Inside The Benefits Of Somatic Therapy

You may have heard the term "somatic therapy" floating around recently, specifically among popular social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. Mental health professionals are making the most of their professional accounts to share helpful tidbits of information about this innovative form of treatment that is quickly transforming the foundation of mental health treatment. The term "somatic" refers to the mind-body connection. Dr. Peter Levine developed this body-oriented approach to healing to target physical post-traumatic symptoms and stress-related disorders, per the Ergos Institute of Somatic Education (EISE).

Somatic therapy is becoming a breakthrough method for integrative healing to treat symptoms of combined mental and physical disorders, along with other physical manifestations of trauma, such as chronic pain or tension in the jaw, back, shoulders, and pelvic floor (via Penn Medicine Princeton Health).

Essentially, the primary purpose of somatic therapy is to address the phenomenon of trauma, in any form, that becomes trapped in the body. According to Psych Central, the negative emotions experienced during a traumatic event can become trapped in the body if these feelings are not adequately expressed and released. If you relate to any of the above symptoms and believe your symptoms may be caused by a traumatic experience, then here is everything you need to know about somatic therapy before you start.

The nervous system's role in trauma

Trauma can become trapped in the body for many different reasons, manifesting differently for every individual. In other words, how you process and respond to a traumatic event will influence the somatic symptoms you experience. The complex set of nerves, referred to as the nervous system, is directly responsible for triggering one of four primary responses when faced with a traumatic event. These include fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (via the Cleveland Clinic).

You may be familiar with the concepts of fight or flight. However, freeze and fawn are recently developed concepts that have helped experts better understand the complexities of trauma. For instance, the freeze response occurs when wires are crossed, and the brain can neither fight nor fly. Instead, your stress response stalls, and your body freezes until your brain can determine an appropriate course of action, per Healthline.

On the other hand, the fawn response occurs when the body is unable to apply any of the other three responses successfully. As opposed to fighting, fleeing, or freezing during a traumatic event, the fawn stress response attempts to smother the negative emotions through appeasement behaviors (via Healthline). The fawn response is typically experienced among those who have experienced abusive relationships. Therefore, somatic therapy reveals how an individual responds to a past traumatic experience, in terms of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, in order to go about processing the negative emotions that were unable to be released, per EISE.

What happens when trauma is not released from the body?

According to the American Psychological Association, the long-term effects of stress can severely impact the efficacy and function of the nervous system. When stress and other trauma-related emotions build up in the body and remain stagnant, somatic responses begin to occur. Although signs of trauma may not immediately affect the body and mind, unresolved trauma eventually affects the individual in one way or another.

Typically, trapped emotions reveal themselves in the form of physical and psychological symptoms or disorders (via Psych Central). Common manifestations of unresolved trauma include chronic headaches, chronic pain, muscle tension, autoimmune symptoms, digestive disorders, food allergies, and sleep disorders such as insomnia, per Healthline. Many of these physical symptoms correlate with a dysregulated nervous system as a result of stagnant trauma (via Psychology Today). Over time, symptoms can worsen and severely impact daily life as they take their toll on your body and mind.

Will you benefit from somatic therapy?

So, how do you know if your symptoms will benefit from somatic therapy? The answer relies on several factors. Firstly, if you experience symptoms that don't seem to fit into a distinct category for mental or physical diagnosis, then this can often be a telltale sign that there is an underlying reason behind your symptoms, especially when a history of mental illness or trauma accompanies said symptoms. Secondly, if you have found that traditional forms of healing such as counseling (talk therapy) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — or even minor forms of somatic therapy such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) — have not helped you fully resolve your trauma, then you may be missing a significant somatic component, according to Khiron Clinics.

While cognitive forms of treatment are highly beneficial, sometimes therapy requires you to approach healing from multiple angles in order for you to find relief, especially for those who have experienced complex or long-term trauma. Similar to CBT, somatic therapy is also a sustainable form of treatment that promotes self-awareness and self-regulation, per Psych Central. However, somatic therapy offers the advantage of understanding and controlling the mind-body connection, which is integral to long-term healing and nervous system regulation (via EISE).

What to expect during somatic therapy?

Although the specific techniques introduced during a somatic therapy session will differ depending on a client's individual needs, the general framework remains the same. Somatic therapy involves complementary methods, including grounding, mind-body connection training, and movement (via Khiron Clinics). Typical grounding and mind-body techniques involve mindfulness-based exercises such as body scans, touch, meditation, and visualizations. These exercises focus on bringing awareness back to the body to reinforce and mend the mind-body connection.

Most importantly, you can expect to participate in various movement forms designed to help release body tension and regulate the nervous system. These movements can involve shaking, stomping, dance, and dynamic yoga-inspired positions, per Psych Central. Movement is a key factor in healing and often will not follow an intentional or specific flow; instead, all instinctual and natural forms of movement are encouraged. In other words, somatic therapists will encourage you to move in a way that feels natural to you as you delve deeper into your body and learn to understand what your body needs in the moment.

During a session, you may experience certain somatic responses such as tingling sensations, hot or cold sensations, dizziness, or weightlessness (via Healthline). You may also feel the trapped negative emotions finally come to the surface, such as anger, irritation, sadness, tension, or pain. These responses often indicate the movement and discharge of stagnant negative emotions from various parts of the body.

What does the healing process look like?

Your response to trauma release or "discharge" will depend on factors, most notably the state of your nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) and the type of traumatic experiences you have experienced. Healing the mind and body from traumatic events is inherently uncomfortable, which can be a major deterrent for individuals seeking treatment. However, the benefits of finding true relief from chronic or debilitating symptoms most definitely outweigh the discomfort often experienced during the healing process.

That being said, multiple sessions are often required until you begin to notice any positive effects, according to Neuropotential Clinics. The number of sessions varies tremendously; some individuals may only need a handful of sessions, while others may need to work with their therapist over a more extended period. Similar to other forms of healing, such as EMDR, the frequency of your appointment will also vary as healing in between sessions can sometimes be taxing on the body.

As with most forms of healing, your journey with somatic therapy may feel "worse" before you begin to feel better as suppressed emotions bubble to the surface. However, somatic therapy provides you with the necessary tools to improve your resiliency and nervous system regulation in high-stress situations in the future, which is, essentially, the goal of trauma healing.