What Is Somatic Experiencing?

Trauma therapy is a type of mental health treatment to address the effects of extremely stressful events and trauma on a person. There are different types of trauma therapy. One type is somatic therapy, sometimes called somatotherapy. It involves the use of medications, low-dose electric currents, or other physical interventions that directly impact the body.

Somatic experiencing, or somatic experiencing therapy, is a type of somatic trauma therapy. It is a treatment that focuses on physical sensations in the body, or how the body feels.

This article will discuss how somatic experiencing works, when it is used, and how it can help people who have experienced trauma.

woman sitting in a therapist office talking to her therapist

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What Is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic experiencing is a type of therapy that focuses on physical sensations in the body to address trauma, symptoms related to trauma, and overcoming the effects of experiencing extremely stressful events. It is known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, it can also be used for other physical and mental health challenges.

Unlike other forms of mental health therapy that focus on thoughts, feelings, and emotions, somatic experiencing involves bringing awareness to how the physical body feels.

Examples of somatic or physical body awareness include:

  • Noticing how the heart feels when it beats
  • Focusing on muscles and determining if they feel tense or relaxed
  • Feeling different bones, organs, and parts of the physical body

How It Works

When a person experiences a stressful or traumatic event, the body and mind respond. This response is called the flight, fight, or freeze response—where the primitive, reactive part of the brain responds by making a person run away (flight), physically fight back, or freeze as protection from potential danger.

Somatic experiencing is based on the theory that traumatic memories can get trapped in the physical body and lead to symptoms long after the danger of that traumatic event has passed. The idea is that by becoming more aware of the sensations in the body, those traumatic memories can be processed and released, relieving the symptoms.

Somatic Experiencing Steps

  1. Become aware of body sensations: Focus on different parts of the body and how they feel (e.g., are there any tense muscles?).
  2. Make connections between the sensations and stress: Consider what feelings or sensations are felt when stressed (e.g., unsettled stomach or lump in throat).
  3. Focus on a positive sensation, thought, or memory: Recall or bring attention to something enjoyable (e.g., warm sun shining down or memories of a favorite vacation).
  4. Feel a release or decrease of symptoms: This is personal to everyone and may come naturally or with practice (e.g., feeling of calm, relief, or as if a weight has been lifted).

What It Treats

Somatic experiencing therapy is primarily used for the treatment of symptoms related to trauma or the effects of extremely stressful events. More specifically, it is often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. However, it can also be used for symptoms such as stress and anger in people who have not been diagnosed with PTSD.

Somatic experiencing therapy may help with PTSD and other challenges, including:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Disability-related physical pain
  • Extreme fear of movement that may cause pain (kinesiophobia)
  • Grief
  • Insecurity
  • Mood challenges
  • Physical pain
  • Self-doubt
  • Stress
  • Trauma
  • Unwanted thoughts

What It Involves

At the core of somatic experiencing therapy is the connection between the mind and body. The idea is that healing comes from focusing on both the mind and body together. There are many different techniques that are considered somatic therapy or can be used as part of somatic therapy. For example, yoga is sometimes considered somatic therapy because it focuses on the connection between mind and body for physical and emotional healing.

Here are some techniques used in somatic therapy:

  • Breathing exercises are often used as part of somatic therapy to help calm the body and mind and bring awareness to bodily sensations.
  • Mindfulness-based techniques strengthen awareness of the external world, thoughts, and the way the body feels. They can be used as part of the process of making connections between sensations and stress.
  • Meditation, like breathing exercises, is often used as a way to calm the body and mind and increase awareness.
  • Somatic psychotherapy combines talk therapy with a focus on the body. It involves communication with a provider and awareness of the body to promote healing.
  • Awareness of body and mind is a way of consciously noticing thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. This can be used as part of the somatic therapy process.
  • Body movement is sometimes used as a way to help increase awareness, identify areas of stress, and process that stress for healing.
  • Positive imagery can be used to calm the body and mind both to help bring awareness and release stress once it is identified.

Benefits

Since somatic experiencing is used with different populations of people who face different challenges, the effectiveness varies. This treatment has been shown effective in reducing both physical and mental symptoms.

For example, people who have tried somatic experiencing have had fewer symptoms of:

  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Physical pain
  • Stress

People who have tried somatic experiencing have also increased:

  • Mobility: Being able to physically move parts of the body that were restricted
  • Mental resilience: Being able to adapt, cope with, and overcome stress and hardships
  • Quality of life: Being able to take part in activities and enjoy life more with fewer symptoms

However, there is conflicting research, and some people who try somatic experiencing do not see benefits. A qualified mental health professional such as a therapist or psychologist can help determine if this method is right for you and your situation.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Anyone struggling with physical or mental health challenges can reach out to a healthcare provider, such as a primary care provider or mental health professional, to get started with a treatment plan. Since somatic experiencing can help with both physical and mental health conditions, it can be considered for a wide variety of challenges.

Summary

Somatic experiencing is a type of therapy that focuses on the connection between the mind and body. Part of the process involves becoming more aware of how the physical body feels. It is best known for treating stress, trauma, and PTSD, but it can be used to treat many other physical and mental health conditions.

The process of somatic experiencing may include breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, meditation, imagery, and more. Mental health professionals such as psychologists and therapists trained in the technique can guide people through the process and teach them how to do it on their own.

A Word From Verywell

Living with physical or mental health symptoms such as stress or physical pain can be challenging. If you are experiencing stress, pain, trauma, or PTSD, you may benefit from somatic experiencing. Talk to a healthcare professional such as a primary care provider or a therapist to see if it is a good fit for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should you start trauma therapy?

    Ideally, trauma therapy should begin at the first sign of trauma symptoms, or right after experiencing a traumatic event. It can even be started before a traumatic event if it is something that can be predicted. For example, a person who has a loved one who is terminally ill may begin trauma therapy before they pass away.

  • How old should you be to start trauma therapy?

    Any age. Trauma therapy can be for anyone experiencing trauma, including children, adults, and older people. Even babies and young children can start trauma therapy, though it is different from adult trauma therapy and involves support for a parent or caregiver to learn how to support the baby or young child.

  • How long does trauma therapy take?

    It depends. The length of time spent in trauma therapy depends on the person, what they are experiencing, how severe their symptoms are, and how quickly they improve. Each session can be an hour or longer. Some people notice benefits after the first session, while others do not notice a difference until after a few sessions.

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6 Sources
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