Years ago, when I was a newly enrolled massage therapy student, I noticed the word somatic in a class titled “Psycho-Somatic Principles.” Like most people, I’d heard that psychosomatic meant an illness that was “all in your head.” But beyond that, I didn’t know much. And I had no idea then that my passion for bodywork would eventually lead me to a degree in somatic psychology.
This post begins a three-part exploration to help you understand what somatic is. That way you can know if a somatic approach to trauma healing is right for you.
- Part One: we’ll learn what the word “somatic” actually means and the elemental role it plays in the mind-body connection.
- Part Two: we’ll revisit the basic definition of trauma and highlight three specific ways it disrupts the mind-body connection.
- Part Three: I’ll show you the particular means by which somatic therapy brings the mind and body back into their proper relationship.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Mind-Body Connection
Let’s consider the word psychosomatic for a moment. The prefix psycho– comes from the Greek psykhē—the invisible animating principle that occupies and directs the physical body. This “animating principle” was originally understood as the life-giving, intangible essence of a human being. In other words, ancients Greeks used psykhē the way we might use the terms spirit or soul today. Our modern understanding of it has come to include mind or conscious awareness as well. Thus, the word psychological means anything relating to or originating from this part of who we are. The Greek word sōma, on the other hand, refers to the fleshy container that houses the psykhē. In short, it is the physical body.
Now we see how the word psychosomatic indicates the intimate relationship between the mind and body. Over time it came to represent theway an imbalance in the mind manifests in the body—essentially a physical ailment with psychological origins. In modern usage, however, the word acquired a negative connotation and so it’s not used as much anymore. These days, the shortened version “somatic” has replaced it. The field of somatic psychology concerns itself with anything related to the mind-body connection.
So what does somatics have to do with trauma healing? To explain that, let’s first examine the critical role the different systems of the mind-body play in your survival. This might feel like high school biology for a minute, but hang with me.
Your Mind-Body Works to Achieve Balance and Stability
The mind-body connection is sustained by the interweaving of complex physiological structures and networks. They work together around the clock to keep your internal systems stable and balanced. Homeostasis is the technical term that describes this state of equilibrium. If the balance in any system tips one way or another, your body will let you know. How? Sensory neurons create a sensation that tells you something’s wrong. Next, you get an urge to fix the problem. This urge signals motor neurons that some kind of action is needed.
For example, when you’ve used up all the calories from lunch, you feel hunger pangs that tell you it’s time to eat again. If you hold your breath for too long, a powerful need to breathe hits you. After a large Diet Coke, you feel the inevitable urge to visit the restroom. Or if a car swerves into your lane, you instantly react to avoid it.
In short, your mind-body provides the means of sensing danger and the actions to protect against it that ensure homeostasis. Why does this matter? It matters because homeostasis is the way your body achieves its number-one goal: survival.
But when you experience trauma, all of that changes.
Trauma Disrupts the Balance and Stability
When survival is threatened, trauma happens when the actions you take to protect yourself aren’t enough to keep you safe. With this in mind, my next post highlights three main defenses your mind-body has against threats to its survival. All three involve a dramatic reduction in your ability to perceive sensation. Now that you know how essential that ability is, you can imagine the kind of internal chaos this creates.
Psykhē (-psycho) means spirit, mind, or conscious awareness. Sōma means the physical body. Psychosomatic (or somatic for short) refers to the mind-body connection.
Homeostasis is stability and balance in the systems of the mind-body. Homeostasis is maintained by the ability to feel something is wrong via sensation. The sensation is followed by an urge to take action that will fix the problem. Why? To ensure the mind-body’s number one goal: survival. Trauma happens when survival is threatened and the actions taken to protect yourself are not enough to keep you safe.Learn More
“What is Somatic Experiencing?” You’ve probably asked yourself this question if you’ve been reading up on somatic ways to heal trauma. Most of us are familiar with traditional approaches to trauma healing like talk therapy or pharmaceuticals. Somatic approaches to mental health care like Somatic Experiencing (SE) are not as well known but on the rise. In this post I’ll explain how SE works, for what kinds of trauma it’s best suited and a few of its limitations. To begin, let’s look at the body’s fundamental response to threat: fight or flight.
“Fight or Flight” is a Basic Response to Danger
When you experience a high-intensity threat to your safety, a protective circuit between the brain and body activates. The body tells the brain there’s danger and the brain responds with a boost of adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals help you either fight off the threat or run away from it. If you successfully do either one, all the energy the adrenaline and cortisol recruited gets discharged. Your brain registers the discharge as a signal the threat is over. It shuts off the adrenaline and cortisol valve knowing you are now safe and sound. The brain-body circuit is complete and you can go back to business as usual. No trauma.
Sometimes Fight or Flight Fails
Now you see how “fight or flight” works so let’s take a look at what happens when it doesn’t. What if the threat strikes too fast, too suddenly or with too much force? What if it can’t be fought off or run away from? Your body blasts you with that rush of energy but the danger hits before you can use it. So where does the energy go? If there’s no discharge, how does the brain get the message that the threat is over? It doesn’t.Without the “all clear” from the body, the brain continues to supply you with adrenaline and cortisol. You remain in varying states of fight or flight from then on as if the danger were still present. This is how shock trauma happens.
Somatic Experiencing Makes Up the Difference
So how does Somatic Experiencing fit into all of this? SE is the life work of Dr. Peter Levine who studied how animals respond to threat in the wild. He wondered why humans get traumatized but wild animals don’t and he observed one critical thing. Let’s say a coyote is out looking for lunch and goes after a rabbit. The rabbit’s brain does what a human brain does: it preps it with what it needs to outrun the coyote. It makes a mad dash and with any luck, gets back to the safety of its little den. Once there, it shakes off all the extra energy it didn’t need to run away. The discharge signals the threat is over. The rabbit’s physiology is reset to normal and it goes on unaffected by its brush with death. No trauma.
Dr. Levine wanted to know if that could work with humans, too. If we could shed the extra energy like wild animals, could we avoid being traumatized? The answer is yes.The method he developed over decades of research taps into the trapped energy and helps it to finally release. A Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP) creates the safety you need to let your body finish what it started. This happens gently and incrementally over several sessions so that the process does not overwhelm you. But what does that look like? In a typical session you allow your body’s involuntary responses to occur. You may experience trembling, a flush of heat, muscle tension or relaxation, the chills or other physical sensations, yawning, surges of emotion—any of the numerous ways your body has of releasing energy. This is the difference between talk therapy and SE: you’re actually having an experience rather than talking about an experience.
Is Somatic Experiencing Right For Me?
SE is a very effective tool for addressing shock trauma. Shock trauma is a one time event that overwhelms your fight or flight response (e.g., a car accident or physical assault). If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, it’s very likely SE will be useful to you.
SE is not, however, well suited for developmental or relational trauma—trauma that was sustained over long periods of time during the early years of your life and inside the context of important relationships. If you have C-PTSD, SE may be helpful as a supplement but not as the main course of therapy. If you have questions about whether SE is right for you, visit www.traumahealing.org or click here to schedule a free consultation.