Somatic therapy is a type of therapy that relieves the effects of anxiety, stress or trauma on the body. When something threatens us we have three choices, flight, fight or freeze. When we are unable to run or fight, we may go into a frozen state where we dissociate in an effort to protect ourselves. We literally “turn off” a part of our brain that decides, “this is too much.”
While this coping mechanism might have worked well as a child, it doesn’t work in adulthood. As the first step, learning how to calm the body will help calm the mind. Then we can think clearly.
Sometimes anxiety is about what is going on at the moment and other times it is about dealing with the past. The problem when we do not deal with what has disturbed in the past is that we may experience mysterious or painful symptoms in our bodies, or we don’t experience anything. We need to get back “online” and address the disturbance. This can happen gently and without flooding with proper techniques.
Trauma and the Brain
This brings us to a significant question: How is it that animals in the wild, constantly dealing with danger, do not appear to have trauma? The difference is they do not have a thinking brain (prefrontal cortex). They never hear, “Stop it, pull yourself together, it wasn’t that bad”. They are able to metabolize the experience and return to grazing with the other animals. Many human beings who have been traumatized do not have this ability, and it’s not their fault.
Trauma affects not only the brain but the nervous system as well. When a person experiences an event they find traumatic, it disrupts their ability to self-regulate, that is, their ability to calm or motivate themselves as needed. Some people get stuck on “on” or “high”, they become hypervigilant, anxious or angry; others get stuck on “off” or “low”, becoming depressed, disconnected, numb, or exhausted. Somatic therapies help individuals to re-regulate their systems by a gentle natural approach.
What Happens Using Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy works primarily with the “felt sense” of the trauma by accessing physical sensations, imagery and motor patterns, with less emphasis on thinking or emotional processes. When a traumatic event takes place, if it was not discharged or released, it becomes locked in the nervous system, especially if the person was unable to escape or fight. An incomplete physiological response may develop if the person was unable to fight or get away. To release the activation trapped in the body, we focus on sensations in various parts of the body. Sensing into the body is one of the most effective ways to release the trapped survival energy.
What this looks like in therapy: In its simplest form, the therapist in a session might say, “Where do you sense that feeling (or thought) in your body? What do you sense? Is it hot or cold, rough or smooth, dense or diffuse? Stay with the sensations and notice what happens.” When sensations change, perceptions shift. The body’s wisdom has a chance to express itself and the system is able to self-regulate. Trauma dysregulates the nervous system. By using somatic therapies, we enable the nervous system to move re-regulate so can deal with what is happening in your life, past, present and future.
3 Types of Somatic Therapy:
Somatic Experiencing encourages resiliency in the nervous system by encouraging a person to track their activation as they describe what happened before, during, and after an event. SE enables a person to maintain their equilibrium while processing the events by working with small pieces at a time and releasing or discharging the sensations (heat, cold, shaking, or tears) that arise. Developed by Peter Levine, Ph.D.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy uses the body’s intelligence to help tell the story and create a new one. By bringing attention to gestures, facial expressions, and body language, people release stuck feelings and emotions. Developed by Pat Ogden, Ph.D.
Trauma Resiliency Model (TRM)
TRM originally developed to help first responders in crisis situations. It is designed to help one get out of shock and back into their body and mind, to return to better functioning. Developed by Elaine Miller-Karas, LCSW.
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