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Can Somatic Therapy Exercises Prevent Anxiety Attacks?

More than 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder and the struggles of living day to day with the physical and mental toll it takes on the mind and body can be overwhelming and physically draining. Anxiety attacks are one of the more extreme symptoms of anxiety and happen when a person becomes physically and mentally overwhelmed to the point of panic. 

Anxiety attacks and anxiety, in general, can be exhausting and debilitating. Many people who suffer from severe anxiety attacks find it nearly impossible to think, function, and even breathe from the intensity of the attacks.

Teaching people suffering from mental health problems how to quickly recover from anxiety attacks or preventing them entirely is important to being able to manage their emotions and make progress in their mental wellbeing. Psychologists have been working hard to develop techniques to help patients get therapy to connect their physical and mental symptoms to address their mental struggles. 

From this research, many therapists and mental health professionals have begun integrating a technique known as Somatic Therapy to better treat their patients and help them learn to cope with the symptoms of their anxiety.   

What is Somatic Therapy?

Developed by trauma therapist Dr. Peter A. Levine, Somatic Therapy is an alternative form of therapy that blends talk therapy with physical therapy that helps the patient address the physical symptoms of anxiety and other mental health problems. Somatic Therapy helps the patient recognize, acknowledge, and address their body’s physical reaction to what is going on in their head. 

In researching and developing his techniques Dr. Levine took note of the link between his patients’ mental state to their physical symptoms. Often when someone is having an anxiety attack they lose control of their bodies, feel like they can’t breathe, and have a hard time bringing themselves back down to earth.

To combat the overwhelming physical effects of an anxiety attack Dr. Levine used Somatic Therapy techniques to help patients be more aware of their bodies and take back control. These techniques included everything from breathing exercises to massages to help patients spot the signs of an attack, keep themselves grounded, and quickly recover or prevent anxiety attacks. 

How does it work?

Somatic Therapy works by helping patients struggling with anxiety disorders and anxiety attacks identify mental and physical symptoms, acknowledge, address, and prevent them in the future. This therapy technique helps target specific symptoms that make it difficult or impossible for patients to address and handle their anxiety in a healthy manner and often lead to the attack escalating. 

One of the most obvious signs of an anxiety attack is rapid breathing and/or difficulty breathing. People get so worked up during the attack that catching their breath becomes very difficult which causes more stress and discomfort. Breathing exercises made to remind patients to continue to breathe normally and calmly help manage this and help make the event less stressful. 

During an anxiety attack, the body tends to tense up with stress. It can be very frightening and painful if the attack is intense enough. Using Somatic Therapy patients can learn to identify this symptom and keep their muscles relaxed. Learning to keep the body relaxed helps trick the mind into calming down as well, lessening the severity of the anxiety attack. 

Learning these exercises relaxes the body and keeps the physical stress as low as possible  and helps manage the mental toll anxiety takes on the mind. 

How is it used?

Somatic Therapy is used to manage the physical and mental effects of a variety of mental problems such as Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, and other debilitating mental illnesses. It is used to teach patients how to take back control of their minds and bodies when things seem to be out of their control. 

When utilizing Somatic Therapy techniques with patients, therapists discuss and walk them through some core exercises and concepts to help them regain control over their mind and matter, even during a severe anxiety attack. 

Grounding refers to an individual’s ability to remain aware of themselves and stay present at the moment. Anxiety attacks can leave you feeling overwhelmed and dissociating from the present, keeping them from properly acknowledging and addressing their stress. Taking steps to remain aware of the body and stay present in the here and now helps you stay grounded and take back control of your mind and body. 

Boundaries are another core concept of Somatic Therapy as it helps a person remain in control of their situation and helps them identify and remove stressors in their environment. Having solid boundaries with situations, objects, or people helps protect yourself from increasing stress and maintains a calm environment to allow yourself to decompress. 

Movement, as it pertains to Somatic Therapy, is taking note of and being aware of your physical body. Maintaining a healthy and strong posture, normal and calm breathing, and some relaxing stretches allow you to listen to what your body is telling you even when you are experiencing mental stress. Allowing your body to relax itself and relieve tension helps alleviate stress and anxiety during and after the attack. 

Self-regulation is important to take back control of the mind and body. Keeping track of your physical and emotional senses is important to recognizing the symptoms of an anxiety attack before it happens, during, and how to manage after it passes. 

Sequencing is important to help you recover from the attack once it passes. Maintaining calm and allowing yourself to fully relax helps you alleviate the stress so you avoid a second round. 

Titration is a difficult but necessary process for addressing and healing from past trauma. Bringing up pain from the past and allowing yourself to feel sadness, anger, and stress in a healthy and safe environment is crucial to understanding what happened to you and how you can grow past it. 

All of these techniques are part of Somatic Therapy and allow patients to manage and heal from their anxieties and trauma in a safe and healthy manner. 

What are the constraints?

Though Somatic Therapy can be extremely useful for patients struggling with anxiety disorders and trauma, there are limitations regarding some of the methods used in the therapy. 

Since Somatic Therapy is relatively new, there is not as much research on the effects and outcomes of using the techniques. There are only a handful of studies that have addressed the concerns surrounding the therapy and until more time has passed and more patients have been treated using the techniques we will not have solid proof of the strengths and weaknesses. 

Also, Somatic Therapy relies heavily on physical touch and touch therapy between the patient and the mental health professional. While touch therapy has been proven to be healing for a wide range of mental illnesses and a lot of patients respond well to the treatment, it also has very obvious limitations with patients who suffer from anxiety and trauma relating to physical and sexual abuse, where touch therapy would not be appropriate to use with them. 

Can it work?

Somatic Therapy is a fairly new form of talk and touch therapy that has been blended together to help patients suffering from a variety of anxiety disorders identify their triggers, address and acknowledge their symptoms, and take back control of their mind and body during and after anxiety attacks. 

Allowing patients to stay grounded and learn techniques to keep themselves calm and present helps them be more in touch with their minds and bodies and can lead to healing from past traumas. 

While Somatic Therapy does have its limitations and the techniques have yet to be studied in greater detail, it can be a very healthy and useful way to prevent anxiety attacks. 

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