Many believe that traumatic experiences or a PTSD diagnosis mean significant mental health challenges, and while that can be true, trauma can often manifest itself in the physical body too. Traditional talk therapy is typically used to address common symptoms such as heightened anxiety, depression, mood swings, guilt and emotional numbness, which are all psychological effects of trauma. What many people do not know is that physical indicators are just as prevalent and can include muscle tension, fatigue, insomnia, shaking, a racing heartbeat, diminished concentration, or low motivation to name a few.
In an effort to treat both aspects of PTSD, experts are turning to an alternative, holistic approach called Somatic Experiencing. This method focuses on addressing the ways that mental trauma manifests itself in bodily sensations, like those listed above.
How it Works
Somatic therapy works to help release any tension in the body that is lingering after a traumatic event. These lingering physical tensions, including body language, posture and expressions, can affect the central nervous system and cause negative changes in the body. This is often referred to as dysregulation.
A somatic therapy session requires the client to work with a Somatic Experience trained therapist (SEP) to track sensations, impulses, patterns of movement and soothing behaviors throughout their body. To regulate a client’s response and to prevent over-activation by diving into the “trauma vortex”, SEP’s focus heavily on directing attention to the natural self-soothing behaviors that people do, usually unconsciously. They bring into awareness what the client has been doing for a long time to help make them feel comforted when they are activated in anxiety. This practice alone is working within a value and belief system that the client has everything they need within themselves to heal. The SEP may also integrate mind/body connection exercises such as mindful walking or breathing, requiring full directed attention which begins to naturally and calm the nervous system. More traditional talk therapy may then be incorporated into the session.
Somatic therapy in combination with traditional therapy allows the individual to become aware of their bodily reactions and learn techniques to regulate and release tension in everyday life. After somatic therapy, individuals tend to notice a reduction in stress, discomfort and physical tension.
Somatic Therapy in Everyday Life
For those who have experienced small forms of trauma and may not be ready to explore therapy yet, there are daily somatic tactics that can be done to calm the nervous system, including:
During the day, individuals can focus on observing their surroundings. One simple practice is to find five orange things or five circles. By doing so, the individual is projecting their attention outward, instead of fixating on negative thoughts and feelings.
Noting is a technique that allows catalog what is happening both internally and around them. Taking note of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations instead of reacting allows them to be present and still. Once complete, individuals often enter a relaxed state because they are no longer stuck on the same thoughts but instead, are moving through them.
Terra Schaad has been the Executive Director and founder of Hunkapi Programs, Inc. and Hunkapi Farms in Scottsdale, Arizona for the past 20 years and holds a Master of Counseling Psychology from Arizona State University and completed research on equine-human relations and group dynamics. Hunkapi, based in Scottsdale, brings to the Valley a variety of horse powered activities for children and adults including: therapeutic riding lessons, equine assisted psychotherapy and garden therapy.