Beyond Talk Therapy: Healing Trauma With Somatic Exercises - Revivalist (2024)

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Talk therapy has its place in trauma healing — from gaining newfound insight into experiences, journeys and difficult things you’ve held onto. However, somatic exercises are your next best approach when burdensome feelings interweave with physical wounds.

You may have heard of the “trauma imprint” — when emotional distress becomes trapped in our bodies and turns into physical discomfort, chronic pain and continuous tension. While this approach may not be your sole path toward healing, it complements traditional therapeutic methods.

Learning to release trauma’s grip on your body is life-changing, especially if you’ve held onto your emotional and physical pain for some time. Here’s everything you need to know about trauma’s relationship with your somatic nervous system and what exercises can aid its recovery.

How Does Trauma Relate to the Somatic Nervous System?

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 15%–35% of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience chronic pain. Often, the person may not realize their pain comes from having undergone the traumatic event.

Of course, it makes sense, as the somatic nervous system connects your nervous system to the muscles and skin. When well aligned, the somatic nervous system allows you control over your body’s reflexes and voluntary movements. It also heightens your sense of touch, sound, smell and taste.

Typically, the somatic nervous system indicates “referred pain” — when you feel discomfort in a specific area, but it’s coming from somewhere else within your body. This is why you might have an ache in your arm or back during a heart attack.

Traumatic experiences send your body on edge — a constant state of preparedness for the worst to happen. You may feel tired, depressed, anxious, agitated and disassociated from the world around you. Physically, it may cause persistent physical tension, sleep disturbances and headaches.

Healing Yourself Through Somatic Exercises

Somatic exercises are a unique approach to trauma recovery, bridging the mind-body connection for whole-body healing. These strategies entail mindfulness and awareness activities, such as body scans, breathwork, guided meditation and gentle movements.

Ultimately, these techniques help you release trauma and tension from the muscle memory and eliminate any emotional blockages. The benefits of somatic exercises for trauma healing are as follows:

  • Encourages a connection between your thoughts, physical sensations and emotions
  • Helps you gain awareness of your body and emotional states, including muscular aches, breathing patterns and posture
  • Promotes a loving and kind relationship with your body without judgment
  • Includes slow, easy movements and stillness for maximum relaxation
  • Allows you to understand your triggers and stress response better
  • Teaches you ways to increase resilience and work through stressful situations as they arise

Somatic exercises are powerful techniques but shouldn’t be a substitute for traditional talk therapy. If you are interested in exploring this approach to trauma recovery, finding a qualified somatic practitioner to guide you through the different exercises is equally essential.

However you decide to approach trauma healing through somatic experiences, be sure to listen to your body. You don’t want to over-exert yourself physically or emotionally, worsening your symptoms.

5 Somatic Exercises for Trauma Recovery

Trauma stems from various situations, including PTSD, complicated grief, anxiety and depression, bad relationships, childhood abuse, poor self-esteem and more. Fortunately, addressing your problems head-on through somatic exercises can improve your happiness and well-being. Here are five somatic exercises you might try with a practitioner to overcome whatever burdens you hold onto.

1. Body Scans

Body scans are an easy somatic exercise for checking in with yourself and exploring different sensations. You’ll want to lay on your back comfortably, closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths.

Bring awareness to different body parts, starting with your toes and moving up your joints — ankles, knees, pelvis, belly and so forth — until you reach the top of your head. Then, bring your awareness back down your body.

Take notice of the points of tension or discomfort, including any tightness or pressure. You don’t have to do anything except acknowledge the sensations and move on.

2. Breathwork

Deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial for emotional regulation, helping to calm an overstimulated and overwhelmed mind and body. You can enhance awareness of your breath by placing one hand on your belly and your chest — notice how your belly expands and contracts while you breathe quietly.

Some people may use aromatherapy while doing this practice. According to one study, 40% of participants had less anxiety after inhaling lavender scents during deep breathwork.

3. Gentle Rocking

Gentle rocking is one of the most effective somatic exercises for relieving tense muscles and an overactive nervous system. Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor.

Allow your body to rock from side to side in smooth, natural movements. If you can, try making circular movements, too. This gentle swaying is especially helpful for grounding yourself during trauma release.

4. Mindful Walking

The next time you go for a walk, concentrate on sensations and awareness of your surroundings. For instance, is the sun beaming down on you, or do you feel a light breeze tickle your skin? Likewise, you might feel the pounding of your feet hitting the pavement with each step.

Mindful walking is excellent for achieving relaxation and restfulness. However, you will reap the rewards of this somatic exercise when you’re deliberate in your movement and focus.

5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is more intense than it sounds. Like a body scan, you’ll need to lie on your back and move your awareness up and down your body. However, whereas body scans simply have you recognize discomfort, progressive muscle relaxation entails tensing up the different muscle groups for a few seconds and releasing.

If your body has undergone chronic or acute pain, you should ease into this exercise. You are also safest doing this technique with a professional to guide you.

Heal Trauma Holistically With Somatic Exercises

Somatic exercises are a powerful tool in trauma recovery — most often getting overlooked as part of one’s therapeutic approach. If you’ve been battling trauma and physical pain for a while, it may be time to try a new strategy toward healing. Take back control over your somatic nervous system for an emotionally and physically pain-free life.

Beyond Talk Therapy: Healing Trauma With Somatic Exercises - Revivalist (2024)
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