Somatic Therapies and EMDR

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 event.
Somatic experiencing and EMDR sessions can be highly emotional, so it’s 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.

How Does EMDR Work?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, PhD, after she noticed that when she would have destructive thoughts, her eyes would react by shifting back and forth diagonally in a pattern, 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, individuals are asked to revisit a traumatic event. As they let the memory return, their therapist moves an object, or a hand, rapidly back and forth, asking the individual to follow it with their eyes. The therapist may also perform a repetitive tapping motion on the client’s 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 that an individual participates in depends on their trauma and how they process it.

Though still not fully understood, it’s widely believed that dreaming reduces psychosis. According to Dr. Shapiro, the rapid eye movement experienced during dreams may be similar to the eye movements in EMDR. During EMDR, therapists help their patients process their traumas so that they can begin the process of recovery.

How Does Somatic Experiencing Work?

Somatic experiencing was developed almost a decade later by Peter Levine, Ph.D., who posited that the damaging cyclical thoughts resulting from a life trauma are due to the disrupted automatic nervous system. 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, the therapist asks their client to describe and, in effect, re-experience the sensations of their traumatic experience. The idea is to help the individual release lingering physical stress, little by little, that the body may still be harboring after the trauma. Then, the therapist will work with the client to help them process those sensations so they can more effectively move past their trauma.

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What Is the Evidence Behind Somatic Therapies?

EMDR and somatic experiencing are used mainly in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma. However, they also play a positive role in helping people recover from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Somatic therapies are designed for anyone who needs to free themselves from destructive thoughts 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. In addition, 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.

Additionally, studies on somatic experiencing show that, like EMDR, it’s effective intervention. In a 2009 study of social workers experiencing PTSD in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the group of workers who had undergone somatic experiencing as part of their treatment showed significant improvement in resiliency and coping skills. They also experienced a decrease in their anxiety and depression symptoms.

Somatic Therapies at Clearview Treatment Programs

At Clearview, our nurturing and trained therapists use EMDR and somatic experiencing, when appropriate, as a part of customized treatment plans. When used at our Dual Diagnosis Treatment Center, Women’s Treatment Center, and Outpatient Treatment Center, these therapies have been shown to speed up the recovery process compared to more traditional therapies alone.