Somatic Experiencing Therapy for Trauma
As more evidence accumulates to support the idea that the mind and body are closely connected, health practitioners are embracing different kinds of treatments such as somatic therapy. Doctors now understand that the mental health can play a role in physical well-being and vice versa. It is based on the concept that the body is closely linked to mental health and can be healed for complete recovery.
Somatic Experiencing is a form of psychotherapy used to treat trauma and trauma-related concerns. It was first introduced in 1997 in Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. The therapy works by helping a person restore the autonomic nervous system. Typically, the autonomic nervous system has an inherent capacity to regulate itself. However, when trauma occurs this self-regulation is impaired. Somatic Experiencing aims to restore the self-regulation of the autonomic nervous system in a person by facilitating the release of energy and survival reactions that tend to remain in the body after a traumatic event. Somatic Experiencing Therapy is used in a variety of health professions such as mental health, medicine, physical and occupational therapies, bodywork, addiction treatment, and emergency first response.
As a type of body-centered therapy, somatic therapy focuses on certain techniques that can release tension on a physical level and positively impact mental health. It offers a combination of physical relief and psychological talk therapy that can lead to emotional change. These kinds of mind-body exercises are a type of holistic approach to treating mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and other disorders.
People often turn to somatic therapies when traditional types of treatment haven’t been sufficient enough to resolve some of their issues. It can be used for both mental health issues and some physical problems such as chronic pain, digestive disorders and other medical illnesses. It can provide an alternative that proves very helpful for people who need a more complete approach to their overall well-being.
The Body, Stress and Trauma
The theory behind somatic therapy is that our body responds to threats by creating tension to protect us from danger. However, sometimes the body can get stuck in a state of tension or shutdown following a traumatic or painful experience. The nervous system maintains that tension and trauma or stress continue to be carried in the body.
Essentially, trauma from the past can cause instability in the body, and people experience both mental and physical effects when their nervous system is out of balance. Somatic therapy can come in different forms depending on how the body is treated for stress, trauma or tension. Techniques for somatic therapy can include massage, sensory awareness, trigger point therapy, yoga, acupressure and other types of healing methods.
More traditional somatic therapy will include some type of talk therapy while incorporating techniques like deep breathing, relaxation exercises and meditation. The therapist will speak to the patient about traumatic experiences in their past and take note of any physical responses that occur. They can then use relaxation and physical techniques to relieve symptoms associated with the traumatic memory.
Origins of Somatic Experiencing
Dr. Peter A. Levine conducted many studies of stress physiology, psychology, ethology (the study of animal behavior), biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics before developing the practice of Somatic Experiencing. Together with those studies, along with Levine’s 45 years of practicing as a clinician, contributed to the successful treatment method of Somatic Experiencing. This approach releases traumatic shock, which is required to transform post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), early emotional wounds, and trauma related to early developmental attachment.
How Somatic Therapy Works?
In his book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Levine describes how animals provide an example of discharging energy after they’ve experienced life-threatening danger. Under threat, they mobilize large amounts of energy to have available for fleeing or fighting a dangerous situation. However, once safe, animals discharge this energy and restore their autonomic nervous system to equilibrium. Somatic Experiencing Therapy utilizes Levine’s main premise which is that “trauma lives in the body, not the event.” Therefore, the modality is meant to work with a person’s body in order to heal the psychological and physiological results of trauma.
Typically, after trauma, a person is stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze response. It provides clinical tools to help resolve these fixed physiological states. If a person is stuck in the fight response, he or she may have experiences of anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, emotional flooding, chronic pain, or hyper-vigilance. If a person is stuck in the freeze response, a person might experience depression, lethargy, exhaustion, low blood pressure, disorientation, or dissociation. Somatic Experiencing aims to guide a person out of these states by helping them release the energy of stored trauma in the body.
A Somatic Experiencing Therapy session is done face to face with a client and a trained clinician. Professionals are specifically trained in Somatic Experiencing, which requires many hours of training as well as experiencing the healing effects of Somatic Trauma by being a client for up to 24 clinical hours. During a session, a client is asked to track their moment-by-moment sensory (physical) experiences in the body, among other clinical interventions. All interventions are aimed at releasing physical tension that remains in the body as a part of the aftermath of trauma.
Treating the Body and Mind with Somatic Therapies
The principles of somatic therapy maintain that the mind, body, spirit, and emotions are all connected to each other. Emotional events then impact the body in lasting ways, even changing facial expressions, physical posture and body language. Therapists trained in somatic therapy can recognize these physical changes and can help treat them for better physical and mental health.
Patients going through somatic therapy can release pent-up anger, frustration, and other emotions that remain in their body. Releasing these feelings that have been stored in the nervous system can help free the patient from the kind of stress and pain that prevents them from fully engaging in their life. Somatic therapists are familiar with the kind of physical issues associated with certain mental health disorders and can resolve both problems through their work.
Psychologically, somatic therapists can also help patients reframe their traumatic experiences in a way that helps them overcome some of their symptoms. They can help reduce some of the negative effects of trauma on the body and mind through somatic methods. This type of therapy can help boost self-confidence, reduce worrying and help the patient develop a sense of hopefulness that they may have lacked because of their traumatic past.
Patients will notice physical changes as well such as reduced pain and discomfort in their body. They will also be able to focus and concentrate more clearly while also feeling more calm and resilient against stress symptoms. They often become more active and experience a sense of personal power after their experiences with this therapy.
Recovering from Trauma with Somatic Therapy
There are many different types of mental illnesses and physical ailments that can be treated with this therapy but it is especially effective for trauma. People with PTSD can benefit from somatic therapy because it allows them to release some of the painful memories stored in their bodies. Talk therapy also helps them embrace life again and gain a more positive perspective on the things that they went through in the past.
For very difficult cases of trauma, sometimes psychological treatment alone is not enough to resolve all of the symptoms that a patient is dealing with. Relieving pain and stress in the body can help release traumatic memories so that they no longer have a physical hold on a person’s well-being. Somatic therapy may be available through certain mental health treatment centers or through an individual therapist trained in somatic recovery methods.
If you or someone you know is experiencing the results of trauma or the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, perhaps Somatic Experiencing Therapy can help.