What Is Somatic Experiencing and How Can It Help Improve Mental Health?

Posted on May 8, 2023

man dealing with trauma during somatic experiencing therapy

Somatic therapy focuses on the connection between mind and body. It is a holistic therapy that incorporates the mind, body, and emotions in the healing process and uses a combination of traditional psychotherapy and physical techniques.

What Is Somatic Therapy?

Somatic therapy providers believe that thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations can easily influence each other. According to somatic therapy theory, sensations associated with past trauma may become trapped inside the body, and manifest in body language, facial expression, posture, muscle pain, or other stress reactions.

Somatic therapy is based on “somatics” — the use of body movements to improve mental health. The term was introduced in the 1970s by Thomas Hanna, who theorized that education, mindfulness, and intentional body movements can “reinvigorate” mind-body pathways and relieve chronic pain. Somatics branched into several disciplines, all based on the idea that the body can heal mental stress and emotional unease. Somatic therapies can help with trauma and PTSD, stress, anxiety, depression, grief, chronic pain, and sexual dysfunction, among other issues.

The History Of Somatic Experiencing Therapy

Psychotherapist Peter Levine developed Somatic Experiencing therapy (SE) in the 1970s. He theorized that when some people experience trauma, they can become stuck in the “freeze” portion of the natural “fight, flight, or freeze” response — never fully processing the emotions. The emotional energy that becomes “frozen” ends up being expressed in unhealthy or counterproductive ways long after the traumatic event has ended. Somatic Experiencing treats trauma and post-traumatic stress (PTSD) by helping to “unfreeze” this trapped energy by making the patient more aware of the sensations in the body. It can also be used to treat anger, anxiety, depression, physical pain, kinesiophobia (fear of movement that may cause pain), grief, and stress.

Key Components of Somatic Experiencing

The key tenets of SE are the mind-body connection and the idea that healing comes from both the mind and body together. There are several techniques that can be used as part of somatic therapy, including:

  • Breathing exercises – they help calm the body and mind and teach basic awareness of body sensations
  • Meditation – calms the mind and body, and increases body awareness
  • Positive imagery – calms the body and mind to help release stress
  • Mindfulness – increases awareness of the outside world and the body, grounding you in the present moment
  • Body movement/exercise – helps increase body awareness, identify areas of stress, and process that stress
  • Talk therapy – makes the patient more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations while guiding them through the healing process

How Does Somatic Experiencing Therapy Work?

When you start SE therapy, you will learn about the autonomic nervous system and its role in trauma response. This helps people who feel confused about their responses during a traumatic event.

Then the therapist will help you increase your awareness of physical sensations — interoceptive (internal awareness of the body), proprioceptive (spatial orientation), and kinesthetic (movements of the body). You will focus on different parts of the body and how they feel (muscle tension, chest tightness, heartbeat, breathing, etc.).

SE will bring up some painful and traumatic memories. The therapist will help you find coping skills that will help you stay calm so you can deal with the memories when they come up during therapy.

Under the guidance of the therapist, you will begin to revisit the trauma slowly, allowing you to process each aspect one step at a time. The therapist will track your responses (breathing changes, clenched hands, or a shift in tone of voice, etc.) and any body sensations that appear (temperature sensations, a sense of weightiness, dizziness, or numbness).

These sensations, along with other things like crying, shaking, or shivering, are signs that the negative energy trapped in your body is being processed. The therapist will help you move back to a calm state using your coping skills (like positive imagery or breathing exercises). You will focus on your body and feel the stress symptoms decrease. Eventually, moving back to a calm state will become natural.

Benefits of Somatic Experiencing Therapy

Many other benefits of SE have been documented, including:

  • Reduced physical and psychological discomfort
  • Decreased pain and stress
  • Reduced irritability
  • Improved concentration
  • A higher sense of self
  • Increased resiliency
  • Improved relationships
  • Better sleep

Mental health professionals trained in the technique — Somatic Experiencing Practitioners with SEP credentials — can guide people through the SE process and teach them how to do it on their own.

Living with symptoms from unresolved trauma can lead to more extensive mental and physical health symptoms. If you experience stress, pain, or PTSD, you may see relief through somatic experiencing. Talk to a mental health professional to see if it is a good fit for you.

Let Us Help

If you’re struggling with trauma-related issues and seeking relief, Somatic Experiencing (SE) may be a valuable approach for you to consider. By focusing on the mind-body connection and the physical sensations that accompany trauma, SE can help you release stored tension, regulate your nervous system, and experience a greater sense of safety and well-being. With the guidance of a trained SE practitioner, you can develop a greater awareness of your body’s responses and learn to overcome the negative effects of trauma. While it may not be the right fit for everyone, SE has helped many individuals heal from their trauma and improve their overall mental health. If you’re ready to take the next step toward healing, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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