Somatic Psychotherapy: How Body-Centered Therapy Can Heal Psychological Trauma

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated November 9, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Content Warning: This article mentions trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering. If you or someone you know is or may be experiencing abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, available 24/7, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. Live chat is also available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7, or you can text the word “HOME” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

There is often a common misconception that psychotherapy only involves talk therapy sessions. However, there can be many effective approaches under the psychotherapy umbrella. One of these modalities may be somatic psychotherapy, a holistic, body-centered therapy approach primarily used to help clients overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Somatic psychotherapy can include interventions like meditation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, dance, acupressure, reiki, and more to release emotional pain that may be stored inside the body. To learn more about somatic psychotherapy or try it for yourself, it can be helpful to connect with a licensed therapist in person or online.

Somatic psychotherapy can also be used to treat stress, anxiety, depression, and addiction. It can improve emotional regulation, increase self-confidence, and help clients identify and address relationship problems. Individuals with physical pain, digestive problems, and other medical conditions that have been resistant to traditional treatments may also benefit from somatic psychotherapy.

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Are You Interested In Somatic Psychotherapy?

The History Of Somatic Psychotherapy

The term "somatic" comes from the Greek word "soma," which generally refers to the human body. German psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich is frequently credited for discovering the field of somatic psychotherapy back in the 20th century. Reich introduced his unconventional therapy approach after immigrating to the U.S. to flee World War II, during which the Nazis dominated his homeland of Austria.

Reich believed that trauma lives within the body. Common defense mechanisms, such as repression, regression, avoidance, denial, and disassociation, can result in physical health problems, including chronic muscular tension. As a result, pain can be trapped within the body, and the underlying causes may remain unhealed.

Although Reich's claims were certainly unconventional at the time, research suggests somatic psychotherapy can be highly effective in releasing pent-up symptoms that negatively impact emotional well-being and overall physical health.

Somatic Psychotherapy Can Treat PTSD

Healing can be possible for individuals whose lives have been affected by psychological trauma. A 2017 study published by the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that 44.1% of study participants lost their PTSD diagnosis after participating in two consecutive 15-week somatic psychotherapy sessions. Participants met just once per week.

Despite the relatively small sample (63 people over the age of 18), the study's results were generally encouraging. With differing traumatic experiences, including vehicle accidents, assault cases, medical trauma, combat, and the death or injury of a family member, many participants were found to have decreased PTSD and/or depression symptoms.

How Somatic Psychotherapy Works

Somatic psychotherapy can be conducted one-on-one or in a group setting and usually combines talk therapy with various physical techniques. Clients are often asked to recall their traumatic experience(s), and the clinician may teach relaxation techniques based on the client’s physical responses. Common interventions can include deep breathing techniques and meditation. Additionally, clinicians may work with clients through practices such as reiki, acupressure, and various types of movement, such as yoga, dance, or tai chi. Vocal exercises or massage may also be implemented.

A Holistic Approach To Healing

If you've ever felt tension in your body after a long, stressful day at the office, or you've become emotional during a relaxing yoga session, you've probably realized that there can be a strong, unyielding connection between the body and mind. Because PTSD often affects the central nervous system, survivors can feel that they're always "on" and unable to rest and unwind. A seemingly insignificant event can make a PTSD survivor go into overdrive, potentially making true relaxation virtually impossible.

Somatic therapy is typically holistic. It can incorporate the mind, body, and spirit to relieve emotional and physical pain, potentially allowing the client to release emotions that may be trapped in their body. By releasing pent-up tension, frustration, anger, and fear caused by traumatic events, the client can begin to enjoy life and find inner peace.

Somatic Psychotherapy Facts

Despite growing research, somatic psychotherapy continues to be largely misunderstood. The following facts are intended to help demystify this holistic approach to healing:

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  • Somatic Psychotherapy Can Be Combined With Other Therapy Types: A more traditional talk therapy session may include somatic psychotherapy elements, such as meditation, movement, and/or recalling traumatic experiences.
  • Psychological Setbacks Can Correspond With Physical Discomfort: Failure to work through trauma can contribute to chronic tension and pain.
  • Somatic Psychotherapy Techniques Can Vary Greatly Depending On A Client's Needs: One session may look completely different from another. Since there are often many approaches involved, clinicians can choose the techniques that best suit the client.
  • Somatic Psychotherapy Can Involve Touch, But It Doesn't Have To: While many clinicians choose not to implement touch in their practices, some clients may benefit from transformative touch. Clinicians trained in this technique may utilize this approach based on a client's comfort level and therapeutic needs.
  • Resourcing Is Used For Grounding: A client may be encouraged to think of a time when they felt safe. Resourcing can also include thoughts of a loved one, a favorite calming place, or an object that brings the client inner peace.

Who Can Benefit From Somatic Psychotherapy?

The acronym PTSD often conjures up horrific visions of war or violent crimes. While PTSD often results from combat and physical violence, many other types of trauma should not be overlooked. Somatic psychotherapy may help individuals who have experienced or witnessed many types of trauma, including the following:

  • Developmental trauma during childhood, such as physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse*, abandonment, neglect, and/or severe family dysfunction
  • Shock trauma, such as rape, mugging, assault, or surviving a natural disaster
  • Subtle trauma, including relocation, bullying, the death of a family pet, financial difficulties, medical procedures, a minor accident and/or injury, rejection from a loved one, divorce or a difficult breakup, losing a job, changing schools, upsetting remarks by a family member, friend, teacher, or acquaintance, or getting lost in an unfamiliar area

*If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Many individuals who have experienced trauma don’t realize the impact the event has had on their health and well-being. Any trauma can cause stress and anxiety and wreak havoc on the mind and body. In the following sections, we'll cover the psychological and physiological effects of developmental trauma, shock trauma, and subtle trauma, along with PTSD and non-PTSD disorders and conditions that may benefit from somatic psychotherapy.

Psychological Effects Of Trauma

Just as there can be different types of trauma, there can also be various psychological effects. These may include:

  • Anxiety and obsessive fear
  • Excessive worry
  • Overwhelm
  • Insomnia and other sleep problems, including nightmares and/or night terrors
  • Flashbacks
  • Panic attacks
  • A startle response
  • Problems expressing emotions
  • Overreaction to upsetting situations
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness, hopelessness, emptiness, and/or apathy
  • Difficulty dealing with stress
  • Isolation or detachment from others
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Erratic mood swings
  • Frequent crying and/or prolonged feelings of sadness
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Concentration problems
  • Fits of anger or rage
  • The tendency to procrastinate and/or avoid
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Decision-making problems
  • Proneness to accidents
  • Dependency and/or addiction
  • Suicidal ideation, threats, and/or attempts*
  • Reckless and/or impulsive behavior

*If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available to assist 24/7.

Physiological Effects Of Trauma

Many individuals who have lived through a traumatic experience don't realize their physical symptoms may be related to the traumatic event. Physiological effects of trauma can include:

  • Chronic fatigue and low energy
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Pain in the neck and/or back
  • Joint issues
  • Chronic pain
  • Unexplained aches and/or pains
  • Allergies and/or asthma
  • A weakened immune system
  • Problems with digestion
  • Sexual dysfunction, including low libido
  • Irregular periods
  • Infertility

Other Health Conditions That May Benefit From Somatic Psychotherapy

Along with the promising results researchers are finding regarding somatic psychotherapy for PTSD and depression, individuals with the following disorders and conditions may benefit from this type of treatment:

  • Phobias, including social phobia
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Grief
  • Digestive issues
  • Allergies, asthma, and other breathing conditions

The Effects Of Somatic Psychotherapy

If you're experiencing any of the above-mentioned psychological or physiological symptoms due to trauma, somatic psychotherapy could help you feel better mentally, physically, and emotionally. Patience is often key, as pent-up symptoms may take time to shift.

Positive effects of somatic psychotherapy may include:

  • Increased self-awareness
  • Improved attunement to one's own body
  • The ability to better connect with others
  • Reduced stress
  • The ability to investigate physical, mental, and emotional health problems
  • Improved self-confidence

Although experts usually agree that more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of somatic psychotherapy for various conditions, studies continue to reap promising results. A 2008 study published by Sage Journals found that somatic therapy interventions helped the vast majority of study participants, all of whom survived a destructive and devastating tsunami in southern India. Of the 150 participants, 90% noted a significant improvement in PTSD symptoms following a 75-minute somatic psychotherapy session and self-regulation training.

Somatic Psychotherapy Resources

For anyone interested in learning more about somatic psychotherapy, the following books can be enlightening and truly excellent resources for clinicians, trauma survivors, and virtually anyone who wishes to take a deeper dive into this treatment option:

"Heal the Body, Heal the Mind" can teach trauma survivors that their mental, emotional, and physical pain doesn't define them. This resource can be ideal for individuals who are new to the somatic approach.

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Are You Interested In Somatic Psychotherapy?

"Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy" is an articulate, comprehensive guide to this treatment method, offering practical skills and valuable insights.

Begin Your Healing Journey

If you've experienced trauma, seeking help can help you overcome the mental, emotional, and physical barriers that may be holding you back from living your best life. Whether you’re interested in trying somatic psychotherapy or traditional talk therapy, connecting with a licensed mental health professional can be the first step to healing.

If in-office therapy is not available or feels uncomfortable for you, you may wish to look into an online therapy platform where you can get the professional support you deserve from home or anywhere you have a reliable internet connection.

According to a strong body of research, the effectiveness of online therapy and in-office therapy is generally the same, meaning that therapy typically works as well online as it does in person. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you feel you’d benefit from working with a licensed therapist.

Takeaway

Somatic psychotherapy is generally based on the idea that emotional pain can become stuck inside the body. This holistic, body-centered approach often involves various interventions to release emotional pain. These can include yoga, acupressure, tai chi, deep breathing, meditation, reiki, dance, and more. Although somatic psychotherapy is frequently used to treat PTSD, it can be highly beneficial for a wide range of mental health disorders and challenges. You may connect with a licensed therapist who practices this type of therapy in person or online.

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