Somatic Therapy: An Overview

Somatic therapy is one of the types of therapy known to help treat PTSD, anxiety, and other trauma symptoms. Examples of trauma include the loss of a loved one, finding out you have a life-threatening illness, domestic violence, sexual assault, natural disaster, robbery, home invasion, and more.

Trauma changes us, and it’s often beneficial to seek out a therapist to help us cope with the emotional baggage that’s left behind. Without help, the trauma that’s been left to fester in our psyche can lead to post-traumatic symptoms such as:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Impulsivity or greater risk-taking behaviour
  • Antisocial behaviour
  • Weakened immunity to illness

When people think about therapeutic treatment, what often comes to mind is psychotherapy, sometimes also referred to as talk therapy. Talk therapy can be done one-on-one with a counselor or therapist. It can be conducted in a group setting such as in a support group. This involves telling the story of your trauma to help process your feelings, put a name to troubling emotions, and rectify some of the damaging ways you might be behaving because of your pain.

However, trauma does not just live in our minds. Trauma lives in the body as well. Some of the leftover memories get stuck in our bodies, and more and more people are finding relief with a type of integrative form of healing called somatic therapy.

An example of the physical impact of stress and trauma, and an example of how trauma lives in the body, is when you experience nervous system dysregulation. When you have a dysregulated nervous system, you might feel ‘on-edge’, short-of-breath, nervous or afraid despite being safe at home. This is just one of many examples of how trauma impacts the body.

Below we’ll review what somatic therapy is, why somatic therapy works, how it is practiced, and how to know if it’s right for you.

What is Somatic Therapy?

Somatic therapy derives its name from the Latin word for body, soma, and its aim is to unify and strengthen the connection between your mind, body and spirit.

Maggie Holland, a mental health counselor based out of Washington, explains, “ Somatic therapy (sometimes called somatic experiencing therapy) focuses on the mind-body connection. It operates based on the idea that emotional and mental stress can cause your nervous system to stop operating efficiently. It focuses on making sure the mind and body are connected through awareness, healing any emotional pain that our bodies might be physically carrying, and making sure that the two are working together with intention moving forward.”

Somatic therapy combines traditional psychotherapy with different forms of physical experiences designed to help you pay attention to where your trauma is manifesting in your body. For example, people often feel pressure in their chest or butterflies in their stomach when they’re angry, anxious or afraid, and a somatic therapist would encourage the patient to stay with that feeling and describe it. We often simply notice the physical changes that go on within us, but the purpose of somatic therapy is to really hone in on what’s happening in our bodies.

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Why Does Somatic Therapy Work?

Somatic therapy works for a lot of people. We tend to think of memory as something that occurs solely in our minds, but our bodies can remember trauma, too.

“Somatic therapy is a bit more of a holistic approach to therapy,” says Holland. “It helps you release all aspects of pent-up stress and trauma, including emotional, mental, physical and any spiritual pain you’re carrying as well. By going through somatic therapy, the individual is also empowered with the information and experience of moving themselves through a multi-layered ‘stuck’ point, which is usually incredibly empowering.”

Holland goes on to explain, “When a person goes through something traumatic it not only impacts [their] emotions and cognitions, but [their] body can also physically store that trauma. When we experience stress or trauma, our brain ‘shuts down’ all non-essential brain functioning activities in order to put all resources into our ‘survival mode’, which we call the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response. Usually, after experiencing a stressor, this survival response will fade over time, but experiencing trauma can prolong this experience or keep us coming back to it frequently. When our body stores that trauma, it impacts our overall physical functioning, particularly within our nervous system. This can include developing a sense of hypervigilance, developing seemingly protective (although maladaptive) thought processes, physically re-triggering survival mode and its accompanying stress hormones, as well as shutting down your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus centers in the brain repeatedly, which are responsible for your emotional regulation/impulse control and memory”.

When we treat our physical symptoms alongside our mental health, we can heal from our trauma more quickly. Researchers who studied the effects of somatic experience therapy on a group of PTSD survivors found that somatic therapy proved to be an effective means of alleviating symptoms associated with PTSD. These PTSD symptoms included intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares.

Somatic Therapy Teaches You to Self-Regulate Your Nervous System

Trauma survivors often have dysregulated nervous systems, where they feel agitated, short-of-breath, on edge and emotionally aroused for no apparent reason. The objective in somatic therapy is to help the patient learn to recognize the early signs of emotional arousal and, using bodily awareness and self-regulating techniques, downgrade the arousal before it gets out of hand.

It’s worth mentioning that trauma on any scale can be enough to alter our central nervous system. We all react to stress and trauma differently, and experiences that our bodies and minds remember, as trauma can range from early childhood neglect all the way to major trauma such as being involved in a serious car crash, and everywhere in between. We often compare our experience to someone who might have it worse off (such as the classic comparison to a war veteran) and therefore downplay our experience. We shouldn’t do this. We feel guilty that we’re hurting, or that we can’t simply move on from something that we see as trivial by comparison, but it’s important to keep in mind, both for ourselves and for anyone else dealing with trauma, that no amount of trauma is insignificant.

What To Expect From a Somatic Therapy Session

Trauma and stress are held in the body as well as in the mind, and somatic experiences help the body to let go of some of that tension in ways that talk therapy sometimes can’t.

When you begin somatic therapy, your therapist will want to discuss your goals as well as go over your boundaries. Somatic therapy may involve touch, so it’s important that you and your therapist are clear about whether or not that’s alright and, if so, what kind of touch you are and are not okay with.

Be prepared for painful or difficult emotions and memories to come up. It’s important to be aware that these difficult feelings may be felt more intensely compared to other forms of therapy

A therapist will guide a patient through a talk therapy session but will ask the patient to focus on physical bodily sensations that come up. You may experience:

  • A racing heartbeat or feelings of jitteriness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Aches and pains
  • Tension in your muscles
  • Butterflies in your stomach
  • Pressure behind your eyes or sinuses
  • Exhaustion
  • Dizziness

Be vocal about what you are experiencing. Your therapist can guide you through some regulation techniques to help you calm your body. This is part of learning how to self-regulate through somatic therapy.

From there, a therapist will continue to guide the patient through more mind-body exercises with the goal of developing more awareness of what’s going on in their body.

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What Are Some Examples of Somatic Therapy Treatment?

Some people find that they have a tightness in their chest because of anxiety or PTSD. Others experience tight muscles or a sore neck. Beyond exploring where in your body your trauma is located, somatic therapy includes several different mind-body exercises that foster a deeper connection between the patient’s mind and body.

Some exercises that your therapist might want to try with you include:

  • Breathwork – your therapist will ask you to focus your attention on the sensation of breathing. They may conduct breathing exercises in session with you.
  • Dance movement.
  • Exercise such as running in place or jumping jacks. You can also practice this exercise on your own, either at home or at the gym.
  • Grounding exercises. Grounding involves focusing on physical experiences that are difficult to ignore. Your therapist might ask you to run lotion on your hands, suck on sour candy, or simply focus on and name what you can hear, smell, feel, or see in the present moment.
  • Massage therapy.

If some of the above somatic therapy techniques interest you more than others, it’s best to confirm that the somatic therapist you have in mind offers this as part of his or her practice. For example, if you believe massage techniques would work for you, find a somatic therapist who incorporates massage into their treatment.

Who Can Benefit From Somatic Therapy?

Many people can benefit from somatic therapy, but some have more success with it than others. Researchers are still trying to figure out why that is. Research shows that trauma and chronic stress can alter your genes and then be passed down to other generations. Your CircleDNA test results can tell you more about how you’re genetically wired to respond to stress.

Somatic therapy has been used to treat PTSD, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, grief, and addiction. It’s also sometimes used for pain management, digestive distress, and sexual dysfunction. However, somatic therapy may not be well-suited to survivors of physical violence or sexual abuse. Because touch is involved sometimes, you have to decide if somatic therapy is right for you. Physical touch is very effective for many people when it’s incorporated into their therapy session, and it should be very professionally administered.

If you’ve been living with mental or physical ailments that don’t seem to be responding well to other forms of therapy, it might be time to consider incorporating somatic experience therapy into your treatment plan.

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