What Is Somatic Trauma Therapy?

Somatic trauma therapy is a type of intervention that encourages the patient to work through traumatic experiences and chronic stress by focusing on the physical body.

Through the use of movement and guided exercises, the patient is taught to recognize how stress and trauma are stored in the body, how the mind and body are connected, and how to use specific exercises to release the emotional pain that is stored within the body.

This article will provide an overview of somatic trauma therapy, how it addresses the fight, flight, or freeze response, and how it can help you.

Close up of hands touching, EFT tapping therapy technique.

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Fight, Flight, or Freeze: Understanding the Stress Response

The trauma response is a normal, natural way of reacting to significant stress and life-threatening situations. In split seconds, the brain and body perceive a potential danger and respond to it in a way that is meant to keep you alive.

For example, when your body perceives danger, blood pressure and heart rate increase in an effort to get the blood flowing more quickly, vision becomes more focused, and systems that are not needed for survival, like reproduction and digestion, are diminished. This immediate response is meant to prepare you to be able to fight the danger or to flee from the danger.

Typically, when the stressor is removed, the body can automatically return to its natural stable state, called homeostasis. Sometimes, however, memory of the trauma is not stored in the brain correctly, and the brain starts to perceive experiences that feel similar to the traumatic situation as unsafe.

This is how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops and how the physical aspect of responses associated with the fight, flight, or freeze reaction become stuck and prolonged.

fight-or-flight-or-freeze. acute stress response

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Types of Somatic Trauma Therapy

The types of somatic trauma therapy include standard somatic experience, sensorimotor psychotherapy, the Hakomi method, bioenergetic therapy, biodynamic psychotherapy, and brainspotting.

Standard Somatic Experiencing

Somatic experiencing is a therapeutic approach developed in the 1970s by trauma expert Peter Levine. It involves developing a connection with the body and learning to pay attention to internal physical experiences. These experiences serve as information for working through physical and emotional pain caused by severe stress or trauma.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

For most people, the systems within the body naturally return to a normal state of functioning after a traumatic or highly stressful event is over. Some, though, remain in a state of dysregulation (unbalanced). Sensorimotor psychotherapy, developed by psychotherapist Pat Ogden in the 1970s, aims to bring a person's system back into homeostasis.

Like other forms of somatic trauma therapy, sensorimotor therapy relies on the body, not on a person's words, to heal the effects of trauma. With this approach, the therapist helps the person see how dysregulation feels in their body and helps move them back and forth through states of arousal and regulation for each emotion associated with the experience to build tolerance and a deeper connection to the body.

The Hakomi Method

The Hakomi Method is a therapeutic approach developed by Ron Kurtz also in the 1970s. This method focuses on using mindfulness as a way to understand the thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical sensations associated with different experiences. The patient is encouraged to be fully present and aware, and the therapist provides a supportive and calming alliance.

The Hakomi method uses unconscious indicators or reactions within the body as sources of information about past traumatic experiences, and the patient is encouraged to note any changes that occur as different phrases are introduced, such as, "I am perfect just as I am."

Bioenergetic Therapy

Bioenergetic therapies use touch and movement to relieve the emotional pain stored within the physical body. One example is called tapping. The therapist teaches the person to tap repeatedly on different areas while recalling feelings associated with the traumatic event. The idea is that the person cannot become distressed while using this form of physical distraction.

Bioenergetic approaches are based on the theoretical framework that negative emotions are stored subtly within the body and can be released with specific, controlled movements.

Biodynamic Psychotherapy

Biodynamic therapy was developed in the 1940s by clinical psychologist Gerda Boyesen and is based on the theory that traumatic experiences are stored in the muscles and cause them to become contracted and rigid. Helping the muscles to relax allows the body to have better blood circulation and, thus, to release any trapped biochemicals that were released during the time of the trauma, such as lactic acid and adrenaline.

During biodynamic therapy, the therapist will determine where muscles are constricted by listening to the body, such as through a stethoscope. Through massage and other approaches, these muscle groups are relaxed and able to release the trapped fluids, helping the person's body process the trauma.

Brainspotting

Brainspotting is a method for treating trauma that was developed in 2003 by psychotherapist David Grand. It is an alternative therapy types that uses spots in a person’s visual field to help them process trauma. The method involves slowly tracking eye movement to identify spots or "windows," such as blinking, twitching, or eye wobbling. These "spots" are then used as a map for where the patient should hold certain eye positions and note the internal experience through mindfulness.

Brainspotting is used to access trauma trapped in the subcortical brain, the area of the brain that is in control of learning, emotions, motion, and consciousness.

The therapist helps the patient work through any sources of physical or emotional pain as they are discovered.

What Somatic Trauma Therapy Can Help With

Somatic trauma therapy can help with both emotional and physical pain.

Emotional Pain and PTSD

Somatic treatments are mainly used as a way to treat past trauma experiences. These methods approach trauma as a natural response to a significant stressor. Somatic trauma therapists do not see PTSD as a disorder (a disruption of regular bodily functions), but rather as a syndrome (a collection of co-occurring traits associated with a specific disease).

In providing somatic treatments, therapists aim to help the person appropriately process the trauma in a way that reduces physical symptoms and gets the experience "unstuck" from the physical body.

Physical Pain

Somatic treatment approaches focus on developing a deep awareness of the body and how the physical experience is connected with the emotional or psychological experience. These treatment methods encourage intentional movements as a person uses mindfulness to better understand where pain is and what the source could be.

Somatic approaches can serve as a source of education about chronic pain and which movements bring discomfort as well as those that bring pleasure or relief from pain.

How Somatic Trauma Therapy Works

Regardless of the specific method used, the central goal of somatic trauma therapy is to teach people how to become attuned to their body through focus and mindfulness. Through somatic therapies, clients are guided by the therapist to focus their attention inward and become familiar with the various sensations experienced in the body.

Clients are closely supported by the therapist as they start to make connections between physical feelings in the body and emotional experiences, such as those that result from traumatic or highly stressful situations.

Resourcing

With trauma-focused therapies, it's important to pull from inner feelings of comfort and strength to form a sense of being OK as the hard work happens. Resourcing is the process of developing a sense of safety in order to find balance and stability during periods of dysregulation and while experiencing the discomfort of emotional pain as it's expressed in the body.

Titration

When going through any type of trauma treatment, the process is often long and slow and takes place at a pace that is tolerable for the patient. Titration refers to this slow process, which may be difficult for someone expecting fast results.

The reason for titration is to ensure a person is not re-traumatized or re-triggered during the treatment process. A therapist will also want to teach the patient how to manage the discomfort at increased levels without becoming distressed. This process takes time and practice.

Pendulation

Pendulation refers to the process in somatic therapies that encourages moving back and forth between discomfort and regulation. The goal in somatic therapy is to help the person become tuned in to their bodies and build more and more tolerance toward the discomfort related to traumatic experiences. Thus, pendulation allows the person to recognize when balance needs to be restored and how to do so.

How to Get Started

Finding a therapist who is trained in somatic approaches is similar to searching for a therapist for other modalities. You can find a therapist by contacting your health insurance carrier, asking a medical professional for a referral, or using an online therapy-finder tool.

When looking for a therapist, search for someone who has specialized training in trauma treatment, and ask what approaches the person uses in treatment as well as for an explanation of what those treatments involve.

Finding the Right Therapist

When looking for a therapist, be sure to check that the person is licensed, has an advanced degree, and has training and certification in the type of somatic therapy you are interested in. Be sure to also choose someone you feel comfortable working with and feel a connection to.

Learn More: Finding the Right Therapist

What to Expect at Your First Appointment

Although you probably have a lot to talk about, expect that your first few therapy sessions will likely be mostly information gathering and building a connection. You will not begin processing any traumatic experiences right away unless you are in crisis. The therapist will want to get to know you and provide a treatment plan before starting any of the difficult work involved in working through trauma.

Summary

Somatic trauma therapies are approaches for treating trauma and severe stress experiences. There are many types of somatic treatment interventions, but each approach aims to bring awareness to the physical sensations of the body and understand how those sensations connect to the emotional experience.

Somatic therapists help clients slowly build tolerance to the discomforts of physical responses to trauma and teach ways to move back into a window of comfort and regulation. Somatic therapists are licensed mental health clinicians with specialized training in somatic approaches. A trauma therapist can be found by asking for a referral from a medical professional, searching for someone on an online therapy-finding website, or asking your insurance carrier for in-network providers.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you've experienced past trauma or face chronic pain and are unsure where it stems from, somatic trauma therapy can be a helpful place to start. Through these approaches, trauma is looked at through the lens of experiencing emotions physically in the body.

Though it may seem scary or overwhelming to process traumatic experiences in this way, somatic treatment methods move very slowly and introduce positive, safe feelings into the process to help you develop tolerance along the way.

If you are interested in trying one of these approaches, you can start by finding a therapist who is trained in trauma treatment and asking about the specific interventions available.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a somatic therapist do?

    Therapists trained in somatic approaches use the body's connection with the mind to help their patients release stored traumatic memories that get stuck within the physical body. They help create a sense of safety and comfort and teach their patients how to become more deeply acquainted with the physical expression of trauma in order to release stored emotional pain.

  • How do you release trauma through somatic methods?

    There are different approaches and theories to how trauma is stored within the body, but each somatic method is rooted in the idea that our physical body stores emotional pain connected with highly stressful experiences.

    To release this pain and the stored physical memories, methods like tapping, massage, and mindfulness help build a deeper connection for the patient between emotional pain and physical sensations.

  • Is EMDR somatic therapy?

    EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocesing) is considered a somatic therapy, because it is centered in the idea that trauma memories are stored in the body. Through EMDR, specific eye movements are used to help the brain correctly process the trauma memories and release emotional pain.

  • Does somatic therapy help with anxiety?

    Somatic therapy can help release stored emotional discomfort or pain that occurs after stressful or traumatic incidents. This can include a variety of symptoms, including depression, PTSD, and anxiety.


7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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