Updated on 07/21/23
Somatic counseling, also known as somatic experiencing therapy, or SE therapy, is a type of therapy that helps treat post-traumatic stress, past trauma, and effects from other mental health conditions. This type of therapy connects a person’s mind and body to apply psychotherapy and physical therapies during treatment.
“Somatic therapy is designed to help individuals clear their minds and connect to their bodies, and it is helpful because it combines mindfulness, grounding techniques, and traditional talk therapy.”
Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSW-C, CMHIMP, EMDR
Therapists who practice somatic body psychotherapy, which applies basic principles of somatic psychology, believe a person’s inner feelings impact their physical form – they use mind-body exercises to release pent-up trauma from the mind and the body. By releasing these bodily sensations, a somatic therapist works towards healing trauma from the inside out with this form of trauma therapy.
Wondering how somatic therapy works? Read on to learn more about the techniques involved in somatic therapies and what it’s commonly used for.
How Does Somatic Therapy Work?
It is easy to feel trapped by our own physical and emotional stress. This feeling of being trapped might also lead you to feel panicked, anxious, and unable to calm down. Traditional talk therapy can effectively address many mental and emotional health challenges, but those who practice somatic psychotherapy believe talk therapy can benefit from paying attention to a person’s body and symptoms, which can help a person alleviate the stress and chronic pain preventing them from fully experiencing life.
“Somatic therapy approaches aim to address both your physical and mental health simultaneously so that you can find relief more quickly.”
Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, CDBT
Somatic experiencing therapy is a specific approach to somatic therapy and is based on the idea that traumatic experiences cause dysfunction in a person’s nervous system and prevent them from processing the experience. The goal of somatic experiencing therapy, therefore, is to help an individual notice physical sensations stemming from their mental health issues and use that awareness to work through painful feelings and emotions. This kind of physical sensation can be in the form of chronic pain and other unpleasant symptoms.
Over time, somatic trauma healing therapy aims to help individuals improve their body awareness and learn somatic therapy techniques to release physical tension. These can include:
- Breathing exercises for anxiety
- Sensation awareness
- Physical exercise
- Dance therapy
- Grounding exercises
The key is helping a person develop new thinking patterns and behaviors to better respond to various experiences or emotions as they come up.
When Is Somatic Therapy Used?
Somatic trauma healing therapy focuses on a person’s physical and mental connection during treatment and can be done in both an individual and a group therapy setting. This type of trauma therapy can be used to help address both physical and psychological symptoms of certain mental health issues, including:
- Chronic stress
- Trauma and abuse
- Problems with relationships
- Sexual function
Somatic experiencing therapy can also benefit those who have tried, but not found success with, more traditional treatment methods after a traumatic experience. These treatments can include those for physical pain, digestive disorders, sleep problems, and other medical issues. The idea of using somatic techniques is that once physical symptoms are resolved, most people will find it is easier to address psychological symptoms through the use of somatic therapy techniques.
Somatic Therapy Techniques
Somatic therapy aims to engage a person’s body as a therapy technique and draw from the basic functions of the nervous system during treatment. Somatic psychology, the theory from which somatic therapy is derived, includes the following primary concepts.
Grounding techniques refer to a person’s ability to experience themselves as embodied in the moment. The somatic therapy approach involves a person sensing their physical form, engaging their senses, feeling their feet on the earth, and ultimately, calming down their nervous system.
Boundary development entails having an individual focus on the present moment, empowering them to stay responsive to their changing needs, and develop clear boundaries, whether it’s family boundaries, friendship boundaries, or in the workplace. It helps one respond in a way that feels strong and protected.
Emphasizing the importance of mindfully staying connected to the body during big emotions or sensations, the goal of self-regulation is to develop an awareness of physical sensations, with the intent to regulate (or respond effectively to) emotional intensity.
Movement and process
Somatic therapies tap into an individual’s capacity to heal by listening to their body, incorporating what’s known as body psychotherapy. Postures, gestures, and the use of space all provide insight into a person’s experience, and in SE therapy, they are encouraged to mindfully engage with their impulses to drive a resolution.
When tension begins to release, the movement of emotion can happen throughout the body. Tension may build in the belly, move to the chest, and finally settle into tightness of the throat, or alternatively, tension may be released via tears and result in an ability to breathe more freely.
Titration is a somatic approach that refers to a process of experiencing small amounts of distress with the goal of relieving pain from a previous traumatic event or experience. As one slowly begins to revisit past trauma, your therapist will track your body’s response and the sensations they bring up. They will check in about how you feel in addition to watching your physical response, breathing changes, clenched hands, or shift in tone of voice.
Are There Limitations to Somatic Therapy?
While many report good results from somatic therapy, science-backed evidence of this approach remains limited. In 2017, the first randomized controlled study evaluated the effectiveness of this approach for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and found that somatic psychotherapy does have positive benefits as a treatment option. However, the study had some limitations, as does some other research on PTSD.
In addition to the need for additional research, there are ethical concerns surrounding the use of touch during therapy. While some may find physical contact during therapy reduces pain and helps release tension, others – especially those affected by trauma and sexual abuse – may be triggered or uncomfortable.
What to Look for in a Somatic Therapist
Somatic therapy can be easily integrated into other psychotherapy and counseling practices – the key is to find a licensed and experienced mental health professional with training in somatic therapy techniques. Keep in mind that finding a therapist with the right educational background and experience is only one piece of the puzzle; it is just as important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable speaking and who you feel understands you and the challenges you’re looking to overcome.
The connection between a person’s mind and body is strong and can open up new potential treatments for mental health issues. Practitioners of somatic therapy believe a person’s thoughts and feelings can impact their physical well-being and use mind-body exercise to help release pent-up tension. While greater research is still needed, there is evidence that finds benefits to somatic therapy. With the help of a licensed therapist on our online therapy platform at Talkspace, a person can better manage the physical tension in their body and improve their experiences. Get started with online somatic therapy today.
1. About Us – Somatic Experiencing – Continuing Education. Somatic Experiencing – Continuing Education. Published 2015. https://traumahealing.org/about-us/
2. Brom D, Stokar Y, Lawi C, et al. Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2017;30(3):304-312. doi:10.1002/jts.22189
Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards. Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.
Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.
Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
The somatic therapy approach involves a person sensing their physical form, engaging their senses, feeling their feet on the earth, and ultimately, calming down their nervous system.What happens in somatic therapy? ›
Rather than just talk about them, somatic therapists guide patients to focus on their underlying physical sensations. From there, the mind-body exercises may include breath work, meditation, visualization, massage, grounding, dance, and/or sensation awareness work.What is a somatic therapy session? ›
Somatic therapy, sometimes known as body psychotherapy, is a therapeutic approach that places importance on what we experience in the mind and the body as well as the connection between the two. “Somatic” itself means “of or relating to the body.”Is somatic therapy legitimate? ›
Yes, some somatic therapies are evidence-based.
When a practice is evidence-based, it means it's been closely evaluated and tested for efficacy.
SET focuses on the patient's bodily sensations and emotions, while EMDR focuses on the patient's thoughts and beliefs. SET is based on the idea that unresolved physical sensations and emotions can be processed and released through gradual exposure and understanding.What is an example of somatic therapy? ›
For example, if you were stuck in a situation and needed to get away, but couldn't, in somatic therapy we would help you slowly drop into the sensation of the event that happened; without going into too much talking about it - but letting the body go back to what it experienced.What kind of touch is involved in somatic therapy? ›
The key elements of somatic touch support are having the right kind of attuned and embodied touch. What I mean by “attunement” is a deep nonverbal body listening and appropriately responding to what the person and body actually needs; not what we imagine is needed.What does a somatic session look like? ›
What does a somatic therapy session look like? Usually, we start by sitting and talking, and then eventually, we work our way over to the table and begin with really light touch. The first thing, I invite the person to check in with their body—just observe what they're feeling, what they're noticing in their bodies.Does somatic experiencing involve touch? ›
Note: Somatic Experiencing can be used with or without touch. SE employs awareness of body sensation to help people “renegotiate” and heal rather than re-live or re-enact trauma.What are the 4 somatic practices? ›
- Body-Mind Centering.
- Alexander technique.
- Feldenkrais method.
- Laban movement analysis.
Risks of somatic therapy include misinterpretation of touch, re-traumatization, breaking down of defenses, abusive touch and inappropriate regression.How long does somatic therapy last? ›
Most typical sessions will last approximately the proverbial 50 minute - hour (50 minutes of one-to-one counselling and 10 minutes of administration time).What are the side effects of somatic therapy? ›
- Nausea, dizziness, feeling off-balance.
- Muscle twitching.
- Muscle soreness or pain.
- Emotional release.
- Lack of sensation or awareness of certain muscles.
Somatic therapy can help individuals that suffer from a wide range of mental issues such as trauma, addiction, grief, depression, stress, and anxiety. It can also help people heal from past trauma and abuse and anyone currently dealing with sexual dysfunction and problems in their relationships.Is Reiki and somatic therapy the same thing? ›
Somatic healing is similar to Reiki in that it can be used to help someone shift out of fight-or-flight mode, but they're two distinct types of energy work, notes Marcenelle. "Reiki and somatic energy healing are both considered holistic, spiritual, healing modalities," she explains.What are the two types of somatic therapy? ›
- Somatic experiencing. Somatic experiencing treats the body's reactions to trauma. ...
- Hakomi. Hakomi is a type of somatic therapy centered on mindfulness — the ability to notice the present moment without judgment. ...
- Sensorimotor psychotherapy. ...
- Neurosomatic therapy.
- Become aware of body sensations: Focus on different parts of the body and how they feel (e.g., are there any tense muscles?).
- Make connections between the sensations and stress: Consider what feelings or sensations are felt when stressed (e.g., unsettled stomach or lump in throat).
How long will it take before I can see some results with SE therapy? Some clients already experience some symptom relief after only one session. More complex cases may need up to 20 sessions before they experience significant symptom relief.How do you release somatic trauma? ›
- Run water over your hands. ...
- Move your body in ways that feel most comfortable to you. ...
- Focus on your breathing while you control how you inhale and exhale. ...
- Tense and relax different parts of your body. ...
- Play a “categories” game with yourself.