Somatic Therapy for Trauma Recovery

A year and a half ago I had a nuclear meltdown. Without going into the gory details, some PTSD from childhood that I thought had been put to bed came roaring back to life. I have a family history of very negative secondary effects from anti-depressants, so medication was never an option for me. Therefore, I sought out practitioners who were willing to do the long, slow work with me and who wouldn’t insist on prescribed medications. I had given talk therapy a try in my teens, but never got much out of it. Things turned around when I learned about Somatic work, an approach which combines mind and body (soma is the Greek word for body). The months since have been a healing journey fueled in no small part from two books and a therapist who aligned with their approach. In today’s blog, we’ll discuss both.

The first book I was exposed to early on was The Body Keeps the Score. It seems to be a NYT bestseller currently. In a nutshell, research on PTSD shows that if you don’t deal with it, it can wreak havoc not just on your psyche, but on your physical body as well. Autoimmune disease, obesity, hypertension, stroke, heart attacks. All of these conditions and all-cause mortality are increased in populations with PTSD. It’s not just the brain that remembers, but the body’s own tissues. How then does one heal? Not just through talk therapy, but physically – through the body. Prior to this work, I thought of myself a a disembodied brain. One usually spinning on overdrive with anxiety or a need to be busy. I have developed several key hobbies at this book’s advice which bring me back into that weird place, my body. These include: meditation, qi gong, drumming, beating up on heavy-weight punching bags. All of them offer a great outlet for processing emotions through physical means.

The other key book, and the manual my somatic psychologist used during therapy, is The Tao of Trauma. This book complements the Body Keeps the Score by framing trauma and healing in the context of Five Element Chinese Medicine. It offers a how-to manual for bodywork practitioners to help patients heal from trauma through the physical body. In this book, we learn how trauma and healing correspond to various organs which hold the grief and fear. One could write chapters on this approach, but the important thing to drive home for this blog, is that it wasn’t until we started to do the actual body work (including things like EMDR and touch therapy), that I was able to finally “digest the gristle” in the words of the book.

While my PTSD specifically derived from a childhood sexual assault, if I may shift a bit to some public health and population health theories – another important concept for those who maybe don’t have frank PTSD but could benefit from the somatic approach are those who have one or more ACEs. An ACE is an Adverse Childhood Experience. This is a framework which enumerates difficult situations children face, often chronically. Similar to PTSD (which can overlap), the more ACEs one has, the more likely they are to experience not only mental health challenges, but burnout and deteriorating physical health as they age. While my childhood was generally a happy one, even I can tally up 4 ACEs. I went to therapy for the flashbacks and nightmares I was having related to the sexual assault, but in the course, it was also helpful in working through some of the unrelated ACEs as well.

Three types of adversity that make for a tough childhood.

The somatic approach to psychology and mental health can be a game changer for those who are stuck in patterns that no amount of talking seems to help address. We can recommend some practitioners in the DC area, but the two books listed above are a great start for those who are curious to learn more on this method. To those who are on a healing journey, our love goes out to you! -Jess

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