Somatic/Emotional Release Therapy


The terms “Somatic Therapy” and “Emotional Release Therapy” are generic titles for a modality of trauma therapy that comes in different packages, under different names, but with similar techniques or modes of working with a client and a similar desired outcome. For the purpose of discussing this, I will refer to these body-oriented therapies under a collective title : ‘emotional release therapy’.


The Fear of Emotions . . . 


First, I want to be up front about the difficulty of presenting information about emotional release work. Apart from the Indigenous Australians, Australian society in general has descended from Anglo-saxon and European ancestry. This cultural background has been characterized by a pervasive disconnection from our emotions (keep a stiff upper lip, don’t cry, ‘man-up’, don’t let it show …). Even if this is not the case in individual family groups, as a broad culture, we have lost contact with our inbuilt evolutionary strategy for dealing with trauma – we have lost the knowledge of how to ‘discharge’ intense emotional content in the naturally healing way. For so many people, this attempt at discharge is now done through self-medication (alcohol, drugs, addictive behaviours, self-harm) and/or violent anti-social behaviour.

There is a lot of fear around the subject of mental illness, passed down for hundreds of years in European societies from the days of mental asylums. One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus etc play on our fear of the horrors of the ‘madhouse’ and especially our fear of an out-of-control insanity that is portrayed in such places. But in fact the normal discharge response to a traumatic experience has nothing to do with ‘madnesss’.

Consider some examples: you have just been in a car accident. Standing by the road directly afterwards, you find yourself shaking all over. This is the body’s way of discharging the shock, but in many cases someone will try to stop this process, holding you tight, offering a cup of tea – all normal and kindly ways of trying to calm you down. But in fact your body needs to shake for a while. Unfortunately as a society, we’ve forgotten this, or never knew it. This kind of shaking comes from the autonomic system and is triggered by the brainstem. Other examples are the anxiety response before having to speak in public, sudden fright or after giving birth.

But another kind of discharge can erupt from the implicit memory system.

Most people have experienced a sudden and explosive emotional outburst at some time. It is usually triggered by an interaction with someone else. Something will be said, especially as the tension escalates, and suddenly you explode! It’s as if a barrier in your mind disappears – in a microsecond – and you feel this emotional force just erupt from your brain and chest. It is frequently in such moments in interpersonal relations, that the truth gets said. The words that come out of your mouth in that state of discharge are your truth, ungilded, uncensored, what you had felt inside for so long but didn’t dare express. It may be that a moment later you will ‘get control of yourself’ again, and will attempt to deal with the fallout from your moment of honesty. But in that brief moment of discharge, only the truth could be said, because it was being discharged from a part of your brain that was not under the executive control of the frontal lobes. Most people have witnessed such a scene, and most would not interpret it as a moment of insanity, just a moment when inhibition or social niceties failed and the truth came out.


Taking the Fear out of Emotional Discharge


The problem with discharging in this way is that it is so out of control, however briefly, and can do great damage to relationships. The aim of emotional release therapy is to allow a person who is trying to heal from deep wounds to experience those moments of truth in safety and privacy. Being able to make contact with that part of the self that needs to express itself also allows a much broader range of repressed emotions (not just anger) to surface and be heard. Given the right setting, those deeper ‘knowings’ will surface, because that part of the self wants the rational adult self to listen andthechild2 witness the pain and anger. Getting oneself to bear witness to the truth of feelings and memory really leads to integration, rather than getting someone else to hear it. There are times, of course, when it is helpful to share your understanding with a person who was significant in your life story. But ideally, this should be done after you have witnessed it for yourself and had time to integrate it. Then you will be able to speak to the other from the safe adult self, not exposing the wounded self or risking further attack on that vulnerable part of self.

The techniques of somatic therapy or emotional release therapy are simply ones that can help a person get past their cognitive brain’s censorship of the limbic system, so they can access that part of their right hemisphere functioning. Then, as the implicit material comes out, the witnessing therapist can hold the space safely and help the client work through the feelings and beliefs that have been driving so much of the client’s outward functioning. If the force and ‘out-of-controlness’ of the volcanic outburst described above were to be rated a 9.5 out of 10, the force of emotional release moments in the therapy room would generally rate as perhaps 6 or 7. The client is a/ safe, b/ in control, c/ not being triggered by the other’s refusal to listen, and d/ has made a conscious decision to seek their inner emotional truth. All these factors lead to a process that feels qualitatively different from the violent outburst. The experience, though at first a little apprehensive, becomes surprising, enlightening, validating, a huge relief, liberating and even a bit exciting, as if entering a new country that is both strange and yet familiar.


Not for Everyone . . . 

This body-oriented emotional release work is not for everyone. Many clients will go through their therapy and consistently refuse to do any body-memory work. As a therapist that choice is something I respect completely from a client. But accessing emotional memory directly through the body is the quickest route to integration and healing. It is not the only route, but it is the quickest.


Sources of further information: 


  1. TRE (Trauma Release Exercises) Neurogenic Tremors, mediated by the autonomic system.

  1. Somatic Therapy. Somatic Experiencing Australia

The U-Tube videos on this website are very interesting, as is the reported originator of this somatic therapy, Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Levine’s descriptions of animals discharging the trauma response is fascinating. Unfortunately the human brain has a far more powerful neocortex which interferes with this healing adaptation.

3. ASPA – Australian Somatic Psychotherapy Association

4. Emotional Release Therapy.   Jamillon, or Primal Therapy Australia

There are private practitioners who offer body-focussed emotional retrieval work but the sites above train practitioners and offer a consistent model of emotional release or somatic therapy.

[A Google search will show “Emotional Release Therapy” as part of a website called the International Institute for Complimentary Therapists. The therapy practice described on this website is not the commonly accepted Emotional Release Therapy. The description of their therapy is:

Emotional Release Therapy is a three part process.

  1. While reclining on a massage table, the negative energy is cleared from all the cells of your being.
  2. Your chakras are balanced
  3. A visualization process where you replace the released negative energy

See more at:]


More on The Healing Journey

The Healing Journey

Therapy – Why do it?

Essential Issues in Trauma Therapy


The Arts Therapies


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy


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