Somatic Therapy. A chapter from an upcoming book by Giten Tonkov.

Jul 06, 2018
Giten Tonkov

If breathwork is our direct access to the sympathetic nervous system, then somatic work is our primary exit path for trauma to release from tissues. Recalling that the word “somatic” means “of the body,” it’s clear that any therapeutic trauma release focusing on tissues requires a strong protocol for safe, effective movement. There are many body-based practices, including somatic yoga, somatic psychology, somatic dance therapy, and conscious somatic movement—in which movement is focused on the internal experience and not the external appearance or result of the movement. Our focus is on somatic trauma release, which is a form of somatic therapy.

It’s easy to distinguish somatic therapy from two of the most common and popular trauma treatments in mental health—talk therapy and medication. While useful, according to somatic pioneer Bessel van der Kolk, both of these approaches are limited because they don’t bring the person out of trauma and back into reality. In the case of drug therapy, brain chemistry might rebalance—and a person can even receive comfort—but the root of the problem is not touched.[1]

In broad terms, body-centered therapies can focus on stress, anxiety, depression, and grief, as well as related issues, including addiction and sexual function. Mind-body exercises are often employed to help release tension that negatively impacts both physical and emotional wellbeing—thus creating a bridge between somatic therapy and elements of psychotherapy. In addition, some effective trauma therapies primarily target the brain, such as neurofeedback and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Others primarily target the body, such as singing, dance, role-play, and massage. Recent research conducted by van der Kolk, along with that of other researchers, has shown that even more integrative practices, especially yoga, are helpful for people suffering with PTSD. Yoga incorporates conscious breathing, mindfulness, and movement, resulting in emotional regulation.[2] In fact, yoga has documented affects in restoring pre-trauma physiology.[3]

Peter Levine, who holds doctorate degrees in both medical biophysics and psychology, has studied stress and trauma for more than thirty years. He has been a stress consultant for NASA, a member of the Institute of World Affairs Task Force with Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and served on the American Psychological Association’s initiative for response to large-scale disaster and ethno-political warfare. He is the founder of the Somatic Experiencing® (SE) Trauma Institute. SE has been used successfully in studies that reduced symptoms of PTSD—most recently, in an Israeli study conducted during active political unrest and terrorist attacks.[4]

SE’s foundation relies on the breather’s becoming aware of inner physical sensations, such as tightness, tingling, numbness, and warmth, which act as primary guides to traumatic memory. By becoming aware of these sensations—and then developing an even more intimate interaction with sensory messages throughout the body, called the “felt sense”—a practitioner gains the first handhold toward releasing the trauma itself. Bodily sensations are like beacons, pointing to the traumatic activation that was left behind in the tissues after a traumatic experience. We know that the amygdala can’t tell if the experience is happening now or ten years ago, so the feelings we experience might be a trauma-produced “echo.” Just the process of accessing a memory or its related symptoms causes fight-or-flight activation to begin. However, in a therapeutic setting, the experience is not allowed to escalate as it might have in the original experience.

SE’s basic method of releasing the activation is to very slowly and gradually come into awareness of various aspects of the traumatic experience. If the traumatic experience itself is not recalled, then attention is directed to the sensations that are happening “today.” At each gradual phase of response, the breather receives support to (1.) slow down the fight-or-flight “checklist,” and (2.) allow each phase of activation to fully complete, to fully express itself so as to exhaust the charge.
SE has provided an excellent foundation in the field, and has proven to be very successful. In addition to working well with individual sufferers, Levine’s scientific approach also has defined terms for other practitioners. He named or applied several concepts or functions that are used in SE, including the following, many of which will be used in this text.

  • The “felt sense,” which was coined by psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin, and described above. It will be discussed in more   detail later in the text.
  • “Discharge,” the process of dissipating the tension held in the tissues.
  • “Titration,” referring to releasing the tension in small “doses,” so as not to overstimulate a person.
  • “Resources,” which are supports—feelings, sensations, areas of the body, memories, people, physical objects, or thoughts—that calm, enhance feelings of safety, and reduce arousal.
  • “Pendulation,” in which one utilizes the body’s natural rhythm of moving between the contraction of tension and the expansion of relaxation. In somatic trauma release, breathers can consciously shift attention from areas of “contracting” tension/trauma to their “relaxing” resources.


Finally, one of the leaders in “pure” somatic trauma release is David Berceli, PhD. A board-certified psychoneurologist, he created Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), a protocol intentionally structured to be easily accessible to anyone who wants to easily stimulate stress-relieving tremors. The protocol is comprised of six exercises that initiate mild tremors in the legs; once the tremors begin, the person reclines, allowing the tremors to spread naturally through the body. “The (tremors) take any pattern that you may still have in your body—that could be from stress or anxiety or trauma—and they begin to relax that tension pattern,” Berceli says. In this modality, the person simply observes his or her body as the tremor moves through different muscle groups.[5]

Berceli’s work has shown improvements in sleep, stress and anxiety, muscle tension and back pain, worry during chronic illness, anger and over-reactivity, relationships, resiliency, and optimism.[6]However, Berceli has taken these healing impacts a step further. With Trauma Recovery Services, he founded a company that provides workshops and recovery programs for international organizations around the world. For the last two decades, he has lived and worked in Israel/Palestine, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon, where he integrates his awareness of religion and ethnic customs, enabling people to move beyond personal trauma. His purpose in taking his program to areas around the world where conflict and trauma are prevalent is to facilitate reconciliation. In his model, then, trauma release can be individual, cultural, and societal.

BBTRS builds upon the work of these somatic researchers and practitioners, and integrates the body’s natural movements to release tension from the tissues. Although the physical aspects of encouraging the body to shake and undulate might be unusual in a person’s usual day-to-day life, the process truly has no equal.

[1]van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score.
[2]Maggie Price, MA, et al, “Effectiveness of an Extended Yoga Treatment for Women with Chronic Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 23, Number 4, 2017, pp. 300-309.
[3]van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score.
[4]Brom, Danny, et al, “Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study,” Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2017, 0, 1-9.
[5]David Berceli, “TRE Explanation,” YouTube, published Nov. 8, 2009,
[6]Frank Griffiths, “TRE® Tension, Stress, Trauma Release: A Revolutionary Way to Feel Better,” YouTube, copyright ©2012 – The Berceli Foundation, published August 3, 2015,

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