We all know too well the toll that trauma and stress take on our bodies and minds.
When we’re stressed or dealing with emotional difficulties, we talk with our therapist. And when we’re feeling too much tension in our bodies, we might schedule a massage or go for a walk. Somatic healing combines approaches like these into one effective form of treatment. Rather than deal just with the symptoms, it seeks to heal the tension at the source.
Whether our stress is coming from prolonged pain in childhood, ongoing stress, or a single traumatic event, somatic healing can help us release the negative emotions held in our bodies. Mind-body interventions themselves aren’t necessarily new – yoga is one example of such a practice that has of course been around for ages. Somatic healing and therapies and treatments are based largely on Wilhelm Reich’s work from around the middle of the 20th century.
And while it may not have caught on yet as a mainstream practice, interest in somatic therapies has been growing in recent years – and with good reason. As more people turn to treatment options outside the practices of typical modern western medicine, many have found results with somatic healing that other treatments or therapy alone haven’t been able to bring.
What is Somatic Healing?
“Somatic” means dealing with or relating to the physical body. In the context of healing, it refers to the mind-body connection or the treatment of both in an integrative way. Somatic healing is focused on physical manifestations of emotional or mental problems that are largely caused by imprints of trauma on the nervous system. These could be chronic pain, poor posture, or involuntary movements, along with conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Even body language and facial expressions can sometimes be traced back to a negative experience.
Somatic healing and therapy then is based on ideas about how emotions are stored up in the body and its tissues, and more importantly how that stored-up emotion can then be released to facilitate healing. It’s a holistic approach that combines things like traditional talk therapy with physical therapy, or other movements like dance or yoga.
Somatic Experiencing is a specific technique to do this that was developed in the 1970s by Dr. Peter Levine, a therapist specializing in trauma, and is the standard for somatic healing therapies. Practitioners using Levine’s method work with and guide people to release the trauma that’s stuck in their body, with the goal of healing the root cause of their illness to provide relief.
Who Is Somatic Healing For?
For people with using somatic healing with PTSD from something like a car accident, or injury in combat, the body tends to remember what happened even if consciously the person doesn’t. Flashbacks, insomnia, or difficulty with relationships are of course common challenges, but sometimes pain and involuntary movements also result from the trauma. Even in cases of what’s called complex PTSD, which sometimes results from prolonged periods of abuse or neglect, for example, somatic therapy may be able to help. By helping the person to remember, and then let go of, the negative emotions that have been stored up, the treatment can guide a person back to a feeling of safety in their body. Additionally, people with anxiety, depression, borderline personality, and other concerns have found benefits from somatic healing work.
It’s a special approach that works on multiple levels and has been helpful to those who have tried other methods, even medication, and seen little improvement.
How Does Somatic Healing Work?
With the foundational belief that mind and body aren’t really separate, this unique therapeutic work is designed to work with the connection to help the body heal. The person undergoing treatment receives guidance on staying present and recognizing their body’s fight or flight response, working to increase awareness of their body’s natural instinctual response to a perceived – or remembered – threat.
By working with an understanding of the body’s natural responses and abilities, instead of trying to override or bypass them using something like medication or willpower, somatic healing can provide the breakthrough that’s needed. Our nervous system generally resolves the experience of a stressful event through some physical response, so if that response is interrupted – for example, wanting to run but being held down – that energy doesn’t get released.
Instead, it’s held in the body, stored with nowhere to go, and this is what leads to problems like chronic pain, insomnia, digestive upset, and others. By using what’s known about responses to trauma in the natural world, like an animal narrowly escaping a predator, somatic healing aims to complete the body’s processing of the event. If given a chance, when the body works through physically what has happened the traumatic energy is released – naturally.
What somatic therapy can do is provide the conditions for a person to remember in their body what was felt during the traumatic event, and then complete processing it in the safety of the therapeutic setting.
What Happens in a Somatic Healing Session?
A therapist or coach generally may start by encouraging their client to get in touch with the emotional state of the trauma they experienced. From there they can begin to recognize their body’s response to triggers – things that prompt the same sensations their body associates with that prior trauma.
Therapists might provide tools in the form of physical exercises or movements they can then use on their own outside of the session to help them self-regulate. They can also help with identifying the physical manifestations themselves, whether facial expressions or involuntary movements, maybe posture, and then work on releasing those. By developing an increased awareness of the body, people can finish processing the experience that led to problems. That awareness is necessary to let go, and having a trusted therapist for guidance through processing something painful can provide the safe environment needed to do such work.
Practitioners of Somatic Experiencing are typically trained in other treatment modalities as well, so the method can be available to people regardless of the kind of approach that works best for them. As an alternative or complementary treatment for those recovering from trauma, somatic healing can help with finally being able to let go of the negative experience, move past the trauma response, and bring closure.