Mental health issues can be debilitating and affect every aspect of daily life.
Many individuals seek therapy to help them cope and improve their quality of life. However, not all therapies are created equal or evidence-based. One popular therapy that has gained traction in recent years is somatic experiencing in somatic psychotherapy. But how effective is it? Is it worth investing time and money into?
Somatic experiencing is a therapeutic approach that focuses on the body’s physical symptoms and response to stress and trauma therapy. It was developed by Dr. Peter Levine, a renowned therapist, and author.
Somatic experiencing aims to help individuals release pent-up energy caused by traumatic or stressful events in a safe and regulated manner in their autonomic nervous system. This, in turn, can help individuals overcome triggers and navigate their daily lives with less distress.
In this blog post, we will take a closer look at somatic experiencing, its scientific evidence, its downsides, and who may benefit from this therapy.
Is Somatic Experiencing Evidence-Based?
Somatic Experiencing is an approach to trauma treatment that was developed by Dr. Peter Levine. It is based on the observation that animals in the wild are not traumatized by experiences like predator attacks.
This suggests that humans are designed to be resilient to and recover from traumatic experiences. Somatic Experiencing aims to help people access this innate resilience by working with the body’s natural healing mechanisms.
While the evidence base for Somatic Experiencing is still developing, there is some research to support its effectiveness in treating trauma.
- A 2017 study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that somatic experiencing led to significant improvements in PTSD symptoms1.
- Another study published in 20122 found that somatic experiencing was not only effective for PTSD but also for depression, anxiety, and somatic disorders. However, this study also noted that the majority of somatic experiencing research could qualify as biased.
Overall, individuals who have experienced a traumatic event or struggle with mental health conditions like PTSD, anxiety, or depression may benefit from somatic experiencing. However, it is essential to work with a trained therapist who can tailor the approach to suit the individual’s needs and capacity.
Critiques of Somatic Experiencing
While somatic experiencing may be helpful for some individuals, it is not without its critiques and downsides.
- One critique is that somatic experiencing can be physically and emotionally intense for people, especially those who have trauma that hasn’t been worked through or regulated.
- Individuals may need to be primed with other therapies or modalities before delving into somatic experiencing.
- Another potential downside is that the approach may not be as effective for individuals with severe mental health conditions or those who have a hard time tolerating physical sensations.
- Another criticism is that somatic therapies have not been researched as extensively or validated as rigorously as other forms of therapy.
People Who Benefit From Somatic Experiencing Therapy
- People who have suffered acute or chronic trauma, including from accidents, natural disasters, domestic violence, and war
- People with PTSD and other mental health issues that are connected to traumatic events, such as panic attacks, flashbacks, dissociation, or depression
- Survivors of childhood abuse, including physical or emotional neglect
- People dealing with stress caused by a long-term medical illness or chronic pain
- Patients whose symptoms are nonresponsive to traditional talk therapy
- Individuals who are self-medicating with drugs or alcohol due to unresolved trauma
People Who Are Not Suitable for Somatic Experiencing Therapy
- Children under 7 years old – SE may not be effective in this age group due to their limited cognitive development
- Patients with severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder – SE is more suitable for those suffering from PTSD resulting from a traumatic event
- For patients who suffer from substance abuse – SE is more appropriate after the patient has completed rehabilitation and detoxification
- Those who experience severe personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder – SE may not be effective for these patients due to the complexity of their condition
- Any patient who is taking antipsychotic medication – patients on this kind of medication should only go through SE as part of an overall course of treatment.
What Are Somatic Healing Therapies?
- Somatic healing therapies are a type of therapy that focuses on the connection between the mind and body to heal mental and emotional health.
- Somatic therapies use techniques that address bodily tension and sensations to release pent-up emotions and improve overall well-being.
- Some examples of somatic therapies include somatic experiencing therapy, body-centered psychotherapy, and mind-body techniques to reduce anxiety.
- These therapies can be helpful for individuals who struggle with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
- Somatic therapies can be done in both an individual and group setting.
How Does Somatic Therapy Work?
Somatic therapy works by focusing on the connection between the mind and body.
This form of therapy aims to release tension, stress, and trauma from the body, which can be holding onto emotions that were not properly processed. Somatic therapy uses both physical and psychological methods to help individuals heal from emotional issues.
Common techniques used in somatic therapy include mindfulness, grounding, and traditional talk therapy.
Unlike traditional therapy, somatic therapy takes a “bottom-up” approach, meaning the focus is on the body before the mind.
With somatic therapy, individuals can find relief from their mental health struggles and improve their overall well-being.
List of Somatic Therapy Techniques
- Somatic Experiencing (SE): A therapy approach that aims to release traumatic experiences and resulting physical tension from the body. Uses techniques such as titration and pendulation.
- Breathing exercises: Mindful breathing techniques are used to help clients become more aware of physical sensations and regulate their nervous system.
- Dance therapy: A form of expressive therapy that uses movement to help clients explore and process emotions.
- Yoga: Yoga poses and breathing exercises are incorporated into therapy sessions to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
- Vocal work: Voice and sound exercises used to help clients connect with and release emotions held in the body.
- Mindfulness: A practice of being present in the moment and observing subjective experience without judgment. Used in somatic therapy to facilitate body awareness and emotional regulation.
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: A therapy approach that focuses on the connections between thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in the body.
- Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE): A simple set of exercises that aim to release accumulated tension in the body caused by everyday stress and traumatic experiences.
- EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy that aids clients in processing difficult memories through rapid eye movements.
- Body-mind centering: A therapy approach that uses movement and touch to help clients explore and release tension in the body.
- Meditation: A practice of quieting the mind and becoming more present in the body. Used in somatic therapy to facilitate relaxation and body awareness.
5 Skills To Learn Somatic Experiencing as a Therapist
- Body Awareness: Learn to recognize and release tension from the body. This is one of the first steps in learning somatic experiencing.
- Grounding: Develop techniques to remain present and connected with your body, even when faced with difficult emotions or situations.
- Process Triggers: Use somatic exercises to help process triggers and integrate your nervous system.
- Trauma First Aid: Utilize simple, structured exercises to help you move past frustration and overwhelm for somatic healing.
- Monitor Arousal: Monitor your arousal through body awareness and relaxation techniques with the help of a SE therapist.
5 Surprising Facts About Somatic Experiencing Therapy
- Somatic Experiencing Therapy is a form of alternative therapy that focuses on healing trauma by working through physical sensations in the body.
- It was developed by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., who drew inspiration from observing wild animals quickly recover from traumatic experiences.
- Somatic Experiencing Therapy can be used to treat a range of physical and mental health concerns beyond just PTSD, such as chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.
- Practitioners of somatic therapy believe that negative emotions, such as fear and anger, can manifest physically in the body and cause physical pain or discomfort.
- Somatic Experiencing Therapy is becoming more popular in the mainstream medical and therapeutic communities and is now even used in coaching, physical therapy, and teaching.
Clinical Experience And Anecdotal Evidence For Somatic Experiencing
Somatic Experiencing, a body-mind therapy, is effective in treating trauma and stressor-related disorders like PTSD, as well as healing the underlying problems causing binge eating.
Lead author Jared Levenson has worked with hundreds of people who struggle with binge and emotional eating.
Common to many of these food struggles is an underlying distrust in one’s body, caused by trauma. SE, and other approaches similar to SE such as IFS, have been shown through Jared’s work to greatly help people regain normal eating patterns.
Best Way To Tell If You’re Ready for Somatic Therapy
The main author of this piece, Jared Levenson (hi!), thinks that body-centered meditation is the best way to learn the basic skills needed to teach and practice Somatic Experiencing. Vipassana, Mindfulness, and Zen are some examples.
If you are new to meditation, you can also learn mindfulness with one of the recognized apps available today. Headspace is a good choice if you are new to meditation because it has the best free trial and is easy to use. Calm is another great app, and our top choice – once you can meditate by yourself – is the Insight Meditation Timer.
We suggest the free trial of Headspace because their video series on how to start meditating is the best. Once you feel comfortable meditating on your own, you should switch to Insight Meditation Timer.
Somatic experiencing therapy is right for you when you are more at ease with your body and with being aware of it, and when your trust in meditating and your body awareness is growing.
If you’re almost ready to commit to SE and already have the skills you need, all you have to do is keep learning until you’re ready.
In other pieces on Online Mental Health Review, you can learn more about the pros and cons of somatic therapy, the benefits of SE therapy, where to find a certified Somatic therapist, the newish science behind body-centered therapies, and how to evaluate whether somatic experiencing therapy is right for you.
Is Somatic Experiencing Evidence-Based Conclusion:
In conclusion, somatic experiencing can be an evidence-based therapy for individuals struggling with stress or trauma. Research has shown promising results in reducing PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and depression.
However, as with all therapeutic approaches, somatic experiencing has downsides and may not be suitable for everyone.
Individuals who are considering somatic experience should work with a trained therapist who can help them navigate this approach safely and effectively. Ultimately, the decision to pursue somatic experiencing should be based on individual needs, preferences, and capacities.
We hope this article has been informative regarding whether somatic experiencing is evidence-based and appropriate.
We would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below with any questions you may have on this topic or with any suggestions on what mental health service, app, or course we should purchase and try next.
If You Are In Crisis
In case of an emergency, waiting for an online therapy session may not be appropriate. If you require immediate help, dial 911. This is particularly important if you are contemplating hurting yourself or others. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available if you are having suicidal thoughts.
You can reach them by dialing 988 at any hour. Additionally, you can contact the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) by dialing 800-662-HELP (4357). This 24/7 service is free and confidential, and it assists individuals with mental or substance abuse issues with finding treatment and gaining information on it.
- Kuhfuß, M., Maldei, T., Hetmanek, A., & Baumann, N. (2021, January 1). Somatic experiencing – effectiveness and key factors of body-oriented trauma therapy: a scoping literature review. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2021.1929023
- Brom, D., Stokar, Y., Lawi, C., Nuriel-Porat, V., Ziv, Y., Lerner, K., & Ross, G. (2017, June). Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 30(3), 304–312. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22189