Article by Paula Sadee, LMFT
Somatic therapies are a holistic type of therapy, using the powerful connection between the mind and body to create healing and lasting change. It is often used as the primary treatment for trauma and PTSD, and it’s very helpful for anxiety and other mental illnesses. Since trauma is held in the body, the body is seen as the pathway to healing in somatic therapies. It’s easy to understand how trauma is stuck in the body when you think of a war veteran. You can imagine how a loud noise, such as fireworks could create an automatic reaction in the body, as the body remembers loud noises being dangerous or life threatening. This brings intense physiological reactions like sweating, heart racing, and fast breathing, muscles tension, shaking, or dry mouth among other symptoms. Their body is in fight or flight mode. In that moment, that person may feel like they are actually back in a war zone.
This doesn’t just happen with trauma from war, but can also result from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse as a child or an adult. Examples can include abandonment or lack of attachment to a parent, bullying from a peer, car accidents, being shamed or humiliated, having a parent who is mentally ill or struggling from addiction, among many other things. And sometimes these unresolved traumas can often result in PTSD.
When people push the trauma down and try to ignore it, the physical sensations can be so uncomfortable that it leads people to try coping by drinking, smoking, gambling, overworking or turning to comfort food. Over time they have to work harder and harder to avoid the uncomfortable sensations and the coping can quickly become excessive.
For people with unprocessed trauma, the imbalance in the nervous system can make them feel like they are always in fight or flight mode–fearful of danger. They can develop shame, depression, anxiety, sleep and digestive problems, as well as body pain. Their body feels disconnected from their mind and they often don’t feel safe in their body. They can’t trust themselves anymore about what is dangerous or safe, so everything can feel dangerous. They also can end up feeling numb, disconnected and different from other people.
Research has shown that people with PTSD store traumatic memories in an entirely different part of the brain than people who don’t have PTSD. People with PTSD store memories in the right hemisphere of the brain associated with non-verbal memories, such as the sights, sounds, and smells associated with the traumatic event past. In contrast, people without PTSD show more activity in the left front of the brain, a region associated with storing verbal memories and narratives of past events. When someone has PTSD their trauma memories are stuck, unprocessed, in the right side of the brain and are often uncontrollably expressed through emotional and with physical sensations. This trauma remains unprocessed and people can experience repeated unwanted thoughts, feelings, or images because the the brain keeps replaying it, trying to make sense of it.
Somatic therapies can frequently help people in ways that traditional therapies like CBT, DBT and psychotherapy alone cannot. In fact talk therapy can sometimes even trigger someone with PTSD. When somatic therapies are utilized, the person isn’t retelling their trauma verbally. Instead, the somatic therapist works with feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Some people are so traumatized or overwhelmed that they can barely speak in therapy. Somatic therapies help them break free and regain their voice and personal power.
One type of Somatic therapy is called Somatic Experiencing, created by Dr Peter Levine in 1997. He noticed that when animals were under life threatening conditions that they would run and shake and be fine after. This is because the body releases adrenaline and cortisol and other chemicals when something traumatic happens to help us survive, which creates imbalance in our nervous system. Movement helps the central nervous system come back into balance because the extra energy is used and the body goes back to normal. With humans, when we face traumatic experiences, our body floods with these same chemicals, putting our central nervous system in imbalance. We often don’t move or shake or express it in some way so the body remains unbalanced with the flood of chemicals. Especially in today’s society, we are taught not to express our emotions and children especially often have no escape so trauma remains frozen in their bodies. Our ancestors used to be hunters and physically active which would help their body come back to balance after overwhelming events.
Somatic Experiencing helps people move past the place they are stuck in processing something traumatic to help the person be able to self regulate again. A client is guided to briefly and calmly notice the emotions or body sensations that follow a traumatic thought which allows the person to fully process the trauma in a safe environment and at their own pace, being fully in control. People begin to realize that their body can actually help them to become calm and to soothe their overactive nervous system. Breathing is a powerful tool to help clients switch from the stressed nervous system response to the calming parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response. When someone takes a deep breath, the air from the breath pushes down on their diaphragm which activates a nerve that goes directly up to the brain and calms them.
Somatic therapies are very effective and clients can often feel positive results and relief immediately. This often makes them eager to continue to work with other triggers until the trauma is resolved. It is becoming widely used because it is so effective. Somatic therapies can be used with EMDR. When combined, the results are very positive and powerful since EMDR helps both parts of the brain connect and communicate. Along with somatic experiencing, EMDR helps the trauma become unstuck as an isolated memory in the right side of the brain and processed and consolidated and healed.
With somatic therapies, people who have been trying to escape their bodies or distract themselves from their body’s sensations, begin to realize the answer is in their body. They begin to feel more connected to themselves again or for the first time, and they can see and feel a path to a life they used to have or have always wanted. Other somatic therapies that can be used with somatic experiencing are yoga, thai chi, and stretching. These techniques can actually help the body begin to self regulate. These calming, slow movements help the body to feel more empowered and they help to release energy from traumatic memories.
If you’re interested in learning more about somatic therapies or EMDR, ask your therapist for more information.