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The Power of Somatic Therapy

October 16, 2023

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By Wesley Gallagher

While traditional talk therapies can be beneficial in helping people uncover and heal from the trauma that underlies mental health and addiction, recent research has focused on the mind-body connection in relation to trauma. In fact, there is a whole realm of therapy that operates out of the belief that trauma is carried far more in the body than in the brain.

What Is Somatic Therapy?

Meadows Senior Fellow Peter Levine began developing Somatic Experiencing® in the 1960s while he was pursuing his PhD in biophysics and psychology and teaching at the Esalen Institute, a retreat center in Big Sur, California.

Developed over several decades, Levine’s approach emphasizes the importance of the body’s role in processing and healing from traumatic experiences. His theory is that trauma is not just a psychological phenomenon but an embodied experience; it is the body’s response to trauma, rather than the trauma itself, that affects us so profoundly. If our bodies are unable to process a traumatic experience and move on from the initial fight, flight, or freeze response, the trauma can become “stuck” in the body. This is called somatic memory.

Levine’s approach emphasizes the importance of the body’s role in processing and healing from traumatic experiences.

Somatic Experiencing was developed to help people reconnect with their bodily sensations and release this stored traumatic energy from the body. Gentle and mindful exploration of physical sensations, emotions, and behaviors allows people to regulate their nervous system responses from the bottom up, rather than starting in the brain and moving to the body, like traditional therapy.

The theories behind Somatic Experiencing have been popularized by another Meadows Senior Fellow, Bessel van der Kolk whose book The Body Keeps the Score has been a bestseller for the last several years. 

“Trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition,” van der Kolk says in The New York Times Magazine. “It has to do with your body being reset to interpret the world as a dangerous place.” Van der Kolk’s aim with body-focused therapies is to make it safe for you to feel what you feel and help you understand the internal workings of your mind and body. This integration, according to van der Kolk and Levine, is what ultimately leads to healing from trauma. 

How Does Somatic Therapy Work?

Somatic therapy uses body-focused techniques, like the SIBAM framework, to process trauma. The SIBAM framework is a Somatic Experiencing technique that guides patients through the five channels of Sensation, Imagery, Behavior, Affect, and Meaning (SIBAM):

  • Sensation provides access to the autonomic nervous system, which is the source of our core survival responses and regulates the basic functions of our body. Traumatic experiences can cause us to lose access to the sensory channel.
  • Imagery is the way we translate an external experience into an internal experience. It involves internal imagery such as visions and dreams, as well as external imagery such as our memory of places or experiences.
  • Behavior is the verbal and nonverbal activity that is observable by other people. Behavior can be conscious or unconscious, and the therapist’s goal is to bring attention to actions that may have become habitual over time, allowing the patient to be more conscious of them.
  • Affect is the emotion channel. As you move through the process, you might find yourself feeling new emotions about old experiences, or you might be asked where you feel an emotion in your body. This can help to reconnect your body with your emotions.
  • Meaning comes as you seek to make sense of the feelings you are having in your body and mind. As you find meaning in the connection of body and mind, you can begin to integrate and process trauma more holistically.

Bypassing the brain and accessing the nervous system through these channels allows you to be present in your body and regain the relaxation and emotional self-regulation that trauma has taken from you.

Somatic Therapy in Treatment

Somatic therapy also has roots in ancient mind-body practices. Yoga, breathwork, and movement exercises are among the activities incorporated into somatic therapy at treatment centers. Another common practice is pendulation, where a practitioner guides you back and forth between a relaxed state and emotions like those triggered by your traumatic experience, gradually helping you learn to feel safe in your body.

Some facilities, including Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows, even offer Somatic Equine Therapy. Physical connection with horses through grooming, riding, and leading can help you become more aware of and connected to your own body and emotions.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, somatic therapy can help treat issues such as the following:

As research has shown that most mental health and addiction issues are rooted in trauma, somatic therapy can benefit anyone in recovery.

As research has shown that most mental health and addiction issues are rooted in trauma, somatic therapy can benefit anyone in recovery.

The Meadows Knows Trauma

Here at The Meadows, Somatic Experiencing is one of the many groundbreaking therapeutic techniques we incorporate into our treatment programs. If you or someone you love suffers from PTSD or other effects of emotional trauma, including mental health disorders or addiction, reach out to our admissions team to find out how we can help you get started on the road to healing.