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Somatic therapy for eating disorders

What Does Somatic Therapy For Eating Disorders Involve?

Contrary to many people’s belief, eating disorders are not simply about food and weight. Patients who struggle with ED are not merely obsessed with their appearance or weight. Rather, their condition is multifactorial and multicausal, often resulting from a myriad of stressors that have compounded over many years.

Because of this, effectively treating an eating disorder is more complex than most people imagine. It requires taking into account a number of things that even patients themselves did not view as relevant in their condition, such as their past trauma.

The National Eating Disorders Association [1] reports that roughly 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States alone will suffer from an eating disorder at least once in their lifetime. If you are one of them, the Mayo Clinic [2] says that there’s a high likelihood that you are at risk for complications such as growth and development issues, anxiety, depression, relationship and other social problems, school or work trouble, substance use disorders, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and even loss of life.

Somatic therapy was specially developed to address eating disorders that were caused or complicated by trauma in order to prevent or even reverse such complications.

Somatic psychotherapy (or simply somatic therapy) is a holistic and multidimensional approach in treating ED patients, which focuses on helping them overcome their trauma to promote healing from their disordered patterns of eating.

Named Somatic Experiencing (SE) therapy by its creator, psychologist Dr. Peter Levine, somatic therapy is a short-term, naturalistic therapeutic method. Dr. Levine observed that animals in the wild do not develop post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) nor become neurotic despite their cutthroat experiences in the jungle, unlike people who can be traumatized for years after a childhood event. Dr. Levine worked with NASA to help astronauts cope with their stress and trauma.

When a person experiences a distressing event, his or her normal coping mechanisms often become overwhelmed, leading to improper or incomplete processing and storage of memories and related stimuli. This causes the person to be constantly reminded of the traumatic event and its related emotions, as if the experience is constantly being replayed in his or her brain.

Keep in mind that a traumatic event for one may be an ordinary experience for another. As long as a person experiences something that is too much, too soon, or too quickly for his or her own nervous system to cope with, trauma can follow. The person’s inability to cope with those traumatic thoughts and emotions can then lead to psychological conditions, including eating disorders.

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Soma is the Greek word for “living body”. In somatic therapy, the involvement of the patient’s body is paramount in the process of his or her recovery from an eating disorder.

Somatic therapy promotes the sensitivity to and freeing of physiological responses—such as physical tension and nervous system arousal—that are due to unresolved traumas. It seeks to address the root cause of those symptoms by encouraging self-protective motor responses and releasing survival energy that’s trapped in a patient’s body.

What Can You Expect From Our Center’s Somatic Therapy For Eating Disorders?

Group and individual therapy sessions are integral elements of our patients’ treatment plans here in ‘Ai Pono Hawaii. However, we believe in the power of somatic therapy, as demonstrated by research studies as well as our own recovered patients.

We’ve seen that many patients who struggle with an eating disorder are overly focused on—yet simultaneously disconnected from—their own body. Our rehab center’s somatic therapy for eating disorders addresses this.

Our highly experienced therapists employ a variety of experiential and somatic therapies to help patients in their process of healing. Our holistic treatment programs are tailor fitted to each patient and include elements that involve using their body in active and creative ways. Our programs are carefully designed to integrate each patient’s psychological, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing into a unified whole.

With the right experiential activities, our patients are guided to use their unique skills, rebuild a good relationship with their body, and reconnect their mind and body. With our holistic approach, ‘Ai Pono Hawaii’s somatic therapy for eating disorders engages the patient’s mind, body, and spirit in the therapeutic process. Our patients learn to pay greater attention to their body by carefully observing their physical sensations without judgment and practicing awareness.

Unlike conventional therapies such as CBT—which focus on the patient’s mind—our eating disorder rehab center’s holistic somatic therapy for eating disorders includes traditional talk therapy as well as mind-body activities, deep breathing exercises, vocal exercises, meditation, physical exercise, massage and other forms of healing touch, grounding exercises, and dance or movement.

Our therapists guide patients in calling upon their emotional resources, reliving traumatic events using new physical tools, providing detailed descriptions of their past experiences, acting out their feelings, learning and practicing techniques to calm themselves, and strengthening boundaries.

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We assist patients in reframing their past experiences, this time free from the effects of trauma. Our experiential exercises and enrichment activities help patients let go of the strain that’s trapped in their autonomic nervous system, allowing their mind-and-body-connection to return to equilibrium.

In addition to those, our center offers two advanced treatment modalities for eating disorders: EMDR and brainspotting:

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, this therapy involves asking patients to revisit a traumatic experience. As they do so, our therapist will either quickly move a hand or any object back and forth or repetitively tap the patient’s knee or shoulder, while asking the patient to follow it with his or her eyes.

Although still a relatively new modality in the scheme of mental health treatment, EMDR is already heavily researched and recommended by the American Psychiatric Association. Many patients have reported a feeling of relief from distressing thoughts related to their trauma—some even after just a single session.


Brainspotting is another new form of therapy that uses eye positioning to retrain one’s emotional reactions. Like EMDR, it focuses on bilateral stimulation and eye movement, and is also proven to be effective in helping patients recover from trauma.
During a brainspotting session, we ask patients to wear headphones that will play a bilateral sound, which is a type of bilateral stimulation that leads to a change in brain wiring associated with memory. Our therapists ask patients to observe the emotions, sensations, and memories that arise in their body during this process, helping them form a greater connection between their mind and body.

Why Should You Trust Our Eating Disorder Treatment Center?

‘Ai Pono Hawaii has more than 30 years of experience in treating patients who suffer from eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and others. We’ve also successfully helped patients heal from Body Dysmorphia, Body Image Distortion, Laxative Abuse, and Night Eating Syndrome, and other associated and comorbid conditions.

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We conduct individual, family, and group sessions based on each patient’s customized treatment program. You may choose from our three levels of care—residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient.

Embrace a Brighter Future With Somatic Therapy For Eating Disorders.
Schedule a call with our center’s friendly staff today and learn how ‘Ai Pono Hawaii can help you break free from your past and achieve lasting recovery from your eating disorder.


Article Provided By: Megan Ross, PhD candidate, LPC, R-DMT, GL-CMA – Trauma Therapy Coordinator at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

An eating disorder is rarely the result of one factor. However, it is not unusual for physical or psychological trauma to be involved.

The definition of trauma or what constitutes a traumatic experience is vast. Trauma can result from something as seemingly minor as childhood bullying or an experience as catastrophic as violent rape.

Trauma is the emotional and physiological aftermath of an event; it is not the event itself, it is the individual’s experience of the event. For example, imagine two young women witnessing a terrible accident in which a person is killed. Later that day, one of these women meets a friend for coffee and tells her all about the horrific accident; she then goes on with her life. Although she was impacted, this woman was not traumatized by the event. The second woman’s experience is radically different. Due to myriad factors such as past experiences or a predisposition toward depression, she suffers extreme trauma. In time, her inability to cope with painful thoughts and emotions could manifest in a multitude of psychiatric issues including a food-related disorder.

Somatic Experiencing and Eating Disorders

When trauma is at the heart of an eating disorder, somatic experiencing (SE) often proves a valuable therapeutic tool. SE Is based on the notion that trauma is a physiological, not psychological condition; therefore, the body must be included in therapy.

When a woman or girl experiences trauma, survival energy not unlike what is seen in the wild, becomes trapped inside her body. SE strives to discharge, and therefore, neutralize this negative tension. As the therapy progresses, pent-up physical energy is often released in the form of trembling, sweating, crying, and even yawning.

In turn, physiological changes take place, in the form of new neuro pathways being created in the brain. It is these neuro pathways that ultimately lead to changed behavior.

Just as many factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder, many therapeutic strategies, such as SE, can contribute in a very positive fashion to its eradication.