Therapy FAQ

Somatic Therapy: Healing Trauma Through Body Awareness

Somatic therapy is a treatment that uses body awareness and movement to help heal trauma and can complement traditional talk therapy. “Somatic therapy is about understanding the mind-body connection and how we process trauma within our body,” says Angela Serritella, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor with Grow Therapy. “One of […]

therapist william snyder By William Snyder, LPC
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Updated on Mar 27, 2024

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Somatic therapy is a treatment that uses body awareness and movement to help heal trauma and can complement traditional talk therapy.

“Somatic therapy is about understanding the mind-body connection and how we process trauma within our body,” says Angela Serritella, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor with Grow Therapy. “One of the main goals of somatic therapy is to take the power out of difficult emotions that are impacting our bodies in unhealthy or unsettling ways.”

The overarching theory behind somatic therapy is that trauma can become stored in the body if not processed correctly. The human body has a finely tuned physical response to stress and trauma, and if that physical response is interrupted or left unfinished, it can harm both the body and the mind. Body-oriented practices, such as controlled breathing exercises, yoga, dance, and others, help you to focus more deeply on physical sensations and release the stored trauma.

How Does Somatic Therapy Work?

A licensed therapist will help you explore your memories and emotions while tapping into your bodily experience at the same time. Therapy sessions are usually a combination of traditional talk therapy and body awareness. Your therapist will help call your awareness to your bodily sensations during the session. This might include taking a moment to check in with body sensations, noticing your posture or body language, or encouraging you to connect with yourself by breathing into certain areas. 

Some therapists use very active body practices such as yoga or dance to move your body in ways that access memories or release negative feelings.

Some techniques, such as pendulation and titration, are specifically designed to help you reenter traumatic memories gradually while creating safe boundaries around them. You can also use grounding methods, like centering and resourcing, to help you self-regulate when negative emotions come up.

The goal is to process your trauma in a safe environment while allowing your body to complete the physical symptoms and stress response as needed. When the body releases trauma and learns new ways of relating to the memories, the path to wellness begins.

Somatic therapy doesn’t have to be intensely physical right away. As Serritella explains, “Some clients are more comfortable focusing on talk therapy to explore their body’s response to trauma. So, for example, if a client is discussing an uncomfortable event that they have experienced, a therapist may point out how a client’s posture has changed. Maybe they’ve become guarded and sat up straighter, or crossed their arms over their chest. Most commonly, we will explore mindfulness and grounding techniques to help rebalance and become aware of what we are experiencing.”

Somatic therapy is frequently thought of as a form of trauma therapy. However, this therapy is also used to address other mental health challenges outside of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder (ASD), and other trauma disorders.

“Somatic therapy can be used for multiple conditions, including stress, anxiety, and the physical and emotional pain that trauma brings upon our bodies,” says Serritella.

Trauma and Long-Term Health

Why is it so important to identify and release stored trauma? Because trauma affects people emotionally, cognitively, and physically. Researchers are beginning to understand that unaddressed trauma can have a lasting influence on the nervous system. This is why healing trauma is so vital to your well-being.

“Unaddressed trauma impacts our mind and body over time,” Serritella explains. “If you look at the big killers in our society that start around middle age—high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke, etc.—they tend to have their roots in chronic stress that is unmanaged over a long period.”

Some common symptoms of trauma include:

· Fatigue

· Sleep disorders and nightmares

· Appetite changes

· Anxiety and flashbacks

· Depression

· Mood swings

· Feelings of grief or shame

· Long-term health problems (heart, liver, COPD, etc.)

· Intrusive memories

In fact, according to research, trauma can cause biological changes to your limbic system and your levels of cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone.” Unaddressed trauma can play a major role in your quality of life.

Types of Somatic Therapy

Not everyone practices somatic therapy the same way. Several different types of somatic therapy could have the potential to help you become more aware of your body, resolve lingering issues, and live in the present moment.  You just have to determine which one(s). When you choose a therapist, you will want to consider which type(s) they practice and which types you are comfortable with. Let’s take a look at the different somatic approaches.

Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing (SE) attempts to diffuse trauma in the body without re-triggering the body’s defenses. To do this, you focus on negative body sensations and how to resolve them without confronting traumatic experiences directly. Somatic Experience International (SEI) explains that a somatic practice “resolves symptoms of stress, shock, and trauma that accumulate in our bodies. When we are stuck in patterns of fight, flight, or freeze, somatic experiencing therapy helps us release, recover, and become more resilient.”

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

During eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment, you will revisit traumatic memories while experiencing “bilateral stimulation”—usually moving the eyes back and forth, tapping on each side of the body, or listening to tones. Although researchers don’t understand precisely how bilateral stimulation works on the brain, this evidence-based practice helps patients tone down the vividness of traumatic memories and emotions, so that they become less distressing over time.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

Sensorimotor psychotherapy uses many of the principles of somatic experiencing (SE), but includes traditional elements of talk therapy. You will directly engage with memories of a traumatic event to process the trauma at a physical level, an emotional level, and a cognitive level. Sensorimotor psychotherapy is intended to help you learn more about the connection between your thoughts and your bodily reactions. This type of therapy is scientifically validated and shows promise to someday be evidence-based. 

Brainspotting

The theory behind brainspotting is that certain points in your field of vision correlate to traumatic memories or negative thought patterns. A therapist will conduct brainspotting by helping you notice your visual patterns, and then using them to tap into and release distressing experiences. It should be noted that there aren’t many well-designed studies on brainspotting, so research on its effectiveness is still in the early stages.

Bioenergetic Analysis

Bioenergetic analysis is a form of therapy that takes into account physical sensations, as well as how you physically present yourself (posture, nonverbal signals, etc.) It also focuses on how you relate to and interact with others.

The Hakomi Method

The Hakomi method uses mindfulness practices as the foundation to tap into internal experiences and wounds. It’s less about body movement and more about exploring your sensations through mindful attention. This mindful attention can then be directed toward healing those areas of the body that are distressed. The principles of the Hakomi method include mindfulness, nonviolence, mind-body integration, unity, organicity, and loving presence.

How to Find a Somatic Therapist

It’s important to find a licensed psychotherapist to conduct somatic therapy. Some unqualified individuals advertise somatic treatment without actually being licensed to treat any mental health conditions and this should be avoided.

The good news is that many licensed psychotherapists use somatic treatment modalities. Many of these modalities offer certification programs for therapists who complete the training and other requirements.

Therapists may list this type of therapy as a treatment option on their website or in a mental health provider database. Even if they don’t, you can reach out to their practice directly to ask about it.

Serritella says that building rapport with your chosen therapist is important. “The therapist may be the most competent and experienced person you find, but if you don’t ‘connect’ with them, you won’t experience the full benefits of a somatic session.”

Also, look for these signs of a competent somatic therapist:

FAQs

  • Traditional talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses only on the mind. It typically involves discussing your thoughts with a therapist and may include reframing your ideas or changing troubling thought patterns. Somatic therapy can include elements of talk therapy, but it also focuses heavily on your bodily sensations, and how your body reacts to your thoughts and emotions. Somatic therapy aims to help you release the effects of trauma and other negative emotions from your body.

  • Trauma can impact your mental health and your long-term physical health, so somatic therapy has the potential to improve both aspects of your life. Somatic therapy also helps you become more in tune with the mind/body connection.

  • EMDR is one type of somatic therapy. Other types can include somatic experiencing (SE), bioenergetic analysis, the Hakomi method, sensorimotor psychotherapy, and brainspotting.

  • A somatic therapist helps you tune in to your bodily experience so that you can identify and release stored trauma in your body. They may do this through a combination of talk therapy, body awareness, and mindful movement.

  • Research shows varying levels of effectiveness for the different types of somatic therapy in treating trauma-related disorders. EMDR therapy is evidence-based, whereas sensorimotor psychotherapy is scientifically validated and shows promise to someday be evidence-based. Because somatic therapy is still so new, there is much more research to be done for each type. If you are interested in a particular form of somatic therapy, a therapist trained in that modality will be able to offer more information about the effectiveness and research available during your consultation.

About the author
therapist william snyder William Snyder, LPC

William Snyder is a licensed professional counselor with over 20 years of experience. He specializes in anxiety, trauma, PTSD, depression, and self-esteem.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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