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Did you know trauma can live in your body? Even when you do the healing work and think you’re out of the woods, trauma can creep up and affect your nervous system. That’s why learning somatic therapy exercises can restore your nervous system, release the built-up trauma, and rebalance your mind-body connection to create a happier, healthier life. So, in this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to heal physically and emotionally.
What Is Somatic Therapy?
Originally developed byPeter Levine in the late 1970s, somatic therapy is a body-focused approach that allows you to visit traumatic memories to learn how to balance your nervous system and fight-flight-or-freeze stress response to aid any symptoms of chronic stress or trauma stored in your body. Doing so provides a deeper mind-body connection and strengthens your capacity to heal from the traumatic event.
How Does Trauma Show Up In Our Lives?
Before we discuss the benefits, it’s important to understand how trauma shows up in our lives. Everyone experiences trauma, whether on a micro or macro level, and increasing your self-awareness will aid your healing journey.
- Persistent fatigue or insomnia
- Flashbacks of the event
- Emotional avoidance
- Problems concentrating
- Recurring headaches
- Problems with digestion
- Irritability, anger, or frustration
- Increased emotional reaction
- Maladaptive coping mechanisms
- Panic and increased heart rate
What Are the Benefits of Somatic Therapy?
Beyond treating trauma, somatic therapy offers various mental and physical benefits.
- Provides pain relief
- Builds emotional resiliency
- You learnhow to get out of survival mode
- Increases your self-awareness and mind-body connection
- You acquire skills to rebalance the body
- You receive better engagement with your life
- Improves your internal dialogue and confidence
- You discover your triggers and heal subconscious patterns
What Conditions Can Somatic Therapy Treat?
While somatic therapy’s origins lie in aiding trauma recovery when traditional talk therapy proved insufficient, this versatile modality has emerged as a powerful tool for addressing several conditions. Indeed, its ability to alleviate physical manifestations of stress and release emotional trauma resonates with various mental health experiences.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Chronic stress
- Substance abuse disorders
- Attachment problems
- Grief and loss
5 Types of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy or somatic experiencing is the standard, but several subgroups exist from its framework with different goals.
- The Hakomi method uses mindfulness to identify somatic indicators of unconscious beliefs and gently releases them through specified techniques.
- Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a hybrid of attachment theory, the Hakomi method, somatic therapy, neuroscience, and psychotherapy to safely guide the patient to revisit a traumatic memory to address any residual effects or factors impacting their recovery.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) uses specific phases to remember the traumatic memory and its impact through techniques like bilateral eye movements, tapping, or auditory tones.
- Neurosomatic therapy mainly identifies and releases physical pain using massage and techniques to improve and correct imbalances and posture.
- Bioenergetic analysis uses psychoanalysis and relational therapy to heal the energy between the mind and body.
5 Somatic Therapy Exercises to Relieve Stress and Trauma
After experiencing a traumatic event, it’s common to have a dysregulated nervous system and painful physical symptoms that prevent you from moving forward. Butgrounding techniqueshelp center you in the present moment and calm your fight-flight-or-freeze response, especially if you’re experiencing panic attacks, disassociation, or flashbacks. A few tools include;
- Follow the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique. For example, say five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste.
- Grab a piece of ice. This tool works two-fold. The intensity of the cold deescalates a stress response and triggers pain receptors, releasing endorphins. Hold it in your hand, focus on the cold, and watch it melt as you relax.
- Pay attention to your body. Focus on the crown of your head, the weight of your shoulders, whether your heart feels steady or slow, the inhale and exhale of your breath, and the pressure of your feet on the ground.
- Repeat an anchoring statement. Look at your surroundings and describe what you see, where you are, who you are, and what time it is. For instance, “My name is X, it’s cold and rainy outside, and I’m indoors lying on the bed”
Practicing somatic therapy is best done under the guidance of a trained therapist, as certain techniques may inadvertently trigger the trauma. However, there are resourcing techniques that can be safely practiced by yourself. These methods involve going to your “happy place,” to distract your mind and body from the intensity of challenging emotions. So, here are 2 calming visualization techniques;
- Think about the people you love the most.Visualize their faces and them surrounding you in a field of support and light. Or you can look at their photo to induce a sense of security.
- Visit a safe place in your mind.Reflect upon a place that feels comforting and safe, and envision you’re there. For example, imagine hiking in the forest, feeling the sun on your skin, the smell of the trees, hearing the sound of birds chirping, or the touch of a blade of grass between your fingers.
One of the best somatic therapy exercises you can practice at home is building a self-regulation toolkit. When you’re beginning to feel a rush of emotions, you can use the following tools toactivate your parasympathetic nervous system and counteract your stress response. It will allow you to respond vs. react to reverse your conditioning and build your mind-body connection.
- Butterfly hug. Cross your thumbs with your hands in front of you placed across your chest or on your shoulders like a butterfly. Then, alternate tapping your hands slowly or at a comfortable speed.
- Supta Baddha Konasana (yoga position). This hip-opener involves lying on your back, bringing the soles of your feet together, and letting your knees fall open to the sides. While gently inhaling and exhaling, place your left hand on your heart and your right on your belly and allow the stress to release.
- Label your emotions. Instead of avoiding the intense emotions, bring your attention to the present moment. For example, label and say, “I am feeling scared right now”. Then ask yourself what you need to feel better (I need to cuddle my weighted blanket until it passes”)
4. Body scans
Body scans serve as a greatmeditation alternative for those who dislike meditating. They allow you to release stored trauma while regulating your emotional system. Here are 2 to practice.
- Standard body scan. Sit or lay down, close your eyes, and systematically focus on different body parts, starting from the lower body and moving upwards. As you focus on each area, notice the sensations, temperature, pressure, and tension. When you encounter an uncomfortable feeling, breathe deeply and release it as you relax.
- Progressive muscle relaxation.Standing or sitting, starting with your toes, focus on tensing each part of your body, hold for 15 secs, and let go for 30 secs. Repeat the pattern until you reach the top of your head.
5. Posture exercises
Our bodies can manifest tension physically and emotionally in various ways. However, practicing posture exercises allow you to explore how stress and challenging emotions affect your posture and body. To begin, follow this exercise:
- Standing awareness.Stand upright with your arms hanging by your side, close your eyes, and pay attention to how your body feels. Then, bring awareness to your body and ask yourself, “Is my weight evenly distributed from side to side? Is my posture slouching, or am I sitting upright? Is my head held high, or is it slumping?”
- Emotions and postural tone. Recall a moment when you felt at ease, happy, and relaxed. As you remember this experience, can you notice a positive shift in how you sense being “tall” or “upright”? This practice teaches you the interconnection between your emotions and resulting posture.
While the process of healing trauma is always best under the guidance of a trained practitioner, these somatic therapy exercises will allow you to begin your journey to deepen your mind-body connection, release stored trauma, improve your emotional regulation, and balance your nervous system. However, remember to check in with yourself, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, speak with a mental health professional to aid your recovery.
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Keely is a psychologist and freelance writer. When she's not scuba diving, hiking, exploring or taking a yoga class, you can find her volunteering to help rescue animals and providing therapy and mindfulness for global humanitarian contexts.
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Somatic Therapy: Healing Trauma and Restoring the Mind-Body Connection
Somatic therapy is a body-focused approach developed by Peter Levine in the late 1970s. It aims to balance the nervous system and address symptoms of chronic stress or trauma stored in the body. By visiting traumatic memories and working with the body's sensations, somatic therapy strengthens the mind-body connection and facilitates healing from traumatic events [].
How Trauma Shows Up in Our Lives
Trauma can manifest in various ways in our lives. Some common signs of trauma include persistent fatigue or insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks of the event, emotional avoidance, depression, hypervigilance, problems concentrating, recurring headaches, problems with digestion, irritability, anger, increased emotional reaction, maladaptive coping mechanisms, panic, and increased heart rate [].
Benefits of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy offers several mental and physical benefits in addition to treating trauma. These benefits include pain relief, increased emotional resiliency, improved self-awareness and mind-body connection, the acquisition of skills to rebalance the body, better engagement with life, improved internal dialogue and confidence, and the ability to discover triggers and heal subconscious patterns [].
Conditions Treated by Somatic Therapy
While somatic therapy was initially developed to aid in trauma recovery, it has proven effective in addressing various mental health conditions. Some of the conditions that can be treated with somatic therapy include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, chronic stress, burnout, substance abuse disorders, attachment problems, and grief and loss [].
Types of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy encompasses different approaches and techniques. Here are five types of somatic therapy:
The Hakomi method: This method uses mindfulness to identify somatic indicators of unconscious beliefs and gently releases them through specified techniques [].
Sensorimotor psychotherapy: This hybrid approach combines attachment theory, the Hakomi method, somatic therapy, neuroscience, and psychotherapy. It guides patients to revisit traumatic memories and address any residual effects or factors impacting their recovery [].
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR): EMDR uses specific phases to remember traumatic memories and their impact. Techniques like bilateral eye movements, tapping, or auditory tones are employed [].
Neurosomatic therapy: This therapy focuses on identifying and releasing physical pain using massage and techniques to improve and correct imbalances and posture [].
Bioenergetic analysis: This approach combines psychoanalysis and relational therapy to heal the energy between the mind and body [].
Somatic Therapy Exercises
Somatic therapy exercises can be practiced to relieve stress and trauma. Here are five exercises:
Grounding: Grounding techniques help center you in the present moment and calm your fight-flight-or-freeze response. Examples include the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique, holding a piece of ice, paying attention to your body, and repeating an anchoring statement [].
Resourcing: Resourcing techniques involve going to your "happy place" to distract your mind and body from intense emotions. Examples include thinking about loved ones and visualizing their support, or reflecting upon a safe place in your mind [].
Self-regulation: Building a self-regulation toolkit can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system and counteract stress responses. Techniques include the butterfly hug, Supta Baddha Konasana (yoga position), and labeling your emotions [].
Body scans: Body scans allow you to release stored trauma while regulating your emotional system. Examples include the standard body scan and progressive muscle relaxation [].
Posture exercises: Practicing posture exercises helps explore how stress and challenging emotions affect your posture and body. Examples include standing awareness and exploring the connection between emotions and postural tone [].
It's important to note that while these exercises can be beneficial, the process of healing trauma is best done under the guidance of a trained practitioner. If you feel overwhelmed, it's recommended to speak with a mental health professional to aid your recovery [].