Somatic therapy focuses on the effects of negative emotions, particularly trauma, on the body. Somatic experiencing (SE) is a specific type of somatic therapy.

SE cultivates bodily awareness as part of the therapeutic process. It is a relatively new type of therapy and does not have the large body of research behind it that some other types of therapy do.

However, a small group of studies have found that it may offer relief. Some research suggests it may ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Read on to learn more about somatic experiencing therapy, including what it involves, whether it works, SE exercises, and how it compares to other trauma therapies.

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SE is a type of somatic, or body-focused, therapy that aims to treat trauma and related diagnoses, such as PTSD.

Trauma is an event, or series of events, that is extremely distressing or threatening and has an impact on a person’s mental health.

The academic and consultant, Peter Levine, developed SE in the 1970s. He based the approach on the idea that, because traumatic experiences can cause physical symptoms, working with the body can help heal it.

Instead of focusing on emotions or thoughts, SE encourages people to focus on physical sensations, such as bodily tension, a racing heart, or stomach pain. In doing so, it encourages people to observe the physiological effects of trauma and steadily gain control over them.

This is known as a “bottom-up” approach to trauma. In this framework, trauma is primarily a physical experience that affects emotions, rather than an emotional experience that affects physiology.

Currently, SE is still an alternative therapy. A variety of clinicians may offer it, not just psychotherapists. This may change as its evidence base grows.

Scientific evidence has not conclusively proven that SE works. However, preliminary research shows that it may have promise.

A 2021 scoping review found that SE may reduce physical symptoms in both traumatized and non-traumatized individuals. It may also reduce other trauma symptoms.

Both practitioners and participants reported that touch was a key aspect of the therapy, and potentially a benefit.

A 2017 randomized controlled trial — the first the review’s authors were aware of — followed 63 participants with PTSD. Of the 63 participants, 30 remained on a waitlist while 33 participated in SE.

There were no significant differences between the two groups at the beginning of the study. After SE, though, PTSD symptoms and depression decreased significantly in the SE group.

Taken together, these studies suggest that SE could be an effective treatment. However, there is not yet enough data to advocate for its use as a first-line treatment.

SE is a facilitated therapy, which means that a person does it along with a therapist or other practitioner.

The treatment begins by helping a person cultivate awareness of their physical sensations, based on the belief that these sensations affect emotions.

From there, a practitioner helps a person learn to more effectively manage these sensations. Some techniques they might use for this include:

  • grounding exercises, to help a person become more focused on the present moment
  • touch or massage
  • education on the connection between physical sensations and emotions
  • movement, to help a person process their trauma and cope with physical sensations

A person can do some of these exercises alone, but they cannot perform SE on themselves.

The main criticism of somatic experiencing is that the evidence base supporting it is currently inadequate. For this reason, it is not yet a viable substitute for more well-researched treatments.

SE also incorporates ideas, such as polyvagal theory, that researchers have not proven.

Others have voiced concerns about the use of touch. This could be triggering to some trauma survivors, and in the wrong hands, it could be exploitative or interfere with the therapeutic relationship between a client and therapist.

Another issue is that unlicensed practitioners can offer SE. A person does not need to be a psychotherapist to offer this treatment, and this may mean they do not have the same knowledge or training.

In contrast to SE, traditional psychotherapy is a “top-down” approach to mental health that focuses on thoughts, feelings, and experiences, rather than physical sensations.

There are many types of psychotherapy, and several have strong evidence showing they help with PTSD. The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends:

  • trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
  • cognitive processing therapy
  • prolonged exposure therapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) takes a different approach to talk therapy. It involves using bilateral stimulation, such as moving the eyes left to right or touching the left and right sides of the body.

A therapist then guides a person through distressing memories, helping them integrate the event into their other memories and reducing their intensity.

It is unclear how EMDR works, but it also has strong evidence behind it. It also shares some things in common with SE, as EMDR also employs visual or touch stimuli.

A key difference between EMDR and SE is that EMDR still addresses a person’s mind and thoughts rather than only working with the body.

Research on body-based trauma therapies of all kinds is still in its early stages. Some other forms of this type of therapy include:

  • sensorimotor therapy, which blends traditional therapy with bodily awareness
  • neurosomatic therapy, which focuses on imbalances in the skeleton and soft tissues
  • the Hakomi method, which focuses on cultivating mindfulness

A person should seek help from a doctor or mental health professional if they have:

  • mental or physical symptoms affecting their well-being
  • flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts
  • symptoms that are interfering with work or relationships

They will be able to offer advice and, potentially, a diagnosis.

If a person is considering trying SE, they should ideally look for a practitioner with experience working as a psychotherapist. Other things to look for include:

  • positive, unbiased reviews
  • accreditation from a professional medical association
  • transparency about their methods and approach

If a person is undergoing SE and they are not sure it is helping, or they think it could be making things worse, they should speak with another mental health professional for a second opinion.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

Somatic experiencing is a type of body-based trauma therapy that aims to address the physical symptoms of trauma. Some early evidence suggests it may have potential as a PTSD treatment, but there is not enough evidence to firmly support its use.

Additionally, some experts have voiced concerns about SE’s use of touch, incorporation of unproven theories, and the fact that a person does not have to be a psychologist or psychotherapist to become an SE practitioner.

People considering this therapy should speak with a mental health professional to weigh SE’s potential benefits against other treatment options.