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Somatic Experiencing Therapy for PTSD

Somatic experiencing therapy can help those suffering from PTSD. Somatic therapy focuses on the body's response to a traumatic event and releasing this stress from the body.

Somatic Experiencing Therapy for PTSD

Article Contents

What is Somatic Experiencing Therapy?

Somatic experiencing therapy for PTSD is a body-based approach to heal people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As opposed to focusing only on the thoughts and emotions associated with a traumatic event, somatic experiencing therapy includes the body’s natural somatic responses. This form of trauma healing was first conceptualized by trauma therapist Dr. Peter Levine in the 1970s, it has come to be known as a leading-edge therapy for PTSD. There are now over 12,000 healing professionals trained in somatic experiencing therapy.1

The History of Somatic Experiencing

Dr. Levine discovered somatic experiencing from his observations of how wild animals recover from consistent traumatic attacks by predators (for instance, gazelles eluding a cheetah). He found that after a threat was gone, the prey animals physically released their fight-or-flight energy through running, shaking, or trembling. He also noticed that after the physical release, the animals returned to their normal state. Dr. Levine believed in the ability of humans to release physical energy from traumatic events as well.

How Somatic Therapy Works

Dr. Levine’s thinking was validated during a session with one of his clients who was suffering from PTSD. While his client relived a traumatic childhood experience, he encouraged her to protect herself by running away from the threat just like she was being pursued by a dangerous animal. She did so and, as a result, she naturally released the traumatic energy that had been trapped in her body. Subsequently, the patient experienced lasting relief from her PTSD, and somatic experiencing therapy emerged.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, often referred to as PTSD, is a psychiatric condition that occurs in people who have experienced a traumatizing event. These events could be a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist act, war or combat, being a victim of rape, being threatened with death, grievous bodily harm, or sexual violence.2

PTSD Throughout History

PTSD has been given different names in the past. During the first World War it was referred to as shell shock, and in the second World War it was referred to as combat fatigue. A common misconception during that era was that PTSD only happened to those who fought during the wars. However, PTSD can arise due to a variety of reasons outside of experiencing war.

PTSD can occur in anyone regardless of their age, ethnicity or origin, nationality or culture, and race. Statistics show that 3.5 percent of United States adults are diagnosed with PTSD every year. This factor means that approximately one out of eleven people in the U.S will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their life.2

How Do You Treat PTSD with Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic experiencing is a body‐focused therapy used to treat people who suffer from PTSD. It takes a unique approach from other PTSD treatment techniques as it integrates body awareness into the trauma healing process. The focus of the therapy is on creating awareness of the patient’s physical sensations. These sensations are seen as the carriers of the traumatic memory.3

The theory definition of somatic psychotherapy revolves around post-traumatic stress symptoms being expressions of stress activation. They are also viewed as an unfinished defensive reaction to a traumatic event. Through this theoretical perspective, the goal of somatic experiencing therapy is to release the traumatic activation by an increased tolerance of these sensations and emotions.

The difference between somatic experiencing and exposure therapy methods is that while treating PTSD, the latter does not require an extensive or full recount of the traumatic events. However, it requires that the client engages with the traumatic memories. Somatic psychotherapy aims to decrease the distress and symptoms which often arise as a result of post-traumatic arousal and complete somatic healing.

How Effective is Treating PTSD with Somatic Experiencing?

Although people often testify positive results from somatic experiencing, there is limited scientific evidence on this subject matter. In 2017, a randomized controlled study was carried out. This study investigated the effectiveness of somatic experiencing as a form of trauma therapy or trauma healing.4

The results suggested that somatic experiencing therapy does have benefits. Case studies, among other kinds of research, have also shown the potentials of somatic experiencing. However, more credible studies on this subject matter are needed to fully grasp its effectiveness. This method of trauma healing is also widely accepted among the Counseling and rehabilitation community.

Complex Trauma and Addiction

Complex trauma is a situation where the patient has been exposed to multiple traumatic events which took long-term effects. This form of trauma is one of the most severe and pervasive, and it often stems from abuse or childhood neglect. Complex trauma can commonly be the root problem which drives someone to addiction; one may abuse substances to escape from the symptoms of this trauma.

Trauma-Informed Care in Addiction Treatment

Trauma-informed care is a form of treatment which is carried out on individuals who have experienced trauma and have resorted to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Trauma-informed care is often termed dual diagnosis in rehab centers. Due to the high co-occurrence between substance use and trauma, it is recommended that trauma-informed care be carried out in a bid to provide the highest level of care to their clients.

Although more research still needs to be conducted on somatic experiencing as a form of trauma healing, the available statistics prove that it should be recommended to trauma patients. Counselors are also advised to carry out dual diagnoses on their patients.


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