Did you know trauma can live in your body? Even when you do the healing work and think you’re out of the woods, trauma can creep up and affect your nervous system. That’s why learning somatic therapy exercises can restore your nervous system, release the built-up trauma, and rebalance your mind-body connection to create a happier, healthier life. So, in this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to heal physically and emotionally.
What Is Somatic Therapy?
Originally developed by Peter Levine in the late 1970s, somatic therapy is a body-focused approach that allows you to visit traumatic memories to learn how to balance your nervous system and fight-flight-or-freeze stress response to aid any symptoms of chronic stress or trauma stored in your body. Doing so provides a deeper mind-body connection and strengthens your capacity to heal from the traumatic event.
How Does Trauma Show Up In Our Lives?
Before we discuss the benefits, it’s important to understand how trauma shows up in our lives. Everyone experiences trauma, whether on a micro or macro level, and increasing your self-awareness will aid your healing journey.
- Persistent fatigue or insomnia
- Flashbacks of the event
- Emotional avoidance
- Problems concentrating
- Recurring headaches
- Problems with digestion
- Irritability, anger, or frustration
- Increased emotional reaction
- Maladaptive coping mechanisms
- Panic and increased heart rate
What Are the Benefits of Somatic Therapy?
Beyond treating trauma, somatic therapy offers various mental and physical benefits.
- Provides pain relief
- Builds emotional resiliency
- You learn how to get out of survival mode
- Increases your self-awareness and mind-body connection
- You acquire skills to rebalance the body
- You receive better engagement with your life
- Improves your internal dialogue and confidence
- You discover your triggers and heal subconscious patterns
What Conditions Can Somatic Therapy Treat?
While somatic therapy’s origins lie in aiding trauma recovery when traditional talk therapy proved insufficient, this versatile modality has emerged as a powerful tool for addressing several conditions. Indeed, its ability to alleviate physical manifestations of stress and release emotional trauma resonates with various mental health experiences.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Chronic stress
- Substance abuse disorders
- Attachment problems
- Grief and loss
5 Types of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy or somatic experiencing is the standard, but several subgroups exist from its framework with different goals.
- The Hakomi method uses mindfulness to identify somatic indicators of unconscious beliefs and gently releases them through specified techniques.
- Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a hybrid of attachment theory, the Hakomi method, somatic therapy, neuroscience, and psychotherapy to safely guide the patient to revisit a traumatic memory to address any residual effects or factors impacting their recovery.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) uses specific phases to remember the traumatic memory and its impact through techniques like bilateral eye movements, tapping, or auditory tones.
- Neurosomatic therapy mainly identifies and releases physical pain using massage and techniques to improve and correct imbalances and posture.
- Bioenergetic analysis uses psychoanalysis and relational therapy to heal the energy between the mind and body.
5 Somatic Therapy Exercises to Relieve Stress and Trauma
After experiencing a traumatic event, it’s common to have a dysregulated nervous system and painful physical symptoms that prevent you from moving forward. But grounding techniques help center you in the present moment and calm your fight-flight-or-freeze response, especially if you’re experiencing panic attacks, disassociation, or flashbacks. A few tools include;
- Follow the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique. For example, say five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste.
- Grab a piece of ice. This tool works two-fold. The intensity of the cold deescalates a stress response and triggers pain receptors, releasing endorphins. Hold it in your hand, focus on the cold, and watch it melt as you relax.
- Pay attention to your body. Focus on the crown of your head, the weight of your shoulders, whether your heart feels steady or slow, the inhale and exhale of your breath, and the pressure of your feet on the ground.
- Repeat an anchoring statement. Look at your surroundings and describe what you see, where you are, who you are, and what time it is. For instance, “My name is X, it’s cold and rainy outside, and I’m indoors lying on the bed”
Practicing somatic therapy is best done under the guidance of a trained therapist, as certain techniques may inadvertently trigger the trauma. However, there are resourcing techniques that can be safely practiced by yourself. These methods involve going to your “happy place,” to distract your mind and body from the intensity of challenging emotions. So, here are 2 calming visualization techniques;
- Think about the people you love the most. Visualize their faces and them surrounding you in a field of support and light. Or you can look at their photo to induce a sense of security.
- Visit a safe place in your mind. Reflect upon a place that feels comforting and safe, and envision you’re there. For example, imagine hiking in the forest, feeling the sun on your skin, the smell of the trees, hearing the sound of birds chirping, or the touch of a blade of grass between your fingers.
One of the best somatic therapy exercises you can practice at home is building a self-regulation toolkit. When you’re beginning to feel a rush of emotions, you can use the following tools to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and counteract your stress response. It will allow you to respond vs. react to reverse your conditioning and build your mind-body connection.
- Butterfly hug. Cross your thumbs with your hands in front of you placed across your chest or on your shoulders like a butterfly. Then, alternate tapping your hands slowly or at a comfortable speed.
- Supta Baddha Konasana (yoga position). This hip-opener involves lying on your back, bringing the soles of your feet together, and letting your knees fall open to the sides. While gently inhaling and exhaling, place your left hand on your heart and your right on your belly and allow the stress to release.
- Label your emotions. Instead of avoiding the intense emotions, bring your attention to the present moment. For example, label and say, “I am feeling scared right now”. Then ask yourself what you need to feel better (I need to cuddle my weighted blanket until it passes”)
4. Body scans
Body scans serve as a great meditation alternative for those who dislike meditating. They allow you to release stored trauma while regulating your emotional system. Here are 2 to practice.
- Standard body scan. Sit or lay down, close your eyes, and systematically focus on different body parts, starting from the lower body and moving upwards. As you focus on each area, notice the sensations, temperature, pressure, and tension. When you encounter an uncomfortable feeling, breathe deeply and release it as you relax.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Standing or sitting, starting with your toes, focus on tensing each part of your body, hold for 15 secs, and let go for 30 secs. Repeat the pattern until you reach the top of your head.
5. Posture exercises
Our bodies can manifest tension physically and emotionally in various ways. However, practicing posture exercises allow you to explore how stress and challenging emotions affect your posture and body. To begin, follow this exercise:
- Standing awareness. Stand upright with your arms hanging by your side, close your eyes, and pay attention to how your body feels. Then, bring awareness to your body and ask yourself, “Is my weight evenly distributed from side to side? Is my posture slouching, or am I sitting upright? Is my head held high, or is it slumping?”
- Emotions and postural tone. Recall a moment when you felt at ease, happy, and relaxed. As you remember this experience, can you notice a positive shift in how you sense being “tall” or “upright”? This practice teaches you the interconnection between your emotions and resulting posture.
While the process of healing trauma is always best under the guidance of a trained practitioner, these somatic therapy exercises will allow you to begin your journey to deepen your mind-body connection, release stored trauma, improve your emotional regulation, and balance your nervous system. However, remember to check in with yourself, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, speak with a mental health professional to aid your recovery.
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