depression, anxiety, or personality-based stuff. If you follow it down to the core, we’re looking at early trauma experiences.
One of my dear friends was just like, Hey, there’s this SE training coming to Austin, like, we should do it. And I was like, let’s okay, sure. Let’s sign up for it. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, in the beginning. Once I signed up, I did read Peter’s book and thought, wow! this, this really sounds like amazing work. And that’s, you know, my interest began to get more and more peaked by this, you know, new modality that I didn’t know much about.
Carrie: Is Peter Levine? When you read his book, is it waking the tiger?
Amanda: He has several, but waking the tiger is one of the real foundational books that if people are interested. I would recommend they start with that one.
Carrie: So you were just really looking for an effective trauma treatment and kind of got dragged into the initial training.
Amanda: Totally. And that’s a funny story too, actually. So here I am in this training, didn’t know what to expect and you know, I come from a very cognitive world. I love DBT, I still use it. There’s a place and time for everything. But, so I come from this cognitive, this world of DBT, and now I’m in the experiential world and I’m like, what it’s happening? And the training itself is different, right? Because it’s a lot of like, let’s get into this and let’s practice with each other. There was this moment I was in like really close to the front. And one of the students in front of me started to have, like a physiological reaction in the midst of the training. And so Maggie Klein, the SE trainer in Austin at the time, she said, “would it be okay if I moved over and I did a little SE work with you”, you know, here in the training let to let people see it, the student was game for it, but I’m sitting right behind them.
So as she’s doing the SE work, I notice my arms start twitching. And I’m like, what is happening to my body? I just went home and let. I laid on my couch and let it twitch. And I’m like, wow! There is really something to this. There was something shifting deeper in my own body just by being near the work that was being done.
And then I was hooked. I was like, I’m in it. I’m sold. I’m gonna follow this to the end.
Carrie: There’s actually three parts to it. Right? I mean, it takes a while to get trained, you know, in somatic experiencing.
Amanda: it’s a big commitment. That’s three years. It’s 36 days total, over three years. And it’s really worth it. If there’s a possibility of doing the training, I highly recommend it.
Carrie: And then you went on the third year is actually, touch. And it’s not necessarily always therapists that are in there. Sometimes there are massage therapists and other practitioners that get involved in this training. And after that, you went on to get trained in base. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Amanda: In your advanced year of SE you do learn about touch and I found it to be very powerful. Being a psychotherapist. I knew that I wanted something more, cause I did not have the background, like body workers come into the training with it. So, Dave Burger, his legacy faculty for SE Somatic Experiencing International.
He’s also a physical therapist as well as a counselor. And a massage therapist and he created a training called Base Bodywork and Somatic Education. The training really goes more in depth around anatomy. It’s like thinking about the body globally, regionally and locally. And so, we might work more specifically in base with a structure like a kidney, your liver, your kidney, and do hands-on work in those specific areas of the body.
Carrie: Tell us about the theory. Behind somatic experiencing and how it works.
Amanda: That’s a big question. I’ll try to keep it brief. So it was founded by Peter Levine. He was studying trauma and started to look at animals in the wild, like how do they recover from trauma? If they survive a, an attack by a predator that led him to look at the nervous system. And to start to work with the nervous system in conjunction with, you know, what we would normally do in talk, you know, in therapy, which is utilize, talk, unlike cognitive based therapies, as he is gonna work more with the brain stem, we’re gonna incorporate more of body sensation. We’re gonna look at reflexes. We’re gonna look at impulses, board movement.
So as a practitioner, I’m tracking two things, I’m tracking the content of the information, the story. That the client is bringing in, but I’m also tracking the nervous system. So I’m watching, like, did that bit of information. Did someone start to have an, an increase in energy in their body?
Their color might shift or they could get really steel? Their eyes could get a little bit bigger. So you learn to watch for things that might inform me that this person is starting to kind of tiptoe back into a fight, flight or freeze response that happened in the moment of a trauma, but we’re working to integrate that energy. Right?
So, trauma itself is a high energy state. That energy comes into the body and we need to be able to let the energy go. But a lot of times that gets inhibited. It might be that somebody’s unconscious, or they get strapped to a gurney or they get loaded down with medicines, but it inhibits that natural release of the nervous system.
And so, what we are doing is we’re allowing that process to start to emerge in a slow titrated way. So that energy that got bound up during the trauma can now be renegotiated within the body. So it becomes life energy again.
Carrie: And there’s some, a little bit of movement involved in that, right?
Amanda: We incorporate movement. We can incorporate touch. Not all SEPs choose to do that. So you have an option around your comfort level. I had a young client who was in a car accident as we worked through the car accident and got closer to the moment of the trauma, where she was hit. We follow the impulse of the body and what her body wanted to do was really.
Her arms and body started to move to the right. It was like, almost as if she had wanted to turn her car away to avoid being hit. And so we let the body follow that instinct. Let’s see what happens if we follow this through and let the body do what it wanted to do. But what got inhibited in that moment?
Carrie: I know a lot of times people with anxiety will have things like leg shaking, you know, where their leg will just be bouncing up and down. All over the place and they’re just like, I just always do that. So that’s something that you would kind of pick up on and notice that’s how you utilize that energy.
Amanda: That’s right. So like that would tell me right away, I’m like, okay, I’m looking at their nervous system. Right? Their sympathetic nervous system sets high. Right? There’s a high level of energy in their body all the time. Right? That just kind of clues me into where we might start working with that person.
I might not go directly to the legs. I might not even bring that up at all, but as the person starts to give me the content of what they’re wanting to work on. As a practitioner, I might be more aware of helping them learn to settle. How do we bring a parasympathetic online, which is the part of our autonomic nervous system that helps bring us down. It’s like we need to practice the coming down so that you can live from a place of ease and flow. Your baseline can be relaxed.
Carrie: That’s good. It does take practice. If you are used to living at that high state, and it almost can become a comfortable discomfort. It’s uncomfortable, but I’m used to it.
Amanda: That’s right. It is also interesting. It gets maybe like a little bit more complex that sometimes when trauma happens, it can happen when we’re in a relaxed state though, if you’re sleeping, if you were at ease and, and you were shocked by trauma, that happened when you were relaxed. There might be a part of your body that says, “I don’t wanna go back there”. Right? I wanna be relaxed again because I’m not on guard. I’m not vigilant to everything that could be happening around me. Right? So it’s like your system gets stuck in a hypervigilant state watching, trying to prevent any trauma from rehappening.
Carrie: I have not been trained in SE, but I actually received some from another therapist, I talked about this on episode 10 of the podcast. What happened was I went through a pretty traumatic divorce. And then as I was trying to go back out and date, it’s almost like my body would not let me. It was like, I couldn’t sleep. I was having high anxiety and it was only surrounding like the dating issue. And I was like, okay, my life is fine if I don’t date. And if I date it’s a, a bit of a wreck, my nervous system is a wreck, but I would like to date and I would like to get remarried.
So I’ve gotta try to figure this thing out. And I thought, you know, it’s one of those situations where, you know, talking about that is not going to be necessarily the most helpful because everything was so, such a body experience. And I had already done a lot of talk therapy surrounding my divorce. And what happened to me. I had done a little bit of EMDR around it actually, and, and different things. It was interesting. What kind of, what you were just brought up, that what it came down to was really feeling like there was this sense of not feeling like I was gonna be able to protect myself, the next time, like, or in the next relationship. And it was very interesting. I think some of the things that came up out of that, but I just found it to be very helpful. And I feel like I got a lot of relief probably in about, I don’t know, 10 sessions or less. It really just added an extra layer to the work that I had already done on those things in my life.
Amanda: A lot of people will stay with their therapist and they’ll come in to do SE work as a supplement to the therapy they’re already doing. So it doesn’t have to be your primary model of treatment.
Amanda: But because you are working with the nervous system, people can find relief very quickly.
Carrie: That’s incredible. How are some ways that you’ve also seen it be helpful for people who are experiencing anxiety and OCD.
Amanda: I loved this question about OCD, cause even as you were talking about your divorce, I mean it’s the same concept. There’s something that happened that felt traumatizing to your nervous system or dis regulating in such a big way. Right? That we wanna sued to ourself. We wanna be able to bring it down and sometimes we find this thing that we do that provides relief and then suddenly that thing becomes a pattern. Right? So then we keep engaging in the thing, whatever.
Carrie: Checking behavior.
Amanda: Checking behaviors in an attempt to settle our nervous system. So, from an SE perspective, OCD is in general, an anxiety management strategy. What we’re trying to do is just to help the person. Felt, sense of safety within their body and their environment so that they can feel bigger sensations. I can be with this sensation of anxiety as it comes in. And I don’t have to go check to sue them.
I have the capacity to be with the discomfort and to know that I’ll be okay if I don’t go check. One of the ways we do that is we start to really feel into the moments. Right before the checking behavior would come up. What is happening in that space right before the behavior. And can we then interrupt the pattern? Is there something we can do differently here to get that pattern to shift in a different direction?
Carrie: It’s hard with OCD because a lot of times there may be a disconnection to the body they’re so used to living in that thought realm, what they would probably say to that is, well, I have this obsession and it’s harder to get them to tune into either that anxious the discomfort. That’s also accompanying that obsession or occurring right before the compulsion, like you were saying.
Amanda: So then you have to work very slowly, right? It’s a titrated experience. You might work with them around experiencing body sensations, not related to the obsession or the compulsion. Something that feels safer for them. So, let’s in general, start to get you more in tune with your body, to live from a more embodied place. So then when we start to tiptoe into the anxiety and the compulsions, you’re already gonna have this kind of baseline to work with. You’re gonna know how to feel, into your body. You’re gonna trust that you can be in your body in a safe way. So, everything we do in SE is slow and titrated.
Carrie: That’s helpful because you’re always trying to monitor and make sure this person, your client is not getting overwhelmed. Which can happen in forms of trauma therapy, really any form of trauma therapy, people can become overwhelmed and you do have to have a good like, pacing and a process there.
Amanda: And it can happen in SE. There are times that people can slide into overwhelm very quickly. It’s not necessarily about perfection, but it’s about trusting that we can also come back to safety. If that happens. But in general, I think of it like swimming. I even explain it to my clients like this. If you, you didn’t know how to swim, or you had a traumatic experience swimming, I’m not gonna, like push you, you know, into the deep end of a pool. Right? We might even just talk about what it’s like to see the pool. And then we notice what happens in your body. And we help your body take in the image of a pool in a way that feels safe. And so then, you know, we titrate that more and more until the person has more safety, getting closer to the pool, putting their foot in the pool, experiencing the feel of the water.
Carrie: How do you feel like this is different? Obviously, it sounds very different from other forms of, of talk therapy, but I mean, maybe you can even talk about it a little bit as similarities and differences to other forms of trauma therapy. You know, you’ve got, like exposure and CBT and EMDR brain spotting. There’s just a lot of options out there in terms of trauma treatment. How do you feel like this approach is, is different?
Amanda: I, I feel like it’s different. The things that I am familiar with, like a DBT, CBT, they’re gonna work with your cognition. It’s kind of like you have thought. And this thought is wrong and we need to change the thought. And if we change the thought, then you’re gonna feel better. And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, it’s like, I know the thoughts wrong and I still have the thought. And if it were that easy, I would’ve done this already. Right? So with SE what’s different about it is that bottom-up approach.
We are looking at all of it, not just the thoughts. So, you know, you have the story that’s unfolding, but as the story unfolds again, I am watching and tracking their body’s reaction to their own story and I’m helping them slow it down so they can feel the story in their body. Right? There’s something really important about being in an embodied place to be able to. Then get to healing. Right?
If I stay up in my cognition and I rush through it, then I might not actually feel it. And when I connect with my body and I can feel it opens up so many possibilities for being able to be with an uncomfortable emotion or find some type of completion to it. In a way where it doesn’t reoccur.
Carrie: I know I started out doing some CBT-based trauma therapy and there was just always felt like there was something missing from it, you know? And now looking back and understanding what I know about trauma being stored in the body. Something we’ve brought up on this show before is how much our bodies, really involved.
In that process of storing trauma and processing trauma. It makes sense. Why just kind of focusing on maybe lies that you believed about the trauma. It was my fault and people could, you could get them to a place where they could say, “okay, well I know it wasn’t my fault”, but it always felt like their fault, you know, internally there was something that resonated in their body that felt that that was very real.
Amanda: It’s like the development, the meaning or the story they create around the trauma. Very, very real. When we’re blaming ourselves for the trauma that happened to us. Now through SE as you work through the trauma and someone is experiencing the impulses, maybe to push away or to set a boundary or to leave a room like it, we’re restoring what they wanted to do in that moment. And there’s something really powerful about them recognizing that their nervous system took over and they really didn’t have a choice in that moment. They have a choice now, as we work through it again, it’s like we have one foot in the past in the story and we have one foot right now in the present. And so we’re restoring that choice to them.
Carrie: That’s awesome. That’s really great.
Amanda: And I wanna rephrase that, cause it’s not like we are restoring the choice we’re with them as they restore their choice, right? We’re just with them in it. I feel like that was an important maybe correction around language for me to make, cause it’s not, it’s not about me giving them something. It’s about me being with them as they create something new for themselves.
Carrie: In terms of EMDR, we talk about like, kind of staying out of the way a lot and allowing the brain to do what it needs to do. Do you feel like it’s similar in SE like there’s an element of the body knows what it needs to do and you just kind of have to tap into that and find that out.
Amanda: Definitely. We are always saying that the body knows what to do and to trust it, the body wants to move toward healing. And there are times that it gets stuck, right? There’s a pattern that gets stuck in the body and we are there to help. I love Dave Burger’s word for it. He says “nudge all the time”. He’s like, we’re there to just help nudge it in the right direction. Even sometimes just being with someone is enough for them to start moving in the right direction. Just to know that they’re in the room with somebody who’s regulated and safe.
Carrie: I’m curious, about your thoughts on the Christian faith and SE.
Amanda: Well, I think about, you know, I come from a Christian background. I got my master’s in divinity and I think SE goes hand in hand with my Christian faith. If you think about it. The healing that Jesus did, which he was hands-on. He put hands on people. And I think about that often when I have people in my office and I’m doing work that’s hands on and remembering that it’s just an honor to be with this person, right? There’s this human in front of me that I get to be with in their healing journey. So for me, It goes hand in hand with my faith.
Carrie: So, towards the end of the podcast, I like to ask our guests to share a story of hope, which is a time in which you received hope from God or another person.
Amanda: Most memorable clients, Phil to this day gives me hope. So a young man I worked with years ago and when he came into my office, he was self injuring daily. He had probably 10 to 12 psychiatric hospitalizations a year.
Amanda: And as we started to journey this path of trauma work and healing, he was very open. You know, he was like, let you know anything that will help. So we did a lot of SE work. Now after about a year of work well, right away, the self injury started to decrease. That was huge for me, cause I wanna know that someone’s safe and, it was just a relief to see that decrease after about a year of work hospitalizations was stopped. Phil’s injuring had stopped. He went back to school, he got his master, he got married. He had a family. I hear from him from time to time and.
Amanda: He’s got a great job. Life is normal. So, this journey of trauma work of doing his SE work, like it changed his life significantly.
Carrie: And that would be somebody maybe that somebody else would look at and say, well, that person just has no hope. They’re just gonna continue. Repeat this mental health cycle and that they’re stuck in.
Amanda: Yes. That’s right. Or, you know, sometimes therapists feel overwhelmed by it. They’re like, the self-injuring piece or the amount of trauma can be scary for some therapists. If they haven’t had training and helping people who self injure.
I think sometimes clients come in with a feeling of hopelessness around finding someone who will be with them. In those scary moments, but I think trainings, like I see and base, like, they’re, they’re so helpful. I, I wish I could put better words on it, but you know that they are going to help someone in such a deep way that I could just fall back on that. And know like, believe he’s gonna get better, even if my level of skill wasn’t there. I know that this training, I know that this modality is going to be powerful enough to help him.
Carrie: That’s awesome. So I know that we will put your, a link to your website in the show notes. If people like to contact you and reach out to you. What area of the US are you in?
Amanda: I was in Austin for 20 years, but I moved home to central Kentucky right before COVID hit, so, I am just South of Lexington. A small rural town South of Lexington, Kentucky. I’m all in private practice now. And I am working on building a somatic retreat center in an organic farm.
Carrie: That’s awesome. That’s pretty amazing. Well, you’re not as far from me as I thought you were. You’re just across the top of the state there.
Amanda: Where are you?
Carrie: I’m in Smyrna, Tennessee.
Amanda: I thought you were in Texas.
Carrie: We learned something about each other.
Amanda: You did. We did.
Carrie: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being on the show. I really appreciate this has been very insightful. I think for people who are looking for a different type of therapy, maybe that they’ve been receiving currently, it’s always good to let people know that there are many different options. So if one doesn’t work for you by all means, try something different.
Amanda: And if I could add one thing, Carrie, it would be that therapies like SEM base, they are so helpful in communities where there’s a stigma around mental health because they really do understand that mental health isn’t this thing. That’s about strength or your willpower or you’re, you know, like go fix your brain.
They really get that trauma is about the way energy got found in your nervous system. And let’s help your physiology recover from it. Found that to be a very powerful way to discuss it. In my community.
Carrie: By the time this episode comes out, hopefully, I will be on maternity leave enjoying lots of baby snuggles. Pray for my sleepless nights. Thank you very much. I actually went to four sessions of somatic experiencing therapy during my pregnancy. Super healing again. I had these experiences of being hospitalized as a child that I had dealt with in therapy in the past, had done some talk therapy, some EMDR therapy, I think even came up during dating with the somatic experiencing therapy.
Everything was rolling along quite nicely until I started to think about having to go into the hospital again. And even though this time I wasn’t going in for an illness or an injury, there was a sense of vulnerability that was getting really triggered up. Going through those few sessions and unpacking my different hospitalizations helped me so much to feel more confident about going into a positive birthing space.
I want to invite you to join our Hope for Anxiety and OCD Facebook group. It’s a really great way for us to be able to get to know our listeners and for you to interact with others who are experiencing similar struggles. We strive really hard to make it a positive space for everyone to come be encouraged and hear what’s helping other people. We will put a direct link in the show notes for you to be able to get there. As always, thank you so much for listening.
Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By the Well Counseling. Our show is hosted by me. Carrie Bock, licensed professional counselor in Tennessee. Opinions given by our guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the use of myself or By the Well Counseling. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum until next time may be comforted by God’s great love for you.