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Neuroscience and Somatic Psychotherapy

The scientific interest on the neurobiological substrate of the psyche is far from recent. More than one hundred years, S. Freud abandoned the bold for his time plan to establish the neuroscientific theory of mental life. For almost half a century the world between the soul and the body remains unbridgeable (Schubert, 2015). In the decades from 1930 to 1940 Franz Alexander, one of the significant psychosomatic theorists, believing in a multifactor disease model, describes the Circle of Neurovegetative Disorder (Taylor, 1999) and the corresponding physical-neurophysiological reactions of the organism in aggravating emotional states and proposes the term of “corrective emotional experience” within the psychotherapeutic process context.

In recent decades more and more bridges of scientific theories and data are being built between body and psyche (Schubert, 2015). Neurobiology focuses on brain and nervous system research. In recent years the brain and nervous system research and their relation with Psychology accelerated rapidly. With the new research technologies an expanding number of research findings make the amount of accessible knowledge, during these few years, greater than the respective amount of all knowledge of the previous centuries (Rotschild in Hart, 2008).

Researchers in the broader field of Interpersonal Neurobiology ask questions like: How does the brain “create” the psyche and how do psycho-emotional experiences affect the brain and nervous system development; how does fostering a conscious attitude of calm focused attention on breathing or positive emotions, such as gentleness and gratitude, impact the brain structures?

At the same time, modern research in the field of Developmental Psycho-Traumatology demonstrates how the early trauma experience is stored in the nervous system and the body affecting brain development and neuro-physiological biorhythms (Schubert, 2015; Gottwald, 2015; Schore, 2011). Therefore, science comes with its new research tools to confirm the old knowledge that human vulnerability starts long before the development of speech and the ability of thinking and that the place where the traumatic experience leaves its traces are an interrelated unity of body and psyche.

“The last seventy years, the perspective that our aliveness, vitality and authenticity are accessed through the connection with the body, constituted the cornerstone of Somatic Psychotherapy. The Western tradition of Somatic Psychotherapy began with Wilhelm Reich, a medical doctor and psychoanalyst as well as a Freud’s pupil and later colleague. Reich was the first psychoanalyst who stressed the importance of including the body in Psychotherapy· his goal was to anchor Freud’s belief in the biological foundation of the psyche. Reich believed that emotions, which have a biological basis, govern our psychological processes. He became known mainly for his deep understanding in what he called the character structures which, as he claimed, are maintained by defensive armoring and muscular rigidity, that is the organism’s protective reactions towards an environment emotionally repressive and hostile to the aliveness and the life force” (Heller & La Pierre 2012).

The dialogue between Neurophysiology and Developmental Psychology have an increasingly important impact on Psychology, blending and integrating psychological-psychodynamic and neuro-affective theories in a NeuroAffective Developmental Psychology. This dialogue allows fostering and exploring a common ground knowledge, as the importance of the early psycho-emotional experiences is validated with precision and an accurate assessment and therapeutic intervention planning are promoted in a wide range of psychological disorders. The connection of these divergent theoretical approaches opens up the possibility of a more appropriate and integrated debate on the relationship between psychological-psychosomatic development and the brain’s organizational processes in different levels of psycho-mental organization (Hart, 2008).

Modern research in the meeting point of Psychology and Biology concurrently focuses on interpersonal relations and physiology issues, the importance of touch and neurochemistry, the psychological processes and functional anatomy. In this field (Somatics), various body-mind approaches have been developed in recent decades, focusing on psychotherapeutic work with the body, traumatherapy, yoga and other body-therapeutic practices of mindfulness and connect: a) the Western psychotherapeutic, psychosomatic knowledge; b) traditional energy exercise and healing practices; and c) aspects of neuroscience research validating the multiple interactions in these respective fields. Therefore, human peculiarity is investigated directly and thoroughly: that we are a conscious body and an embodied mind at the same time (Henderson, 2005).

Important neuroscientists (Hüther, Le Doux, Bauer, Roth, in Gottwald, 2006) actively support Somatic Psychotherapy, while contemporary research findings consolidate its validity and effectiveness. As the body’s fundamental importance in psycho-emotional states is now recognized with more accuracy in research (Damasio, 1999, 2001in Gottwald, 2006) and human experience is confirmed as a sensorimotor-affective unity, the boundaries of an exclusive verbally-cognitively-oriented Psychotherapy approaches begin to emerge, in relation to Somatic Psychotherapy suggesting a conscious planning of the therapeutic situation within and also beyond the verbal-cognitive framework, including senses, emotions and movement. Especially in trauma psychopathology (PTSD) where, as demonstrated also by modern MRI methods, the traumatic experience is not often verbally accessible, the Body-Oriented Psychotherapy and Trauma Therapy seems to be the most appropriate approach for the implicit traumatic memories to be detected, verbalized and worked through in the healing process.

«Neurobiological research broadens our understanding for a multiple psychic phenomena. It also extends the previous research findings related to processes of change which occur in the psychotherapeutic and personal development context, confirming that the effective Psychotherapy modifies the brain’s organizational structure and affects control biochemical feedback loops. The psychotherapeutic process can motivate the person with new propositions and lead to a shift of emphasis, change of priorities and challenge of existing procedures. The therapeutic overall understanding oriented towards a broader bio-psycho-social model and the already empirically-established therapeutic approach that includes body and awareness processes in the healing process, are particularly confirmed. Within the framework of an awareness- focused and embodied therapeutic relationship, the formation of a therapeutic space that includes all sensory organs, emotions and motor activity, seems to be useful and effective. From a research perspective and taking into account the often contradictory research findings of Neurobiology, an overview on creating cognition, experience and behavior patterns and the respective psycho-bodily-mental interrelations emerges, as well as a more reasonable necessity for the body and the insights about it to be included and utilized consciously in the therapeutic process» (Gottwald, 2015).

According to the researchers there is a still greater need for research on the possibilities, questions and therapeutic interventions of Somatic Psychotherapy. Key data of physically-oriented psychotherapeutic and trauma therapeutic approaches (Gottwald 2006, Heller & La Pierre 2012), such as:

  • inclusion of senses in the therapeutic process and their supportive function in the nervous system re-regulation and the therapeutic working through of traumatic stress,

  • short-term and long-term effects of conscious focusing on breathing, movement, physical expression and therapeutic touch,

  • fostering and consolidating somatic mindfulness in the present experience,

  • the way in which reconnection with the bodily self affects therapeutically the neuro-physiological self-regulation and the understanding, working through and management of dysfunctional psycho-emotional situations and behaviors,

  • physical-energy dimension of resonance in the therapeutic relationship both in the individual and group psychotherapy context,


will probably continue in the future to be investigated with modern methods, explained more precisely, understood and established neuroscientifically and psychotherapeutically. More generally, the dominance tendency of integrative, multimodal models for the treatment of psychosomatic disorders is becoming increasingly obvious. In such a context, Somatic Psychotherapy is expected to take an increasingly distinct and important position. The dialogue between the various psychotherapy schools and Somatic Psychotherapy is more likely to continue to be enriched by modern neurobiological aspects and the debate around contemporary Psychotherapy and Somatic Psychotherapy will probably expand through the spectrum of modern neuroscientific research (Gottwald, 2006).




Susan Hart (2008), Brain, Attachment, Personality: An Introduction to NeuroΑffective Development, KARNAC.

Laurence Heller & Aline La Pierre (2012), Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship, North Atlantic Books.

Julie Henderson (2005), Embodying Well- Being, AJZ Druck& Verlag.

Christian Gottwald (2006) Κörperpsychotherapeutische Perspektiven zur Neurobiologie in: Marlok G.,Weiss H.(Hrsg.)

Handbuch der Körperpsychotherapie.

Christian Gottwald (2015), Bewusstseinsprozesse und Körper in der Psychotherapie-neurobiologische Aspekte, Psychologische Medizin, 1: 15-35, Facultas-Universitätsverlag, Wien.

Christian Schubert (2011, 2015), Psychoneuroimmunologie und Psychotherapie, Schattauer.

Allan N. Schore (2011), Affect Regulation and Mind-Brain-Body Healing of Trauma, Article, The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.

Graeme J. Taylor (1999), Psychosomatic Medicine and Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Kastanioti publications.



On behalf of the Scientific Content Committee of the 15th EABP Congress 2016 ( )

Zoe Schillat, Dipl.-Psych., ECP, EuroPsy, Psychologist, Psychotherapist

Somatic Psychotherapy and Trauma Therapy

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