Trauma Recovery

Veterans and Somatic Approaches to PTSD

July 19, 2021

Eastern and Western approaches are becoming allies in battling an enemy neither can subdue on their own.

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Each day, 7.7 million American adults live with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research shows that approximately 7 percent of all civilians experience PTSD at some point. For returning military veterans, depending on the combat theater, that number jumps as high as 30 percent (click for full PDF of the 2013 congressional study). Tragically, statistics show the suicide rate among active duty military service members is one per day, while among veterans the suicide rate is about one per hour. These startling statistics expose the frightening reality that among the military’s active-duty population there are more casualties attributable to suicide than to combat.

In a very real way, PTSD can be seen as the greatest threat to the lives of America’s combat warriors. They may leave the battlefield, but the battle is very often still raging inside. As a United States Marine, I made a vow to never leave anyone behind. I continue to honor that promise by reaching out to my fellow brothers and sisters in arms, walking with them off the battlefield and back into life. I do this as a trauma therapist for the Veteran’s Administration (VA), serving returning combat veterans with PTSD who are struggling to engage life.

Decades of efforts have paved the way for current treatments and incredible progress has been made. Treatments have primarily been: 1) the use of cognitive therapies to change thought patterns and 2) medication to alter the chemistry and/or functioning of the brain. However, PTSD can present quite differently in each individual and is often very resistant to treatment. In many cases I found traditional treatments to be minimally helpful; often my veterans were not necessarily getting better, but instead were becoming better at managing symptoms. I did not want PTSD to be managed, I wanted it to go away. I had found my new mission.

Decades of efforts have paved the way for current treatments and incredible progress has been made. Treatments have primarily been: 1) the use of cognitive therapies to change thought patterns and 2) medication to alter the chemistry and/or functioning of the brain. However, PTSD can present quite differently in each individual and is often very resistant to treatment. In many cases I found traditional treatments to be minimally helpful; often my veterans were not necessarily getting better, but instead were becoming better at managing symptoms. I did not want PTSD to be managed, I wanted it to go away. I had found my new mission.

I sought other approaches and was led to experiential modalities that naturally flowed into somatic therapies. My training with somatically oriented clinicians, such as Peter A. Levine, PhD; Dr. Bessel van der Kolk; and Dr. Pat Ogden, has proven to be invaluable in my clinical work with combat veterans. I began to incorporate practices utilizing sound, mindfulness, meditation, touch, and movement in my individual and group sessions. This was not easy at first.

My first session to “go astray” was with a frequently dissociated Vietnam vet who sat across from me, week after week: arms folded tightly across his chest, eyes locked blankly on me, and legs planted in place. I suggested we play catch. His eyes widened, “What? You wanna do what? Why would we do that?”

“I dunno,” I replied, “to see what happens.” Quite a bit did indeed happen that session while we talked, tossed, and tracked. His dissociation decreased as movement entered into the immobility of trauma. He wasn’t numb and empty as he had claimed to be. He was filled with sensations, emotions, and story— his body told that story.

I continued to implement and adapt the work to fit with my vets (and with the various layers of training, culture, and complexity that comprise the multifaceted nature of combat trauma). I began using “shoulder dancing,” a non-threatening and small movement that serves as an entry point to an area that often houses a tremendous amount of story (trauma). Focusing on the sensations and movement proved to be easier and more effective than focusing on the rage and terror of the trauma. Through this work, the body becomes an ally rather than the storage vessel for the chaos and trauma that had been collected in a combat theater. I see my veterans reinhabiting their bodies with a reclaimed ownership of their minds and I witness a long overdue homecoming, as they take back and return to their lives.

As we take this day to recognize PTSD and work to create awareness of this haunting and often debilitating disorder, we are faced with the daunting statistics which surround PTSD. It is imperative that communities know what PTSD is and how it may look, especially for returning warriors who already face the challenge of readjusting to a civilian way of life. However, we must also create awareness of the available treatments for our veterans including the emerging (or reemerging) approaches that seek wholeness through the mind and embodied living. The body is being rediscovered by the research community and more and more clinicians are incorporating mindfulness-based practices. Eastern and Western approaches are becoming allies in batting an enemy neither can subdue on their own.

The good news is that VA hospitals and residential facilities are part of the growing groups incorporating more holistic approaches to treatment plans. Together, researchers, clinicians, and community groups are bringing our servicemen and women home, in body and in mind. It is my hope that we bring this awareness to our community and to the veterans who have committed their life to protect ours. Today, we are not only aware of trauma and the chaos it can leave in its wake, but we recognize the possibility of wholeness, of betterment, and of the return to life beyond the trauma.

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What else?

Trauma may result from a wide variety of stressors such as accidents, invasive medical procedures, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, war, natural disasters, loss, birth trauma, or the corrosive stressors of ongoing fear and conflict. SE facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms. This is approached by gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotion.


SE offers a framework to assess where a person is “stuck” in the fight, flight or freeze responses and provides clinical tools to resolve these fixated physiological states. It provides effective skills appropriate to a variety of healing professions including mental health, medicine, physical and occupational therapies, bodywork, addiction treatment, first response, education, and others— Excerpt taken from SETI.

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders resulting from multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application. The SE approach releases traumatic shock, which is key to transforming PTSD and the wounds of emotional and early developmental attachment trauma. Trauma may begin as acute stress from a perceived life-threat or as the end product of cumulative stress. Both types of stress can seriously impair a person’s ability to function with resilience and ease. Excerpt taken from SETI

An Embodied approach to healing

Trauma may result from a wide variety of stressors such as accidents, invasive medical procedures, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, war, natural disasters, loss, birth trauma, or the corrosive stressors of ongoing fear and conflict. SE facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms. This is approached by gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotion.


SE offers a framework to assess where a person is “stuck” in the fight, flight or freeze responses and provides clinical tools to resolve these fixated physiological states. It provides effective skills appropriate to a variety of healing professions including mental health, medicine, physical and occupational therapies, bodywork, addiction treatment, first response, education, and others— Excerpt taken from SETI.

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders resulting from multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application. The SE approach releases traumatic shock, which is key to transforming PTSD and the wounds of emotional and early developmental attachment trauma. Trauma may begin as acute stress from a perceived life-threat or as the end product of cumulative stress. Both types of stress can seriously impair a person’s ability to function with resilience and ease. Excerpt taken from SETI

An Embodied approach to healing

Excerpt taken from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. 

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) is a complete treatment modality to heal trauma and attachment issues. SP welcomes the body as an integral source of information for processing past experiences relating to upsetting or traumatic events and developmental wounds. SP incorporates the physical and sensory experience, as well as thoughts and emotions, as part of the person’s complete experience of both the trauma itself and the process of healing. Excerpt taken from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.  


An Embodied approach to healing

SP seeks to restore a person’s ability to process information without being triggered by past experience. SP uses a three-phase treatment approach to gently guide the client through the therapeutic process – Safety and Stabilization, Processing, and Integration. The therapist must pay close attention to the client to ensure that they are not overwhelmed by the process while simultaneously engaging their own abilities and capacities for healing.

It is thought that SP strengthens instinctual capacities for survival and assists clients to re-instate or develop resources which were unavailable or missing at the time the trauma or wounding occurred. Once resources are developed and in place, the traumatic event can be processed with the aid of resources. SP is a well-developed approach with decades of success in the treatment of trauma and developmental wounds. — Excerpt taken from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. 

Excerpt taken from ACBS Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. 

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a comprehensive multi-diagnostic, modularized behavioral intervention designed to treat individuals with severe mental disorders and out-of-control cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns. It has been commonly viewed as a treatment for individuals meeting criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with chronic and high-risk suicidality, substance dependence or other disorders. However, over the years, data has emerged demonstrating that DBT is also effective for a wide range of other disorders and problems, most of which are associated with difficulties regulating emotions and associated cognitive and behavioral patterns. 

radical acceptance and change

As the name implies, dialectical philosophy is a critical underpinning of DBT. Dialectics is a method of logic that identifies the contradictions (antithesis) in a person's position (thesis) and overcomes them by finding the synthesis. Additionally, in DBT a client cannot be understood in isolation from his or her environment and the transactions that occur. Rather, the therapist emphasizes the transaction between the person and their environment both in the development and maintenance of any disorders. It is also assumed that there are multiple causes as opposed to a single factor affecting the client. And, DBT uses a framework that balances the treatment strategies of acceptance and change - the central dialectical tension in DBT. Therapists work to enhance the capability (skills) of their client as well as to develop the motivation to change. Maintaining that balance between acceptance and change with clients is crucial for both keeping a client in treatment and ensuring they are making progress towards their goals of creating a life worth living. — Taken from DBT-Linehan Board of Certification. (click to learn more)

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