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

By: Kelly Spears

Updated March 31, 2021

There is a common misconception that psychotherapy only involves talk therapy sessions. However, there are much effective therapy approaches under the psychotherapy umbrella. One of these modalities is somatic psychotherapy-a holistic, body-centered therapy approach primarily used to help clients overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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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.

The History Of Somatic Psychotherapy

The term "somatic" comes from the Greek word "soma," which refers to the human body. German psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich is 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 understood 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 is trapped within the body, and the underlying causes 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: Proven Effective For PTSD

Healing is 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 combined men and women over the age of 18), the study's results were 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 combines talk therapy with various physical techniques. Clients are asked to recall their traumatic experience(s), and the clinician will teach relaxation techniques based on the clients' physical responses. Common interventions 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 the 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 is a strong, unyielding connection between the body and mind. Because PTSD affects the central nervous system, survivors often feel that they're always "on" and unable to rest and unwind. A seemingly insignificant event can make a PTSD survivor go into overdrive, making true relaxation virtually impossible.

Somatic therapy is holistic. It incorporates the mind, body, and spirit to relieve emotional and physical pain, allowing the client to release emotions that may be trapped in his or her 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 correspond with physical discomfort: Failure to work through trauma can cause chronic tension and pain.
  • Somatic psychotherapy techniques vary greatly depending on a client's needs: One session may look completely different from another. Since there are 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 will utilize this approach based on a client's comfort level and therapeutic needs.
  • Resourcing is used for grounding: During somatic psychotherapy, clients often learn the importance of resourcing, instilling a sense of safety and security. 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:

  • 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.

Unfortunately, many individuals who have experienced trauma don't realize the impact the event has had on their health and wellbeing. 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.

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Psychological Effects Of Trauma

Just as there are different types of trauma, there are various psychological effects. These 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
  • Prone to accidents
  • Dependency and/or addiction
  • Self-harm behaviors
  • Suicidal ideation, threats, and/or attempts
  • Reckless and/or impulsive behavior

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 include:

  • Chronic fatigue and low energy
  • Headaches (i.e., 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 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 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 the 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 are 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" teaches trauma survivors that their mental, emotional, and physical pain doesn't define them. This resource is ideal for individuals who are new to the somatic approach.

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"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.

ReGain offers professional therapy services that are convenient, confidential, and affordable. To start your healing journey, click here to be connected with one of our licensed therapists. Now is the time to break free from the chains of your past and begin moving forward.

"To heal is to touch with love that which we previously touched with fear." - Stephen Levine


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