Movement has been used for centuries by different indigenous cultures for its healing effects on the human psyche. Somatic therapies use this ancient wisdom to help humans manage and heal past traumas that we tend to carry throughout our lives. Somatic therapy works through the body and the mind to help you heal from, or manage, past traumas and other overwhelming emotional experiences. This body–mind approach allows you to create a sense of safety within your body so that you can effectively process adverse past experiences (Levine & Fredrick, 2023).
The body is a wonderful resource with innate healing capacity. Somatic therapy invites us to listen to the messages that the body is trying to communicate to us. Developing new skills through bottom-up approaches lets you effectively manage intense emotional experiences without becoming overwhelmed (Ogden, et.al., 2014). These approaches are important because humans are at risk of re-traumatization when they do not feel present and safe in their bodies and are asked to share details of their trauma at a cognitive level (Herman, 2005; Van der Kolk, 2015).
Somatic therapy is effective in treating past adverse experiences because “trauma does not come back as a memory, it comes back as a reaction” (Van der Kolk, 2015). These reactions manifest differently for everyone. Some examples might be when you and your partner are disagreeing and you experience the sensation to run away, become speechless, or even explode in anger. Other examples might include a certain scent causing your heart rate to increase, your palms to sweat, and the need to cry. There are limitless manifestations of how these reactions may present and each is unique to the individual experiencing them. These reactions are not influenced by the thoughts you are having, so treatment does not begin there (Peca, 2021).
They are automatic responses that begin on a physiological level and were developed because of painful past learning experiences (Gentry, 2021). It is your body’s way of detecting threats and doing what it needs to do for survival. These reactions become stuck in the body causing chronic illnesses, pain, inflammation, autoimmune illnesses, tension, and much more (Dana & Porges, 2018; Levine, 2012). Somatic interventions help to release this stuck tension and allow you to feel safe in your body, thus creating a space where you can begin processing negative past experiences, increasing your quality of life, and improving relationships.
Several somatic modalities are effective in helping us to manage overwhelming emotions and successfully process painful past learning experiences and trauma. Somatic Experiencing (SE) is an intervention founded on Peter Levin’s observation of wild animals in their natural habitat. Levine noticed that wild animals do not become traumatized because they immediately discharge the energy that otherwise would become stuck in the body leading to traumatization (Levine, 2023). SE works to release shock, trauma, and energy that has become stored in the body through slow deliberate movements that allow the body to move through those motions that were stifled during the original event (Levine, 2012).
Polyvagal theory was founded by Steven Porges (2011) that examines how the vagus nerve controls the body’s flight, fight, freeze, and fawn systems. Porges likens this to a ladder in which each rung represents a different response system. This polyvagal ladder helps you to identify which “state” you are currently in so that you can the steps needed to regulate the body. Deb Dana (2018), added to this theory by developing specific exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve allowing it to send safety messages to the brain; helping the body to find more balance. Sensorimotor psychotherapy, founded by Pat Odgen (2014), taps into the body’s innate intelligence to treat somatic symptoms of unresolved trauma.