What Is Somatic Therapy?
Our nervous system and physical bodies are hardwired to heal. Somatic Therapy is an experiential approach to psychotherapy that focuses on the mind-body connection, tapping into the body’s natural ability to heal trauma under the right conditions.
Since the mid-2000s, there have been great advances in our understanding of neuroscience and the causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. Research has taught us how to better treat symptoms such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, numbing, emotional flooding, heightened startle response, and dissociation. Somatic therapy can help restore nervous system regulation after an overwhelming event—such as ongoing abuse or neglect—has become too much for the body to integrate. Somatic trauma release can help those who have experienced trauma feel more enlivened, calm, empowered, and comfortable in their own skin.
The History Of Somatic Therapy
Somatics is a broader term that refers to “focusing on body movement as a means to improve mental health.” The term “somatic therapy” encompasses various modalities. Developed by Peter Levine, Ph.D. in the 1970s, Somatic Experiencing therapy has evolved into an effective treatment to help trauma survivors heal that draws from psychology, stress physiology, ethnology, biology, neuroscience, and indigenous healing practices.
Diane Poole Heller’s Dynamic Attachment Repatterning Experience (DARe) is a more recent therapy that focuses on healing attachment injuries and resolving trauma somatically. In addition, Focusing is yet another somatic healing therapy developed by Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D. in the 1960s that taps into the wisdom of the body through what Gendlin termed the ‘felt sense.’
How Somatic Therapy Helps Process Trauma
Trauma can be defined as a single event or ongoing exposure that overwhelms our nervous system. Whenever we perceive that our survival is threatened, our ‘animal brain’ instincts take over and mobilize us to either fight or flee. However, when we can neither defend ourselves nor escape from the threat, the body instinctively moves into freeze mode, directed by our primitive survival system that overrides reflective decision-making.
In freeze mode, the intense energies of fight and flight can become “stuck” in our nervous system well after the original threat is over. Unfortunately, this trapped residue within our nervous systems can lead to distressing symptoms.
Somatic therapy provides the environment in which trauma survivors can make whole their incomplete defensive responses and release the intense survival energies that have become bound within their bodies. A somatic therapist starts by establishing a felt sense of safety and trust with the client, a crucial component for therapy to be effective. Only then can they help release the trauma that may have been stuck in the nervous system for years. Somatic therapy is performed gradually so that clients won’t get overwhelmed and can progressively increase their tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions.
Although the body can communicate history that the mind is sometimes disconnected from, the conditions suitable for releasing trauma require that we first be grounded in the present moment. After establishing a sense of safety, clients will learn grounding techniques, gradually building up the resources that attune them to the movement of their body to pinpoint where they might be holding tension.
Once the intense energies of a thwarted threat response are discharged from our body and our threat alarm system is turned off, our prefrontal cortex can come back online. When self-regulation of the nervous system occurs, we no longer experience the flood of overwhelming emotions, reactivity, or numbing that comes when we are severely dysregulated or dissociating. We experience ourselves as more alive, whole, and present in our own lives.
The Efficacy and Benefits Of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of PTSD. A study published in the June 2017 Issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress evaluated the effectiveness of Somatic Experiencing in treating people with PTSD. It showed a significant reduction in the severity of PTSD symptoms and depression after Somatic Experiencing therapy. What’s more, 90 percent of participants reported that their symptoms had not returned one year later.
Furthermore, many psychotherapy modalities focus exclusively on thoughts and emotions as a pathway to healing. This is considered a ‘top-down’ approach and can yield success in many situations. But because trauma lives in the body as well as in our mental and emotional expression, using only a top-down approach that ignores the body may not always be as effective. As a somatic therapist, I use both top-down and bottom-up approaches.
Somatic therapy works from the premise that our bodies know how to heal—this innate ability is hardwired in our physiology. When we include the body in the healing process, we access powerful restorative forces and wisdom that may not be accessible through talk therapy alone. Under the conditions that therapy provides, the nervous system and body can come back into balance. The brain’s ‘smoke alarm’, the amygdala, will naturally calm down. With mindfulness, physiological healing can happen automatically without us having to consciously “think” about it.
My Background In Somatic Therapy
I decided to integrate somatic counseling into my work as a therapist after processing my own trauma. After having some deep bodywork sessions in 2004, I began to experience PTSD symptoms.
Traditional talk therapy did not help. Only after I began working with a somatic therapist did I start to experience relief and feel more like myself again. After benefitting greatly from this approach, I decided to help my clients more holistically by incorporating various somatic therapy modalities into my therapeutic work.
Although somatic therapy can take many forms, my practice is informed mainly by Somatic Experiencing, DARe, Focusing, and Gestalt. Since 2011, I have had extensive training with Peter Levine and Diane Poole- Heller and am currently a candidate for DARe certification.
Because most trauma happens in relationship, somatic therapy should be undertaken in the context of a therapeutic relationship for true healing to happen. As a somatic therapist, the client-therapist relationship is extremely important to me, and my intention is to help my clients feel safe, accepted without judgment, and seen for who they are during sessions. Only then can clients trust the process for healing as they learn to self-regulate their nervous system in my presence. I look forward to helping you on your journey of healing and transformation.
Find Out How Somatic Therapy Can Help You
With the support of a trained, experienced somatic therapist, you can resolve trauma and restore your sense of aliveness, emotional balance, agency, and safety in your own body. For a free consultation to find out more, contact me.