Somatic Interventions in EMDR Therapy

Somatic Therapy engages body awareness as an intervention in psychotherapy and addresses the connections between the brain, the mind, and behavior. EMDR Therapists with training in somatic interventions have advanced tools to work with the dysregulation of the nervous system associated with post traumatic stress. Modern day somatic psychotherapies such as Somatic Experiencing or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy are most recognized today; however, the field of somatic psychology encompasses a broad range of modalities that have evolved over time. Knowing the rich history of somatic psychology contextualizes the types of interventions body-centered psychotherapists use today.

Bessel Van der Kolk, premier trauma treatment researcher endorsed, both Somatic Psychology and EMDR Therapy as the best approaches for the treatment of PTSD. This post introduces several key principles from somatic psychology as applied to EMDR Therapy.

Early Roots

Somatic psychotherapy originated in the 1930’s and 1940’s with Wilhelm Reich; a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Reich perceived that our life force energy flowed through the body as expressions of primal needs and emotions. He identified “holding patterns” as areas of emotional tension in the body commonly held in the pelvis, abdomen, diaphragm, chest, neck, jaw, and forehead. These habitual tension patterns develop into physical symptoms such as headaches, grinding of teeth, or sluggish digestion.

Reich identified that unmet needs throughout early development were the root holding patterns. His approach to releasing the bound energy ranged from body included cathartic screaming, kicking, and pushing to release the emotions and physical tension from the body.

In the 1950’s Alexander Lowen worked closely with Reich and branched off to develop Bioenergetics to resolve what he called the “bodymind conflict.” A key component of treatment treatment involved “body-reading” where clinicians observed and interpret clients’ physical, breathing, and muscular tension patterns. These patterns, called “character strategies,” were associated with core beliefs learned in early childhood. Classically speaking, Bioenergetics would bring clients into “stress postures” that place the body in long holds and sometimes uncomfortable holds to evoke vulnerable emotions and physical shaking. The ultimate goal of the work is to release the physical and emotional tension so that we feel grounded; reconnected to ourselves and the world.


Somatic Psychology Today

Somatic Psychology has evolved over time from the cathartic approaches of Reich and Lowen. These early therapeutic modalities used intense and even invasive approaches such as deep pressure massage, primal screams, and stressful positions held over time. While these therapies create rapid change they risk re-traumatizing the client.  As a result, modern day somatic approaches incorporate mindfulness to facilitate somatic release in a safe, contained fashion. Today’s somatic interventions emphasize:

  • Staying Descriptive: Whereas early somatic therapists made interpretations based upon tension or posture patterns; modern day somatic therapists become curious about the somatic experience of the client. You can try this on your own by noticing your sensations. Try using descriptive words such as hot, cold, tingly, sharp, or dull.
  • Deepening Awareness: Once we have become aware of sensations or a tension pattern we deepen the experience by gently amplifying the sensations. For example, we can focus our breath into the sensation, make a sound, or add movements. The key is to deepen at a pace that does not create overwhelm and honors your timing.
  • Boundary Development: When we allow our somatic awareness to guide the pacing of therapy we must work in the here and now. Focusing on the present moment empowers you to stay responsive to changing needs and helps you develop clear boundaries. A boundary allows you to recognize and speak your “yes” and your “no” in a way that helps you feel protected and strong.
  • Self-Regulation: Modern somatic therapies integrate research from neuroscience about how we respond to stress and trauma. Such research emphasizes the importance of mindfully staying connected to the body in the midst of big emotions or sensations. When you develop awareness of body sensations you are better able to regulate (respond effectively) to emotional intensity. Ultimately this helps you stay connected and supported amidst the intensity of healing trauma.


Somatic Interventions in EMDR Therapy

According to Trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, Somatic Therapy and EMDR Therapy are considered the best approaches for the treatment of trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is a comprehensive approach to therapy that integrates elements of psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, interpersonal, experiential, and body-centered therapies to maximize treatment effects. EMDR psychotherapy uses a structured protocol for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and related past experiences that trigger emotions, beliefs, sensations.

Somatic Interventions such as tracking sensations, deepening awareness, boundary awareness, and self-regulation compliment and, in my opinion, increase the efficacy of EMDR Therapy. Collectively these therapeutic modalities offer a profound healing tool for anyone facing the pain of PTSD.


Learn more about “EMDR Therapy Tools with Somatic Interventions”


About Guest Blogger Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, LP - EMDR Therapist - Boulder, Colorado 80303

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist offering a psychotherapy, consultation, and supervision. Dr. Schwartz has been licensed and in private practice since 2002. She trained in EMDR Therapy in 2001 and is an EMDRIA Certified Consultant. She has been the CE Program Advisor, and a trainer with the Maiberger Institute since 2008. She presented at the EMDRIA Conference on the subject of Cultural Diversity and EMDR Therapy. Dr. Schwartz offers additional trainings and presentations on topics of Resilience Strategies for Grief and Loss, Play Therapy and EMDR Therapy for Children, and Treating Complex Trauma with EMDR Therapy. Dr. Schwartz is a certified Kripalu yoga instructor since 1996. She serves on the training committee for the Boulder Institute of Psychotherapy and Research/InReach supervising and training post doctoral and internship students. Additionally Dr. Schwartz serves on the board for the Grief Support Network, a community nonprofit profiting bereavement services.


Arielle Schwartz’s Website


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