When I first heard of Somato Emotional Release (SER), a technique that helps the mind and body work through trauma, I was skeptical. But, as more conversations about its mental and physical health benefits have been swirling around, I finally decided to delve deeper into SER. I booked an SER bodywork session with Dawn Phillips, founder of Haven Holistic + Somatic Healing in Brooklyn, and spoke with her about the benefits of Somato Emotional Release. Ahead, learn more about the therapeutic process.
What Is Somato Emotional Release (SER)?
SER is a form of CranioSacral Therapy—a method established by osteopathic physician John E. Upledger—centered around the belief emotional and physical trauma can have long-lasting effects on our muscles and joints. SER bodywork can help release those damaging tensions, both physical and mental.
The treatment is performed by trained professionals who work with the client's fascia (fibrous tissue covering muscles or organs) in very gentle, subtle movements. Ideally, your fascia is supple and limber. But physical and emotional trauma can tighten it, leading to stiffness and pain. "The fascia map is responding to our experiences," Phillips says. "Even if we emotionally get over something, our body still holds on."
SER combines CranioSacral Therapy bodywork with psychotherapeutic dialogue to explore the emotions and experiences impacting our bodies. "We start identifying parts of the body that are fearful or overprotective because they're responding to the trauma," Phillips says. "We can start to un-blend them and find parts of the body that are more resilient and help them come to the surface."
Benefits of SER
- Can help you better understand your traumas and how they have affected your body
- Assists with emotional healing from traumatic life events
- Can help uncover suppressed memories that the body is holding onto
- Provides physical relief from pain, stiffness, and soreness caused by trauma
Phillips says SER can be helpful for people experiencing PTSD, anxiety, and depression. She also notes it's useful for people who feel they're plateauing with talk therapy or those resistant to it and want to try another healing method. However, Phillips states she has several clients who see both a talk therapist and an SER practitioner and says the two can work together along a client's healing journey.
How to Prepare for an SER Session
Phillips recommends arriving at an SER session ready to be fully present for the entire session. Phillips acknowledges that though this is ideal, it's not always possible, and practitioners are eager to assist you, no matter what physical or emotional state you arrive in. It's also best to wear non-constrictive clothing to remain comfortable throughout the session.
What to Expect During an SER Treatment
After arriving at an SER session, you'll typically have a 15 to 20-minute consultation with the practitioner. Some people come in knowing the mental and physical issues they want to address, while others come in with a vague idea of their goals. I was the latter. I went into my session having no idea if SER would work for me. I also feared I would have some wholly traumatic, suppressed memory blindside me and fly into a panic. On the flip side, I was nervous nothing would happen, and I would leave disappointed. Going into the appointment, I wasn't sure if I was going to feel comfortable enough to share those fears. But upon meeting Phillips, I found it incredibly easy to express these concerns. She created an inviting and, most importantly, safe space for me to be transparent.
After the consultation, the session moves to the table, where the practitioner will start the gentle bodywork. "We're not manipulating your tissue the way physical therapy or bodywork does," Phillips says. "We're helping support your tissue so it can unwind back to where it wants to be."
As Phillips mentioned, the body's inner wisdom is at the forefront of this work. "The body is guiding us, so I don't have an intention when I approach any client's body," she explains. "I am in a neutral place and want to feel through what kind of patterns are going on in their system."
Regarding physical results, Phillips says there is no singular way release presents itself. "A release can be as simple as just a really deep breath," she says. "Or, a release could be sobbing, laughter, or visualizations. It can even be a change in how we're sensing our body, like feeling lighter, heavier, or more grounded."
During my session, Phillips started by gently placing her hands on my feet and moved up to my head. While doing so, she helped me visualize my breath, helping to give my body space to be open to anything that might arise. I expressed I still had fears buzzing in my head, and she let me know it was okay to thank the parts of myself that were worried. As she moved to the base of my head, I started to feel a light tingling sensation run from the outer sides of my knees down through my shins and calves and to my feet. I was calmly surprised by the sensation. I then began to cry—a possible reaction Phillips and I had discussed, yet not a reaction I was expecting to have—and it wasn't generalized crying. Instead, it was a pointed emotional response to something specific I hadn't even been thinking about prior to or during our visit. Phillips acted as an endlessly compassionate source of support, allowing me to be curious about what I was experiencing as opposed to fighting it.
As the bodywork part of our session came to a close, Phillips gave me a few moments alone to transition back to the couch where we had had our consultation. Through our continuous dialogue, Phillips made several points I connected with in quite pivotal ways. She also wrote meaningful notes about what we worked on for me to take home. Unlike with talk therapy, when one can walk away feeling depleted (though that is not always a bad thing), I walked away from our session feeling lighter. Personally, I am already looking through my calendar to find time for another session.
Session prices range depending on location. You can expect to pay between $100 to $200 for a 60-minute session. Most insurance providers do not cover SER, but if cost is a barrier for you, it is worth reaching out to the practitioner to see if they provide any financial hardship plans as Phillips does.
Phillips says aftercare is far more important than preparation for SER treatments. She recommends avoiding engagements such as work or get-togethers after a session. "You want to spend the rest of the day as far away from technology as possible, giving yourself the space to reflect on what happened," she notes.
To get the most out of your sessions, Phillips recommends returning for at least three additional sessions (and scheduling them no more than a couple of weeks apart). "Part of what we're working on is not just having one experience," Phillips says, "We want you to be able to maintain the release of whatever you're trying to process from your body. So in order to get a true measurement of how this work will benefit you, we need to have a few sessions."
The Final Takeaway
If you're looking for a way to better understand difficult experiences in your life and grow in your healing journey, Somato Emotional Release is a therapeutic method worth considering. It is a gentle, trauma-sensitive, and inclusive therapy that lets your body be the guide. When looking for a practitioner, look for someone formally trained in SER and whose mission speaks to you. The results could be just the relief you've been looking for.
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