Somatic Experiencing Therapy: Proven Methods

What is Somatic Experiencing Therapy?

Developed by Dr. Peter Levine, somatic experiencing therapy is an alternative therapy form designed to help individuals heal from trauma. Somatic therapy is based on the idea that individuals store trauma within their body, which can cause a number of physical and psychological symptoms.

Thus, this form of therapy aims to help individuals process this trauma through having them increase their internal awareness. This is done through teaching them how to recognize the physical sensations and emotions that might come with remembering traumatic experiences and learning how to respond to them effectively.

Who Can Benefit From Somatic Experiencing Therapy?

Somatic experiencing therapy can be beneficial for many individuals, including those who may be struggling with:

  • Trauma
  • Unresolved grief
  • Addiction
  • Mental health issues (i.e., depression and anxiety)
  • PTSD
  • Chronic pain

The Dissociation and Trauma Connection

Most people who have experienced some sort of trauma or are struggling with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have the ability to disconnect, or disassociate, from their bodies. This allows them to mentally distance themselves from the event or triggers of it, which prevents them from experiencing the negative feelings associated with it.

Somatic experiencing therapy can be helpful in getting individuals to process feelings of anger, guilt, or shame they may have towards a traumatic event. However, they will likely do so by first focusing on the physical symptoms an individual may be experiencing from their trauma. These symptoms may include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Digestive complications
  • Difficulties falling or staying asleep
  • Respiratory complications
  • Muscle pains and/or tension
  • Fatigue

Most people find it is easier to address the emotional symptoms of their unresolved trauma once they have improved their physical health.

The SIBAM Framework

Because somatic experiencing therapy focuses on healing trauma stored within the body, this treatment method utilizes a SIBAM framework, which stands for Sensation, Imagery, Behavior, Affect, and Meaning. This specific approach to treatment helps encourage individuals to incorporate their bodies in the process of healing unresolved trauma.

Is Trauma Stored in the Body?

In the case of a traumatic event, whether a single incident such as a serious car accident, or multiple instances in which an individual’s emotional and/or physical defenses are triggered, some scholars believe the body’s recovery process is halted. This then stops an individual’s processing of the event(s) to be completed.

This is due to the fact that the human body is only able to safely handle a limited amount of stress. In situations that exceed this capacity, the body responds by activating a protective mechanism that separates the brain from whichever part of the body is being affected. Thus, the individual will likely not be able to, or will experience difficulty in recalling memories of a traumatic event.

Because of this mental disconnect, trauma energy is instead stored in the tissue of an individual’s body, until it is ready or able to be released. However, if this energy is not released, healing can not take place. Over time, this trauma storage will lead to experiencing physical pain and the progressive decline of an individual’s health.

The Different Human Nervous Systems

The human nervous system is made up of two parts:

  • The central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord.
  • The peripheral nervous system, which is made up of the nerves that are attached to the spinal cord and extend throughout the rest of the body.

However, the nervous system can also be divided into two parts known as the autonomic nervous system, and the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system, in extension, also includes what is referred to as the parasympathetic nervous system; it is within these systems that trauma comes into play.

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the body that controls an individual’s unconscious functions, such as their breathing, heart rate, and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is what helps an individual respond to stressful situations. Through activating the body’s fight or flight response, they are able to instantly react offensively or defensively to a perceived threat.

The parasympathetic system, however, relaxes the body by releasing hormones that sooth these elevated stress levels once the threat has passed. In a traumatic situation, a person’s nervous system is pushed past its ability to regulate this stress response.

When this happens, the parasympathetic system is unable to release these relaxing hormones, thus leaving an individual in a prolonged state of increased arousal. As a result, the individual is either kept in a prolonged state of hyperarousal, in which they feel constantly at risk of danger, or an extended freeze response, in which they are depressed and unable to respond to any external events.

Traumatized individuals often switch back and forth between these states of existence, with little in-between, as their nervous system is no longer able to properly regulate itself.

Physical and Mental Symptoms of Trauma

Physical and Mental Symptoms of Trauma

There are several symptoms associated with carrying unresolved trauma, of which these can present themselves both physically and mentally.

Some of these symptoms can include changes in an individual’s cognition and/or behavioral patterns, increased psychological stress, and increased physical ailments.

Cognitive Changes

There are several ways in which an individual’s cognition can change after experiencing a life threatening or traumatic event, including:

  • An increase in intrusive, negative thoughts
  • Repetitive nightmares of the event
  • Flashbacks of the traumatic incident
  • Increased confusion and inability to concentrate
  • Difficult recalling the traumatic experience
  • Seemingly unexplainable mood swings

Behavioral Changes

The occurrence of cognitive changes can often lead to altered behavioral patterns in individuals struggling with trauma. These often present themselves as:

  • Avoidance behaviors: Actively avoiding coming into contact with, speaking, and/or thinking about people, places, and things that remind an individual of a traumatic experience.
  • Self-Isolation: Withdrawing from friends, family members, and loved ones as a means of protecting themselves, or due to feelings of guilt, shame, or anger.
  • Loss of Interest: A decreased interest in activities that an individual previously enjoyed is not uncommon for trauma victims.

Psychological Changes

Many of these changes present themselves due to the body’s inability to complete a traumatic event, thus keeping the individual stuck in a constant state of feeling like they are still actively experiencing or at risk of being re-exposed to it.

These psychological symptoms typically include:

  • Increased anxiety and/or frequent panic attacks
  • Heightened state of fear or arousal
  • Hyper-vigilance and awareness of surroundings
  • Increased feelings of anger, agitation, or irritability
  • Obsessive and compulsive tendencies
  • Freeze response to triggering situations; usually associated with feelings of shock or disbelief
  • Depression
  • Feelings of shame or guilt; usually seen in individuals who survived a traumatic situation while others did not, or in cases where individuals feel at fault for the event’s occurrence.

Physical Changes

Physical health concerns are one of the less-discussed experiences of these individuals. These physical symptoms can appear in several ways, often depending on which part of the body took the brunt of the emotional and/or physical stress.

However, some of the most commonly experienced trauma symptoms in this regard are:

  • Sleep problems, such as difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, or a decreased desire to sleep due to nightmares or increased vulnerability
  • Constant state of hypervigilance; easily startled or put on edge
  • Rapid heartbeat and breathing changes, such as quick, shallow breathing due to anxiety, panic, or fear
  • Unexplainable aches and pains in the body; usually (but not always) focused in the part of the body that is directly linked to a traumatic event
  • Sexual dysfunction or disinterest
  • Decreased appetite or binge eating habits, rapid weight loss or gain, or other disruptions to previous eating patterns
  • Muscle tension, clenched hands, inability to fully relax
  • Constant fatigue and/or exhaustion

Somatoform Disorders

Somatization is a condition caused by mental factors that manifest themselves as physical symptoms. These symptoms often include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Muscle pains and aches
  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Digestive dysregulation or discomfort
  • Menstrual or premenstrual issues

In severe cases where this condition extends over long periods of time, it is referred to as a somatoform disorder.

Psychosomatic Illness and Trauma

Psychosomatic illnesses refer to real physical pain and symptoms that result from a psychological cause. However, while the causing factor of this type of illness is psychological, individuals will still require the same medical care as those with an externally-caused illness.

Unfortunately, this care may not always be received in a timely or effective manner, both due to social stigma surrounding psychosomatic illness, as well as stigma present within the medical and research community as well. This can stop an individual from seeking out help, or their provider from properly or seriously addressing their medical concerns.

These illnesses usually arise in response to experiencing extensive periods of increased agitation, stress, and/or states of arousal, without proper regulation of these feelings.

Thus, it is not uncommon for individuals with a mental health disorder to receive a diagnosis for a psychosomatic illness. Likewise, individuals struggling with PTSD or residual trauma also commonly develop this type of illness.

Is Somatic Experiencing Therapy Evidence Based?

Somatic therapy is just one of many new potential treatments that have been proposed to help individuals overcome past trauma. Somatic experiencing is a form of therapy focusing on incorporating an individual’s awareness of any bodily sensations or painful feelings that may occur when revisiting trauma.

This is based in the theory that, by exploring traumatic material and learning how to recognize the emotions and physical sensations associated with it, individual’s can release this residual energy and allow their body to complete the healing process from the emotional experience(s).

Furthermore, understanding what constitutes a trauma response and their triggers can allow a person to practice self-regulation and develop other techniques for coping with them.

Although there are still only a handful of peer reviewed studies currently available that support the effectiveness of somatic therapy as a method of treating PTSD symptoms, this research has provided evidence that individuals can significantly benefit from this form of trauma therapy.

Somatic Sensations

Somatic sensations refer to bodily sensations that can include touch, temperature, vibrations, pain, and proprioception. These sensations are processed by the somatosensory system, which is responsible for using them to provide the body with information about its environment.

During somatic therapy, an SE practitioner will typically instruct their client to pay attention to any somatic sensations that may come up when recalling a traumatic event.

This is done with the intent of allowing the individual to better recognize environmental factors and sensations that may be triggering for them. Once these have been acknowledged, the client can then begin to integrate coping skills should these triggers come up in their daily lives.

Neurogenic Tremors and Releasing Trauma

Some studies suggest that shaking or vibrating helps to release trauma stored within the body. This has been linked to the fact that, both during and after stressful or dangerous situations, individuals will often experience trembling or shaking.

Thus, these studies suggest that purposely re-enacting this physical response can help complete the body’s processing of a blocked traumatic event.

Self-induced shaking, referred to as therapeutic or neurogenic tremoring, has been used to help ease muscular tension, use up excess adrenaline, and calm the nervous system to a neutralized state.

As a result, this shaking can help greatly reduce stress levels in the body, and help an individual trigger the releasing and healing of residual traumatic energy.

Methods of Treating Trauma

Other Methods of Treating Trauma

While somatic experiencing has been found successful in its effectiveness of treating individuals with PTSD and various other mental health conditions, some individuals may want to try alternative methods of therapy.

In this case, cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavioral therapeutic approaches have also been found to be extremely valuable in treating these conditions. For some individuals, using a somatic experiencing approach in combination with another form of therapy has also been found to increase the effectiveness of these treatments.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that has been found effective in helping individuals struggling with several behavioral and mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, as well as individuals with unresolved trauma.

The core elements of CBT methods involve the utilization of talk therapy as a means of establishing a relationship between a therapist and their client, and using this as a foundation of establishing changes in negative behavioral and thought patterns associated with the individual’s condition.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of CBT that aims to teach individuals how to better live in the moment, develop healthier ways of dealing with stressful situations, and improve their emotional regulation skills and personal relationships.

While initially developed as a method of treating borderline personality disorder (BPD), this therapy has since been used to treat other mental health conditions, such as substance use disorders, and PTSD.

The Limitations of Somatic Therapy

Because somatic experiencing treatment methods are still considered relatively new approaches to therapy, the research behind this method and its strengths and limitations is relatively slim.

However, there are some drawbacks to this approach that should be acknowledged. Due to traumatic events often being very subjective in nature, establishing a strict protocol or set of rules for this type of treatment can be considered problematic.

The first session of somatic therapy will typically involve a standardized process of educating an individual on the ways in which the body responds to traumatic situations and stores residual energy from them.

Once the individual’s specific experience and resulting distress responses to it or triggers of it is determined, however, the approach to then processing and managing this trauma will be more personalized in nature. Thus, the level of variability of how treatment will proceed, as well as the individual’s own ability to overcome the residual impacts of their ordeal, increases the difficulty of conducting more research on the effectiveness of SE therapy.

After all, without a well-defined sample group or strict treatment procedure, their ability to be repeated in order to prove the validity of their findings is greatly hindered. Furthermore, these conditions make it more difficult to compare the results of somatic experiencing treatment with other treatment methods that have been observed in more controlled settings.

Somatic Therapy as a Part of Residential Treatment

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for individuals struggling with a substance use disorder to receive a dual diagnosis of additional co-occurring mental health disorder(s). In these cases, individuals typically began using or increased their substance usage in order to self-medicate the symptoms of their mental illness.

This is why some residential treatment centers will utilize somatic therapy in their approach to addiction treatment, as it allows them to help their clients address any underlying past events that may be triggering their habit of substance abuse.

Treating the Underlying Causes of Trauma and Addiction

In order to deal with addiction, these residential treatment programs will first utilize a somatic experiencing-trained therapist in helping a client to acknowledge a traumatic event that may have kick-started their usage.

The therapist may have the client engage in exercise or other physically-engaging activities, and administer alternative therapy techniques designed to help improve their emotional awareness and recognition.

This is done with the goal of reconnecting the individual’s mind and body, so that they can better understand how past events affect them in their present. Once this has been established, the client can then begin to learn better and healthier ways of responding to their trauma symptoms.

Finding the Right Treatment for You

Whether it manifests emotionally, physically, or in both forms, unaddressed trauma can be debilitating. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction and believe it may be due to something that happened in your past, know that you are not alone, and help is available.

Here at Find Addiction Rehabs, we are dedicated to finding the best addiction treatment and recovery centers for your needs. You don’t have to stay stuck in the past; call our 24/7 hotline today, and let one of our representatives help you get started on your recovery journey, today!

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