How Somatic Meditation can be Used to Treat Survivors of Trauma

Trauma is a physiological process which impacts on our psychological and emotional wellbeing. If trauma is unprocessed or suppressed it can often lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and in some cases, PTSD.  

For some people who have experienced trauma, practicing meditation can bring up painful and overwhelming emotions that they may not have the emotional resources to process. The focused attention of mindfulness can send a trauma survivor into a state of heightened emotional arousal, which can be confusing and upsetting, and potentially cause dissociation1)https://psychcentral.com/lib/4-sets-of-somatic-mindfulness-exercises-for-people-who-have-experienced-trauma/ – accessed 16/10/2019.

Peter Levine, a body-orientated trauma specialist and creator of the Somatic Experiencing system of trauma healing, suggests that the trauma not only exists in the event itself, but in the nervous system. His theory is underpinned by the belief that in order to treat trauma, we must learn to connect with our body, and allow our defensive reactions to be fully processed and neutralised. 

Levine’s theory argues that body-focused therapy is essential if you want to move through the trauma process. If the drive for survival, assembled within the nervous system, is unable to fully carry out either fight, flight or freeze as a response to trauma, then they manifest as traumatic symptoms in the body. 

If the nervous system is unable to bring itself back down to its neutral state, it is kept in a state of high arousal. If this process is continually blocked and disrupted, the nervous system becomes overloaded and begins shutting down; shifting to the parasympathetic system. It is believed that the blocked response remains manifested as physical tension, hypervigilance or in a catatonic, “broken” state. This high arousal and dysregulation can make it difficult for one to maintain open-awareness, necessary to stay present in our bodies and to heal from trauma2)https://psychcentral.com/lib/4-sets-of-somatic-mindfulness-exercises-for-people-who-have-experienced-trauma/ – accessed 16/10/2019

Trauma threatens the integrity of our survival instincts, so enabling us to complete these responses is fundamental for trauma healing to take place. 

Somatic Meditation can be used to treat people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), by integrating physical awareness into the psychotherapeutic process, without the need to recall traumatic events explicitly. Rather, it is encouraged to focus on releasing tensions from the body3)Brom, Danny, Yaffa Stokar, Cathy Lawi, Vered Nuriel‐Porat, Yuval Ziv, Karen Lerner, and Gina Ross. “Somatic experiencing for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled outcome study.” Journal of traumatic stress 30, no. 3 (2017): 304-312. by paying attention to positive sensations first and only in a second phase to the balance between positive/pleasant sensations and learning to tolerate the negative/unpleasant sensations.

Somatic meditation is thought to improve our ability to gain a greater understanding of what our triggers are, to facilitate more rational, adaptable thought processes which drive behaviour. The practice involves two key aspects; firstly, learning to pay attention to how the body is feeling and what it is sensing, thereby bringing total focus and intentions to our physical form. Secondly, it is to observe these sensations with honesty, acceptance, kindness and respect. Somatic mediation allows us to connect with and understand our full selves. As Dr Jill Bolte Taylor says, “intimacy really in this case is In-to-me-see4)https://www.thepowerofthepause.org/what-is-somatic-meditation – accessed 16/10/2019.

Four sets of Somatic Exercises that could be useful for trauma survivors are grounding; quieting and flow; mindful breathing and progressive relaxation in the body. Each exercise focuses on moving your body mindfully, all the while observing the physical sensations and how they develop. After each exercise it is encouraged to “check in” – notice how feelings may have changed and what they are, for example, do you feel “lighter”, or are holding yourself any differently? 

It has been reported that when some people start Somatic Meditation, they begin to feel more discomfort in their body, along with strong emotions. This is a symptom of our bodies beginning to process the trauma we have experienced, a delayed response to trauma that may not have felt safe enough to do so previously5)https://mind-springs.org/blog/somatic-meditation/ – accessed 16/10/2019. Furthermore, this demonstrates the benefits of feeling our pain, rather than thinking about it. While it can feel far more painful to think over traumatic experiences, resting the body and feeling acceptance of those feelings can feel liberating. 

There is empirical evidence to support Somatic practices for trauma survivors, for example; a randomised controlled study of Somatic Experience for PTSD by Brom et al. found that SE is an effective treatment practice for survivors.  Furthermore, Parker et al.6)Parker, Catherine, Ronald M. Doctor, and Raja Selvam. “Somatic therapy treatment effects with tsunami survivors.” Traumatology 14, no. 3 (2008): 103-109. offered one 75‐minute session to 204 survivors of the 2004 tsunami in southern India. Out of the 150 participants who completed the follow‐up assessments 4 and 8 months later, 90% of the participants reported either significant improvement or being completely free of symptoms of intrusion, arousal, and avoidance, based on the Impact of Events Scale7)Horowitz, Mardi, Nancy Wilner, and William Alvarez. “Impact of Event Scale: A measure of subjective stress.” Psychosomatic medicine 41, no. 3 (1979): 209-218.

Somatic Meditation is the realisation that ultimately, our meditative state is not external, in another place for us to find, but instead it is discovered as the most vital, indispensable and profound reality of our bodies8)https://www.dharmaocean.org/meditation/somatic-meditation/ – accessed 16/10/2019, and through the practice we are able to awaken ourselves and begin to heal.

If you have a client, or know of someone who struggles with trauma – reach out to Khiron. We believe that we can stop the revolving door of treatment and misdiagnosis by providing effective residential and out-patient therapies for underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to effective, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

References   [ + ]

1, 2. https://psychcentral.com/lib/4-sets-of-somatic-mindfulness-exercises-for-people-who-have-experienced-trauma/ – accessed 16/10/2019
3. Brom, Danny, Yaffa Stokar, Cathy Lawi, Vered Nuriel‐Porat, Yuval Ziv, Karen Lerner, and Gina Ross. “Somatic experiencing for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled outcome study.” Journal of traumatic stress 30, no. 3 (2017): 304-312.
4. https://www.thepowerofthepause.org/what-is-somatic-meditation – accessed 16/10/2019
5. https://mind-springs.org/blog/somatic-meditation/ – accessed 16/10/2019
6. Parker, Catherine, Ronald M. Doctor, and Raja Selvam. “Somatic therapy treatment effects with tsunami survivors.” Traumatology 14, no. 3 (2008): 103-109.
7. Horowitz, Mardi, Nancy Wilner, and William Alvarez. “Impact of Event Scale: A measure of subjective stress.” Psychosomatic medicine 41, no. 3 (1979): 209-218.
8. https://www.dharmaocean.org/meditation/somatic-meditation/ – accessed 16/10/2019

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