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  • Writer's pictureFiona Oppenheimer

Embodied Healing: Trauma-Informed Therapy through Somatic Approaches - Part One

The body comes to therapy, too.

Mind-body practices allow healing to occur in real time, which is something that traditional talk therapy doesn’t necessarily offer. Trauma can leave lasting imprints on the body and mind, affecting an individual's well-being on multiple levels.

Embodied healing is about cultivating a sense of safety and security in your mind and body.

In the field of psychotherapy, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of incorporating the body into the healing process. Trauma-Informed Therapy, particularly when rooted in the principles of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, offers a profound somatic approach to address and alleviate the impact of trauma. This model acknowledges that the body's intelligence is a largely untapped resource in psychotherapy, emphasizing the interconnectedness of sensations, emotions, behaviour, gesture, movement, and mindful awareness.

The Wisdom of the Body and the Language of the Body

Trauma-Informed Therapy recognizes the inherent wisdom of the body.

Our body knows how to take in air and send it all around our body, repair unjuries, germs are fought off and keep in a constant state of balance. A miracle is happening in the body each moment we're alive, millions of cells changing to maintain homeostasis that requires no conscious attention.

Through gaining insight into the innate wisdom of the body helps clients understand why they might feel disconnected from their body, or experience sensations as scary, meaningless or confusing. The therapist helps them to make sense of these feelings and gain a different view point.

By paying attention to implicit bodily sensations, gestures, facial expressions and movements, therapists can gain valuable insights into the client's internal world. The language of the body becomes a crucial aspect of communication, often revealing aspects of the client's experience that may be challenging to express verbally.

With somatic tools and techniques

that guide you to profound awareness of your inner Self,

you’ll develop a deeper trust in your ability

to work with your own nervous system responses,

and honour your ‘felt’ experiences as you move toward

feeling more calm, more often.

Paying Attention and the Orienting Response

The therapeutic process begins with paying attention. Clients are encouraged to become aware of their bodily sensations, acknowledging the present moment without judgement. The orienting response, a natural instinct to scan the environment for safety, is harnessed to cultivate mindfulness of the present moment. This awareness forms the foundation for the therapeutic journey.

Our nervous systems are directly tied to our emotions, stress, and breathing. The autonomic nervous system is composed of the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” activation, and parasympathetic “rest and digest” calming sensations.

When faced with real or perceived fears or threats to safety and security, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) automatically reacts with a trauma/stress response (“fight-or-flight”). 

This activated SNS response prepares you for survival from threat through a physiological response of increased stress hormones. These hormones and increased heart rate stimulate (and sometimes overwhelm) your body to take action, but if these charged emotioned aren't released through therapeutic processing by somatic resourcing, they can leave you feeling bombarded with a cycle of anxiety, panic, or dread.

Research shows that trauma gets trapped as stored energy in the physical body, and the fight-or-flight response becomes habitually over-active. Although your body is attempting to protect itself, it can feel like it is turning against you through unpleasant experiences of hyper-vigilance, irritability, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and/or disassociation. Over time, the over-activated SNS can lead to poor health conditions such as IBS, chronic fatigue, insomnia, etc., and potentially be the catalyst for increased destructive behaviours such as substance use or self-inflicted harm.

But, there is good news! Once your mind and body believe you are safe, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) brings you back to feeling more relaxed. When the PNS is engaged, your heart rate decreases, your breathing slows, and your anxiety diminishes.

At any given moment we are inundated by many different stimuli. Which stimuli we orient towards and which we ignore are, in part, shaped by our trauma and attachment histories.

Mindfulness, Directed Mindfulness, and Neuroplasticity

Mindfulness plays a central role in Trauma-Informed Therapy, fostering present-moment awareness. Directed mindfulness differs from other mindfulness practices. In sensorimotor psychotherapy aproach involves clients learning to consciously focus on the present moment internal experience of their body sensations, movements, perceptions, emotions, and cognitions, rather than the past or future.

By selecting particular elements of present-moment experience on which to focus on promotes self-regulation. Learning new responses and the practice of new actions and thoughts can change our brains and transform outdated or painful patterns. Neuroplasticity, the brain's capacity to reorganize itself, is engaged through mindfulness practices, allowing for the rewiring of neural pathways and the formation of new, adaptive patterns.

The Triune Brain and Information Processing

The model integrates insights from the triune brain model, which divides the brain into three evolutionary layers. Understanding how the brain processes information aids therapists in tailoring interventions that resonate with each client's unique needs. This approach considers the role of the neocortex, limbic system and reptilian brain, in regulating the  cognitive, emotional and sensorimotor or the body's processing, respectively. Learning about these three brains can help clients understand why they think, feel and act the way they do and his supports integration among these three levels of information processing.

Exploring Body Sensation, Neuroception, and the Window of Tolerance

Clients are guided to explore body sensations, reconnecting with themselves on a visceral level, learning to describe their sensations and emotions. Neuroception, the subconscious perception of safety or threat, and how faulty neuroception develops, and how reminders of past threat can cause the perception of danger even when the environment is safe.

The therapist instructs the client to explore and expand the client's window of tolerance, the zone of self-regulation, in which information can be processed and integrated. This therapeutic process helps individuals navigate their emotional landscapes without becoming overwhelmed, fostering resilience.

Three Phases of Therapy

Trauma-Informed Therapy typically unfolds in three phases:

  1. First Phase – Developing Resources:

  • Identifying and cultivating internal and external resources.

  • Establishing a foundation for stability and self-regulation.

  1. Second Phase – Integrating the Past:

  • Exploring and processing traumatic memories, safely.

  • Facilitating the integration of fragmented aspects of the self.

  1. Third Phase – Attachment and Beyond, Moving Forward:

  • Focusing on relational aspects and attachment patterns.

  • Supporting the client in envisioning and creating a positive future.

Appreciating Your Strengths and Inventory of Resources

Clients are encouraged to appreciate their strengths and build on existing resources. The therapist collaborates with the client to create a comprehensive inventory of internal and external supports, empowering them to face challenges with resilience. Now the client is ready to define their resources, together they reframe many symptoms, difficulties, and coping strategies as survival responses and the therapist helps the client acknowledge and embody their new creative resources. This brings about a powerful sense of empowerment because in doing so can increase self-esteem, regulate arousal, too much energy or too little energy, and challenge perceptions of inadequacy.

Somatic Resources, Grounding Techniques, and Core Alignment

Therapists utilize somatic resources, such as breathwork and body-centered practices, to ground clients in the present moment. Breathing patterns can either exacerbate stress and disregulation or reduce stress and regulation. Clients become aware of breathing habits, explore how different breathing habits affect arousal and well-being. Using visualisation can benefit greatly in grounding clients, also focusing on sensations for instance in the feet, pressing into the floor can evoke a sense of groundedness. Core alignment involves working with posture and bodily awareness, aligning the physical and emotional self to promote a sense of stability. Helping with the way the client feels about themselves, others and the world around them.

Developing Missing Resources

Trauma-Informed Therapy recognizes that trauma can disrupt the development of essential resources. The therapeutic process aims to identify and fill these gaps, fostering the client's capacity for self-regulation, emotional expression, and relational connection.

Unlocking the Body's Untapped Resources

Trauma-Informed Therapy, grounded in the principles of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, offers a transformative approach to healing by honouring the body's intelligence. By embracing the wisdom of the body, paying attention to its language, and incorporating mindfulness practices, individuals can embark on a journey of self-discovery and resilience. This somatic model of therapy holds the potential to unlock the body's untapped resources, fostering holistic healing and growth in those recovering from trauma.

There is a lot being spoken beneath the words.

If you would benefit from trauma-informed psychotherapy please get in touch.

Warmest wishes,

Fiona Oppenheimer

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