How Somatic Therapy Helps Trauma Survivors Heal
The psychological community is uncovering new approaches to healing trauma. Furthermore, experts are exploring how phenomena in the human brain—and the entire nervous system—may contribute to emotional instability and mental distress. Mental health professionals are expanding the understanding of the roots and impact of trauma.
Disturbing events, such as severe accidents, or assault, are widely acknowledged as traumatic. However, mental health practitioners now see trauma as any stimulus that overwhelms the nervous system. Therefore, this may include emotional disturbances or severe and sustained stress, in addition to physical distress.
Somatic Experiencing and Healing Trauma
As the mental health community’s understanding of trauma grows, so do the options available to those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In recent years, a form of therapy has emerged as a popular way to overcome the effects of trauma. Moreover, this approach avoids the discomfort often associated with desensitization-based methods.
Known as Somatic Experiencing, this therapeutic technique takes the entire body into consideration. The word “somatic” means “relating to or affecting the body.” Thus, somatic experiences help people heal by working with the body, not just the mind.
The Origins of Somatic Therapy
The Somatic Experiencing (SE) approach to trauma therapy is the result of decades of research by Peter A. Levine, PhD. Dr. Levine holds doctoral degrees in both medical biophysics and psychology. He is dedicated to advancing therapeutic options for those suffering from PTSD. Dr. Levine delves into the physical aspects of emotional trauma to accomplish this work. This is referred to as somatic psychology. Another related therapeutic approach is the Hakomi Method of Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy.
“Although humans rarely die from trauma, if we do not resolve it, our lives can be severely diminished by its effects. Some people have even described this situation as a ‘living death.’”
―Peter A. Levine
Somatic Experiencing and Body Psychotherapy
Dr. Levine’s contributions to the field of body-psychotherapy have earned him accolades. These include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy and the honorary Reis Davis Chair in Child Psychiatry.
The foundations of Somatic Experiencing therapy took root in Dr. Levine’s mind when he considered the marked absence of trauma among wild animals. Despite facing a variety of stressors and mortal threats on a daily basis, animals in the wild do not experience long-term disturbances as a result of frightening or dangerous events.
Human vs. Animal Responses to Trauma
Observing this, Dr. Levine questioned why humans, in contrast, often experience trauma following trying events. In addition, this is even when episodes may seem inconsequential to others.
He set out to discover what sets humans apart from other mammals in their responses to danger. Subsequently, he found the answer in the way that organisms process life-threatening situations. When pursued by a predator, an animal will cycle through a full range of responses. This is to observe, react, and recover from the stimulus. After drawing on heightened energy to overcome danger, an animal will expend this excess energy. Hence, the animal shakes, bucks, or simply runs longer than necessary.
Emotional Triggers and Trauma
Dr. Levine observed that humans, on the other hand, often fail to complete this cycle of neurobiological responses. This may occur for a variety of reasons. Shame, fear of judgment, or difficulty understanding an experience can make an impact. These factors can prevent an individual from exhibiting a full range of responses to a traumatic experience.
Dr. Levine hypothesized that, when this process is interrupted, humans fail to fully expend the excess energy gathered by the body to facilitate a survival response. Thus, future experiences that trigger memories of the traumatic event can send the mind and body into overdrive. This re-sparks a response to a threat that no longer exists.
Trauma and the Nervous System
The aim of Somatic Experiencing is to return the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to a state of balance. The ANS is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), and the enteric nervous system (ENS). Moreover, the ANS regulates the full range of biological responses to trauma. In addition, it automatically increases blood flow to the muscles. As a result, it decreases energy expended on digestion and initiates various other processes to prepare the body for a challenge.
Dr. Levine’s research links PTSD symptoms, such as aggression and anxiety, to interruptions in the processing of trauma. This deregulation causes the autonomic nervous system to misfire. Thus, a “fight, flight, or freeze” response is initiated when one recalls a traumatic event.
The Somatic Experiencing Process
Through Somatic Experiencing therapy exercises, clients develop a fuller understanding of the nature of their trauma. Hence, they can digest the experience in order to mitigate its impact on their daily lives. Consequently, the process is designed to restore balance to the nervous system. Therefore, this calms both physical and emotional responses to a danger that has since passed. As a result, it can be highly effective in addressing PTSD in young adults or any other group.
How the Somatic Healing Process Unfolds
- Somatic Experiencing takes place in a controlled and monitored environment. It involves the gradual introduction of material related to a client’s trauma.
- Before introducing this material, SE practitioners guide their patients in learning strategies to cope with traumatic memories.
- Individuals then take part in guided visualization exercises. These Somatic Experiencing exercises are designed to pinpoint the various physical sensations associated with their traumatic experiences.
- At intervals throughout the session, the therapist asks their client to report on any non-visible somatic sensations. These may include tightness or dizziness. The therapist takes note of more conspicuous reactions such as shifts in posture or quickened breathing.
- At times, an SE practitioner may incorporate simple touch. This helps patients become more in tune with the physical sensations caused by their traumatic recollections. In this way, they help clients face their traumatic memories, with emotional reprieves throughout the process. Consequently, Somatic Experiencing alternates between material that addresses trauma with compassionate, stabilizing support.
Awareness and Healing
In conclusion, Somatic Experiencing assists trauma survivors to be more aware of trauma’s impact on the body. Moreover, SE helps them become manage and respond to these sensations. Consequently, they are no longer haunted by trauma on a daily basis.
“I have come to the conclusion that human beings are born with an innate capacity to triumph over trauma. I believe not only that trauma is curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening—a portal opening to emotional and genuine spiritual transformation.”
—Peter A. Levine
Front Psychol. 2015; 6: 93.
Eur J Psychotraumatology. Vol. 8(1), 2017