Psychotherapy for Your Body: The Role of Somatic Psychology Today

A racing heart and a roiling stomach. Panic attacksnightmares, or fatigue. The body has myriad ways to manifest the many faces of trauma and fear. And for many people, getting help to cope with the symptoms of emotional distress means going through “talk therapy”—a kind of psychotherapy based on verbally processing thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Now, though, the rapidly growing field of somatic psychotherapy is shifting the paradigm from talking to feeling—and this approach is offering new promise for healing trauma through body-centered techniques, such as Somatic Experiencing.

Somatic Psychotherapy is Body-Centered Psychotherapy

Somatic psychotherapy—also called body psychotherapy—focuses on the complex and profoundly powerful connections between body and mind and how those connections affect how we process and recover from trauma and other emotional distress. Somatic psychotherapy arises from the premise that, along with thinking about the world and how to respond to it, humans engage with others and the world through sensations, movement, and expression.

In response to situations and stimuli of all kinds, the body’s core response network, or CRN, is activated. This network, which is made up of the autonomic nervous system, the limbic system, and other regulatory functions, is responsible for organizing and generating an immediate response to challenges presented by a person’s environment, such as the well-known “fight, flight, or freeze” response to stressors and perceived dangers.

In that kind of situation, the CRN signals the body to release a flood of stimulant chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, creating a surge of energy that throws the system temporarily out of balance.

When animals are faced with threats—say, from predators—they experience those responses too. But once the threat has passed, they typically discharge that “survival” energy with movements such as shaking, sighing, or stretching before returning to normal behavior. For them, that kind of event is generally experienced as an isolated incident and causes no lingering symptoms.

But for humans, returning to “normal” after a traumatic experience is not so simple. People who experience sudden or ongoing trauma or other kinds of distressing events typically don’t have ways to clear their systems of the survival, or arousal, energy produced in response to those situations. That energy lingers in the body, and if unresolved, may result in conditions including posttraumatic stress (PTSD), depressionphobias, muscle aches and pains, irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues, insomnia, and autoimmune disorders.

Somatic Therapy is not “Talk Therapy”

The goal of psychotherapy is to help people resolve issues that trigger emotional and physical distress. With approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, people seeking help are encouraged to talk about their experiences in order to gain insights into patterns of negative thinking, identify harmful behavior patterns, or learn new ways to cope with triggers for stress. This kind of “talk therapy” might also include activities such as journaling, poetry, and other kinds of writing, and even art and drama therapy.

But these approaches place heavy emphasis on cognitive functioning and verbal expression—and while a person in this kind of therapy might talk about physical symptoms of trauma or distress, engaging the responses of the body itself might play a fairly limited role in the therapeutic process.

Somatic Experiencing Brings Completion

Somatic psychotherapy begins with the body, working to discover how and where trauma is being physically experienced—and finding ways to safely “discharge” the energy related to that trauma.

Somatic psychotherapy begins with the body, working to discover how and where trauma is being physically experienced—and finding ways to safely “discharge” the energy related to that trauma.

While traditional “talk therapy” encourages people to think about traumatic experiences and express their feelings in words, the somatic approach focuses instead on fully feeling the body’s sensations and the emotions that accompany them. People are encouraged to engage with the body’s responses to memories, experiences, and surroundings. Somatic Experiencing, created by Dr. Peter Levine, is one somatic psychotherapy modality.

In recent work published in Frontiers in Psychology, Levine, in collaboration with Somatic Experiencing practitioners Peter Payne and Mardi A. Crane-Godreau, reviews the broad range of applications for this approach and its potential for supporting recovery from trauma caused by combat, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

Somatic Experiencing employs three core strategies for resolving trauma-related energies:

  • Resourcing helps a person experiencing the effects of trauma to create resources for feeling safe and secure while working to resolve the trauma. These might include memories of good times or loved ones or thinking about a valued object or activity. One goal of therapy is to help people discover and build a supply of resources for support.
  • Titration exposes a person to small amounts of trauma-related distress at a time in order to build up tolerance and avoid becoming overwhelmed by traumatic memories. In therapy, people pay close attention to the sensations they experience when revisiting a traumatic event and gradually become less affected by them.
  • Pendulation, also called “looping,” involves switching between resourcing and titration, allowing a person to move between a state of arousal triggered by a traumatic event and a state of calm. This helps the body to regain homeostasis—a state in which the body’s systems are regulated and working in balance.

Mindful Movement Supports Somatic Therapy

Somatic psychotherapy often incorporates movement to help regulate the autonomic nervous system and bring about a state of “biological completion” in which trapped arousal energy has been resolved and the system is restored to balance. Breathwork and “moving meditations,” such as qigong, yoga, and tai chi, can help to engage the vagus nerve and ease bodily symptoms of trauma, such as muscle pain and headache.

Somatic psychology draws from ancient mind-body practices as well as ongoing research in psychology, biology, and the neurosciences. With the support of new insights into the intimate and profoundly powerful connections between the body and brain, the field of somatic psychotherapy continues to grow, creating more opportunities to help the body heal itself from trauma—one step at a time.

June is National PTSD Awareness Month. For help with trauma and related issues, contact a therapist in your area.


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© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chris Walling, PsyD, MBA, therapist in Los Angeles, California