Somatic therapy exercises for trauma
Trauma can live in your mind and body. Working on releasing these holds may help you heal from a traumatic event.
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Healing from trauma — while challenging — is possible. Somatic therapy may help.
If you’re working on resolving trauma, reaching out to a mental health professional who specializes in somatic therapy may help you heal. But if this isn’t possible right now, you could also practice a few at-home exercises based on this therapeutic approach.
By tuning into your bodily sensations, you can release traumatic energy.
Can somatic therapy help with trauma?
There are a few therapeutic approaches for healing from trauma.
Somatic therapy is a body-focused approach that may be particularly helpful if you have symptoms of chronic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Somatic therapy, aka somatic experiencing, was originally developed by Peter Levine in the late 1970s. It was conceptualized as an alternative to other trauma-focused therapies — which, although effective for some people, didn’t work for everyone.
Somatic experiencing may allow you to revisit trauma without recalling specific events and emotions.
When you practice these body-focused exercises, you focus on physical sensations, instead of thoughts and emotions as you’d do in talk therapy, or your fears as you’d do with exposure therapy.
Trauma is “when too much happens too soon for the nervous system to process,” says Valerie Candela Brower, a licensed professional counselor and certified somatic experiencing practitioner in Southbury, Connecticut.
“It’s like eating a big meal and not fully digesting it, but then eating another big meal, and then another,” Candela Brower explains. “The body does not digest what has happened and instead, we stuff our feelings, numb out, or deny reality.”
In some cases, talking about trauma without adequate support, or with a therapist that isn’t trained in trauma, may retraumatize you, according to Candela Brower. “Somatic work offers the body time and space to complete whatever it needed to do at the time that it didn’t get to do.”
Somatic experiencing also helps you realize if you’ve been “stuck” in the fight, flight, or freeze response. This could lead to symptoms of chronic stress, in addition to those linked to trauma.
One of the main goals of somatic experiencing is to develop a body/mind connection and increase your ability to regulate your emotions. This can help you manage some of your most distressing symptoms.
Emerging research suggests that somatic therapy can be effective for people who’ve experienced trauma:
- A 2017 study in 63 people found that somatic experiencing helped relieve symptoms of PTSD and depression.
- Another 2017 study in 91 people living with lower back pain and PTSD suggests that a brief somatic experience (in addition to other treatments) may lessen back pain and relieve some PTSD symptoms.
Impact of trauma
If you’ve experienced trauma, you may develop some of these symptoms or challenges:
- excessive crying
- irritability, anger, or fearfulness
- flashbacks or replaying the experience in your mind
- nightmares or trouble sleeping
- alcohol or drug use as a way to cope
- physical symptoms like stomach pain or headaches
- chronic fatigue
- jumpiness, excessive sweating, or a racing heart rate
A large, nationally representative sample study in 2019 suggests that the chances of developing PTSD after a traumatic event may be greater for white, Black, and Afro-Caribbean women than men in those groups. These gender differences aren’t seen among Latinos or Asians. Further research is needed to explain cultural and contextual factors.
Can you practice somatic experiencing by yourself?
It’s highly recommended that you start somatic therapy with the help of a trained therapist. This can help you customize your approach to your specific trauma, emotions, and symptoms. It may also feel safer if any unexpected emotions come up.
According to Peter Levine, a therapist is trained and focused on creating a safe space for you. However, when you practice somatic exercises for a long time with a therapist, it’s possible to get attached to them and might feel it’s the only place you feel totally safe.
That’s why Levine thinks it’s important for therapists to teach tools and exercises that may help you feel safe on your own, too.
Keeping the above in mind, here are some somatic therapy exercises you could consider practicing at home:
Grounding exercises help you center and anchor yourself to the present moment. This could help you take your mind off past events that are causing you distress.
Grounding may be particularly helpful if you’re experiencing flashbacks, anxiety, and dissociation symptoms.
Here are a few grounding techniques to try at home:
- Run water over your hands. Start by running cold water over your hands. Focus on how the temperature feels on each part of your hand, from your wrist to your nails. Switch to warm water and focus on how the sensation on your hands changes. Do this for a few minutes until you calm down.
- Move your body in ways that feel most comfortable to you. This can include jumping up and down, dancing, jogging in place, or stretching. As you move, focus on how your body feels. You can do this with a body scan: Start with your toes and go all the way up your face, one body part at a time.
- Focus on your breathing while you control how you inhale and exhale. You can start by inhaling to the count of 4, holding for 3 seconds, and then exhaling for another count of 4. You could also repeat what you consider a happy word after each inhalation. For example, safe, peace, easy, or gone.
- Tense and relax different parts of your body. For example, press your feet to the ground as hard as you can for a few seconds. Release the pressure and notice how your feet feel now. You can also squeeze the arms of your chair as tightly as you can and then slowly relax and let go.
- Play a “categories” game with yourself. Think of different categories of things — for instance, dogs, states, or cities — that begin with a chosen letter. Don’t switch to a new letter until you’ve identified at least 5 objects that start with that letter.
Resourcing and visualization
Resourcing is about tuning into specific body sensations that may be the opposite of what you’re experiencing at the moment. This is typically a long process that a therapist helps you with, but practicing specific exercises at home could aid you in starting the process.
You’ll want to start these techniques with a certified somatic therapist, but after, you can use these at-home exercises to complement your treatment.
You can use both resourcing and visualization anytime you experience distressing thoughts, emotions, or body sensations. By focusing on creating a “safe” sensation in your mind and body, you can relieve some distress.
These exercises may take practice. You may want to start by doing them when you’re not in the midst of distress. That way, it could be easier to reproduce the sensations when you need to.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Create a safe place in your mind. You can do this by going back to a time and place when you felt safe and happy. You could also come up with a new safe place that you haven’t experienced yet. Think about its colors, smells, and textures. Feel your body there and focus on how comfortable you feel.
- Think about people you care about that make you feel at peace. You could start by looking at photos of them or focusing on specific memories you share.
In general, emotional self-regulation is about guiding yourself through your emotions so you can shift gears when they’re leading you to feel distressed. Within somatic therapy, self-regulation is about the nervous system.
Unresolved trauma may lead to dysregulation of the autonomous nervous system. This may mean you’re on high alert all the time. In turn, you might react to everyday stress and events in a way that’s connected to your past trauma.
According to the somatic experiencing approach, talk therapy may not always be able to access this complex body process. Instead, working with your physical senses could lead you to release and shift these patterns.
You can try some of these easy at-home techniques to help you self-regulate:
- Hug yourself. To do this, cross your right arm over your chest, placing your hand near your heart. Then, cross your left arm, placing your left hand on your right shoulder. According to Levine, this can make you feel contained, which may make you feel safe. Hold the hug for as long as you need.
- With your hand in a cupping position, tap your body all over, from your feet to your head. You can also try squeezing different parts of your body, instead of tapping them. This will help you with grounding, but also help your body recognize your boundaries — which can also give you a sense of being contained and safe.
Candela Brower describes body scans as an “active meditation” that may help you relax.
Here’s how to practice body scanning:
- Start by getting comfortable, possibly in a seated position. Close your eyes.
- Focus on your lower body. Notice how your feet feel on the floor. Slowly, move your attention to your ankles, knees, thighs, and then pelvis. Identify temperature, pressure, tension, and any other sensations as you move up your body.
- When you feel any tension, take a deep breath and exhale as you release it. When you feel the body part relax, you can move to the next one.
- When you finish with your lower body, do the same with your upper body. Include some of your internal organs like your stomach, heart, and lungs.
- Finally, end by focusing on your neck, head, and face.
Somatic therapy may help you manage symptoms of trauma and chronic stress.
Although some somatic experiencing exercises can be done on your own, to truly benefit from this approach, it’s recommended that you work with a trained therapist.
If you want to find a certified somatic therapist, the SE International Practitioner Directory may help.