A Synthesis of Healing
A driver made a turn in front of me and suddenly I pressed hard on the brakes. My car slowed in the middle of a busy intersection. Crash! My airbags released. I watched the other car spin away in the opposite direction. I sat in my car, frozen in a state of shock. Then I knew just what to do. I stepped out of the car, drew upon my training as a somatic (body-centered) psychologist, and I began to move my body. I took deep breaths, shook my arms and legs vigorously and focused on releasing the fear I was feeling. Somatic psychology centralizes body awareness as a primary healing agent in psychotherapy.
Initially I felt secure following the accident but after several months passed I noticed anxiety creeping in while driving. My anxiety worsened and after six months I still noticed my stomach tightening, my breath quickening when passing the intersection where the accident occurred. I preferred to take alternate, albeit longer, routes to work. It was then that I experienced EMDR Therapy for the first time. I described the accident to my therapist and was surprised by the degree of fear, anger, and sadness I still felt around the event. As we “processed” the memory I felt sensations move through my body like waves that could finally reach the shore. At the end of several sessions I felt a profound shift; my distress around the accident disappeared and driving was normal once again. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy offers a comprehensive, structured approach to healing PTSD which involved processing traumatic memories and their associated beliefs, emotions, and sensations.
“The synthesis of somatic psychology and EMDR Therapy is an exciting advancement in mental health. As stand alone therapies these are now considered to be two of the best trauma treatment models available. Integrating these therapies enhances the effectiveness of both.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Reason alone is seldom sufficient to treat trauma. When exposed to frightening experiences the breath quickens, we feel panic, and tension builds throughout the body; we freeze. The source of our post traumatic stress symptoms resides in our physiology. Somatic psychology centralizes body awareness as a primary healing agent in psychotherapy; taking the therapeutic experience beyond where words can take you. Here we focus on unwinding the stories held within the body, frozen in time.
Unfortunately, our culture tends towards stillness in the face of trauma. Our bodies need to process stressful events through breath and movement. When we do not include body awareness, movement, and conscious breathing in trauma processing we limit our ability to work with our innate healing capacities. As a result, the biological effects of stress and trauma persist long after events have passed. The body provides tremendous feedback about the psychological impact of recent or historical traumatic events. And tracking the somatic experience gives clear feedback about when the traumatic incident no longer holds power over us.
In a recent article published in the New York Times, Bessel Van der Kolk endorses both somatic psychology and EMDR Therapy for the treatment of PTSD. Somatic awareness within EMDR Therapy gives us a way to work with nervous system states and the dysregulation that is associated with trauma. In his interview with the psychotherapy networker, Bessel Van der Kolk, states “fundamentally, words can’t integrate the disorganized sensations and action patterns that form the core imprint of the trauma.”
Key Concepts and Interventions
Somatic Psychology offers key concepts and interventions that are necessary for EMDR Therapists ready to take their work to the next level. Such tools include:
- Grounding: This concept essentially sits at the heart of all body-based psychotherapy. Introduced by Alexander Lowen, developer of bioenergetics, grounding refers to our ability to experience ourselves as embodied. Traumatic events are by nature overwhelming and to incorporate these painful experiences our mind often replays the event again and again. As a result, we develop a host of avoidance strategies so we do not have to experience the pain. We cut off awareness of sensations; we go numb. Grounding involves sensing the body, feeling your feet on the earth, and calming the nervous system.
- Cultivating Somatic Awareness: When a client retells the story about unresolved traumatic events, the somatic therapist promotes awareness of the body. We can then work with how those events impact our bodies through the breath constrictions and tension patterns that are held just under our conscious awareness. Simply bringing awareness to physical sensations creates change. Teaching clients how to develop and sustain somatic awareness is the first step in the integration of body-centered work into EMDR Therapy.
- Resourcing: Resource development is a technique emphasized equally within both EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychotherapy. When we help clients develop resources we focus on increasing a sense of choice and safety. Identify people, times, and places that facilitate a sense of safety, calm, or peace. How do you know when you feel peaceful or relaxed? How does your body feel? Here we focus on building skills to manage overwhelming emotions and reactions to stressful events.
- Titration: When we turn our attention to traumatic events our body-centered awareness helps us become conscious of our physical tension patterns. Titration refers to a process of experiencing small amounts of distress at a time with a goal to discharge the tension. Used in both Somatic Experiencing (Peter Levine) and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (Pat Ogden and Kekuni Minton), titration is achieved by “pendulating” or oscillating attention between feeling the distress and feeling safe and calm. During EMDR Therapy, titration is also a key component of managing high levels of distress and reducing the likelihood of re-traumatization during the healing process.
- Sequencing: When somatic tension begins to discharge or release, clients typically report the movement of emotion and sensations. Clients might report a feeling of tension in the belly that moves to chest and then becomes tightness in the throat and forehead. Sometimes we might visibly see hands or legs shake and tremble. Here, we invite the client to experience these sensations without inhibiting them and to simply observe them as they change. The tension eventually releases–sometimes in the form of tears, an ability to breathe more freely, or possibly the feeling of lightness.
- Movement and Process: In EMDR Therapy, the Adaptive Information Processing model posits that when given an opportunity to process through a traumatic event clients have an inherent, natural healing process. Somatic therapies tap into our innate healing capacity by inviting us to listen to the story as told by the body. Our postures, gestures, and use of space provide insight into our experience. For example, a client who has an impulse to crouch, cower, or hide is invited to mindfully engage in these defensive movements. After doing so, she may notice a new impulse to push her arms and kick her legs. As she intuitively re-engages these protective movements resolution may arise with a new found sense of calm in her body.
Curious to Learn More?
The treatment of trauma is challenging. The synthesis of somatic therapies and EMDR requires in-depth training to master the integration of the two. If you are an EMDR therapist and are curious to learn more about somatic psychotherapy come join Dr. Arielle Schwartz and Barb Maiberger in our upcoming training. We offer a two-day EMDRIA approved advanced training introducing you to somatic psychology and how it interfaces with the 8 phases of EMDR therapy. You will learn the history of somatic psychology, practice somatic interventions that can radically improve the effectiveness of EMDR Therapy, and come away from the weekend re-energized for your practice.
Want to learn more about healing complex PTSD?
This post offers an excerpt from my book, The Complex PTSD Workbook, now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Fall, 2016). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.