It’s not all in your head — your body holds on to memories of trauma, too. Somatic therapy can help release them.
Somatic psychotherapy is an umbrella term for therapies that center on the mind-body connection. The term “somatic” means “relating to the body.”
Using special techniques, a somatic therapist helps you release any pent-up trauma that has become “trapped” in your body.
Although treating the mind-body connection is a relatively new concept in Western medicine (in the West, the mind and body are often treated separately), this concept has long been recognized in Eastern medicine and philosophies.
Somatic therapy is rooted in somatic psychology, a body-oriented approach to psychology. Somatic therapies work by addressing the feedback loop that continually runs between the mind and the body.
Somatic therapy is different from typical psychotherapy (talk therapy). In regular psychotherapy, the practitioner engages only the mind. In somatic therapy, the body is the foundational point for healing.
Practitioners of somatic therapy believe that a person’s negative emotions — such as those experienced during a traumatic event — can stay locked inside the body.
If not released in a timely manner, these negative emotions can turn into psychological disorders or physical problems, such as neck or back pain. Chronic pain is very
Somatic therapists use mind-body techniques to release the pent-up tension that’s weighing on your emotional and physical well-being. These techniques could involve breathing exercises, meditation, dance, and other forms of body movement.
Practitioners of somatic therapy view the mind and body as intrinsically linked. They also believe that trauma and other chronic negative emotions can get trapped inside our bodies and affect our mental health even further.
Somatic therapy is designed to help you heal on a cellular level.
So how do these emotions get caught in the body? After a traumatic event, the nervous system can get
When the body is under this level of constant stress, physical symptoms begin to emerge.
In addition, some of our bad experiences can produce deeply rooted beliefs that our conscious minds can’t even access. These might include negative or unhelpful thoughts, like “I’m a bad person” or “I’ll never be successful.”
These negative feelings don’t just hide in the body, they emerge quite often. People who’ve experienced trauma have their symptoms reactivated during new stressful experiences. This can cause them to feel traumatized again and again.
Research on somatic therapies is very promising.
The theory behind somatic experiencing is that PTSD symptoms are an expression of stress activation.
Unlike exposure therapy (a common form of psychotherapy for PTSD), somatic experiencing doesn’t usually require a complete retelling of the traumatic event. Rather, the client thinks about traumatic memories that lead to high levels of stress and then learns to diminish the arousal through body awareness and various techniques.
Several studies show the positive effects of a type of somatic therapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
In EMDR, the client recalls traumatic experiences while moving their eyes from left to right. This therapy can help you rapidly process previously unprocessed memories of trauma and also relieve physical complaints.
A somatic therapist can use a few different techniques to help release trauma or negative emotions from the body. Here are some of the more common ones:
- Body awareness. This is one of the first steps in learning to release tension from the body. The client learns to recognize and identify areas of tension in the body, as well as calming thoughts and feelings.
- Grounding. This is the act of connecting deeply to your body and the earth. Grounding involves sensing the body, feeling your feet on the ground, and calming your nervous system.
- Pendulation. In this technique, a therapist guides you from a relaxed state to one that feels similar to your traumatic experience. This may repeat several times, allowing you to release the pent-up energy. While the energy is released, you may feel uncomfortable or anxious. Each time, you will be guided back to a relaxed state. Over time, you will learn to get into a relaxed state on your own.
- Titration. In this technique, the therapist guides you through a traumatic memory. You will be asked to observe any changes in your body that appear as you describe the memory. If you experience any physical sensations, the therapist will help you address them as they occur.
- Sequencing. This involves paying close attention to the order in which sensations of tension leave your body. For instance, first you might feel a tightening in your chest and then in your throat. Then there may be a sensation of trembling as the tension leaves your body.
- Resourcing. This involves recalling resources in your life that make you feel safe, such as your relationships, personality strengths, or even a favorite vacation spot. It can include anything that makes you feel calm. You then recall the good feelings and sensations associated with your resources, which act as an emotional anchor.
Somatic therapy can treat any deeply rooted negative emotion stored in the body. This is typically due to trauma, but the therapy can also help people who have problems with:
Below are some of the most common forms of somatic therapy.
Somatic experiencing treats the body’s reactions to trauma.
Some somatic therapists may ask you to discuss your traumatic experiences, while others only ask you to describe the physical sensations you felt during the traumatic event. You may be asked to move your body in a way that activates negative feelings.
The therapist will teach you to release the built-up energy safely, so you can gradually get rid of the trigger.
In EMDR therapy, the client remembers traumatic experiences in short doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus — the most common being sideways eye movements. Other focal points might include hand tapping or listening to a particular sound.
Hakomi is a type of somatic therapy centered on mindfulness — the ability to notice the present moment without judgment.
First, the practitioner establishes an atmosphere of gentle acceptance and then helps the client identify body indicators of unconscious beliefs. The client accesses unconscious material quickly and works with the therapist to safely release it.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy combines principles from psychotherapy, somatic therapy, attachment theory, and neuroscience, and techniques from the Hakomi method.
This therapy helps the client safely re-experience a traumatic event and then carry out any unfinished actions (such as being unable to fight off an attacker) from the initial event. This is done in order to achieve a feeling of completion and closure.
Neurosomatic therapy helps clients whose symptoms exist closer to the physical end of the mind-body continuum. NST identifies the hidden sources of tension and physical pain in the nervous system, skeletal system and soft tissues.
The main techniques used in this approach include massage, posture work, and exercises to correct imbalances.
Somatic therapy goes well beyond just treating the mind — it also treats the body and the nervous system. Chronic tension and painful emotions are healed at a cellular level.
If you feel like somatic therapy might help you, reach out to a licensed mental health professional with specialized training in these techniques.