Somatic therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing are relatively recent innovations in the development of alternatives to more traditional therapy for trauma.
Both utilize biological processes – namely, functions of the brain – to stop the cycle of intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares so commonly experienced in the wake of a traumatic life experience.
Somatic Experiencing and EMDR sessions can become highly emotional, so it is important to work with a therapist you trust and who is trained and certified in these somatic therapies. You and your therapist must be present and committed to the necessary work and, like any other recovery plan, somatic therapies offer a path to healing, not an on and off button.
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How Does EMDR Work?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing was developed in the late 80s by Francine Shapiro, PhD, after she noticed that when she would have destructive thoughts, her eyes would react in a certain pattern. She noticed that her eyes shifted back and forth diagonally, until the negative thought dispersed. She began working with patients to see if she could recreate the same effect on them and the results were favorable.
In an EMDR session, you can expect to be asked to revisit a traumatic event. As you let the memory return, your therapist will move an object, or a hand, rapidly back and forth, asking you to follow it with your eyes. Your therapist may also perform a repetitive tapping motion on your knee or shoulder, which can evoke the same experience. Many patients report experiencing relief from nagging thoughts surrounding their trauma after even just one session, though the number of sessions you will participate in depend on your particular trauma and how you process it.
Though still not fully understood, it is widely believed that dreaming reduces psychosis. The rapid eye movement experienced during dreams, believes Shapiro, may be related to how the eye movements in EMDR have an effect. During EMDR, your therapist will help you to process your trauma so that you can begin the process of recovery.
How Does Somatic Experiencing Work?
Somatic Experiencing was developed almost a decade later by Peter Levine, PhD, who posited that the damaging cyclical thoughts resulting from a life trauma are due to the automatic nervous system being disrupted. In other words, as mammals, humans have an inherent capacity to regulate stress through the automatic nervous system, until that system is interrupted by an out of the ordinary traumatizing event.
In a Somatic Experiencing session, you might expect to sit face to face with your therapist, who will then ask you to describe and, in effect, re-experience the sensations of the traumatic experience. The idea is to release lingering physical stress, little by little, that your body may still be harboring after the experience. Your therapist will work with you to process those sensations so that you can more effectively move past your trauma.
What Is the Evidence Behind Somatic Therapies?
Somatic therapies such as EMDR and Somatic Experiencing are used mainly in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and trauma, but they also play a positive role in recovery from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Generally speaking, somatic therapies are designed for anyone who needs to free themselves from destructive thoughts in order to live a more meaningful life.
While regarded as somewhat of a mysterious novelty cure when it first arrived on the mental health scene, EMDR has since been researched at length and is now recommended by the American Psychiatric Association in their treatment guidelines. Nearly two dozen randomized trials over the past three decades have shown that the inclusion of EMDR in a recovery plan heightens the chance for its success.
Studies on Somatic Experiencing show that, like EMDR, it is an effective intervention. In a 2009 study of social workers experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the group of workers who had undergone Somatic Experiencing as part of their treatment showed much greater improvement in resiliency and coping skills. They also experienced a decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Somatic Therapies at Clearview Treatment Programs
EMDR and Somatic Experiencing are used at Clearview Treatment Programs when needed as part of your customized treatment plan. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD or trauma, or another disorder, and would benefit from treatment using a somatic therapy, you will be paired with a nurturing therapist who is trained in somatic therapies. When used during residential, day, or outpatient treatment, these therapies have been shown to speed up the recovery process in comparison to more traditional therapies alone.