Why does trauma recovery for refugees require a somatic approach?

Click here to read Part 1 of this series that describes the pervasiveness and accompanying symptoms of unresolved trauma for refugees. Part 2 outlines some of the challenges faced by refugees who need help in order to come to terms with the many terrifying experiences in their life histories. Part 3, below, addresses the necessity of using body-centered methods for trauma recovery and why they are particularly well-suited for working with refugee populations.


In our Trauma Recovery for Refugees program, we will be combining a body-centered method, Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) with psycho-educational material about stress and trauma.

Why does trauma recovery require a somatic approach?

Traumatic experience is not merely a psychological phenomenon; it is rooted in the body. Talk therapy is not necessarily effective and actually poses the risk of re-traumatization. When the body accesses the ‘fight-flight’ system in order to survive a life-threatening incident, it activates a high state of arousal in the nervous system; sometimes survival instincts also activate the ‘freeze’ response.

The trouble is, sometimes the body has difficulty finding the ‘off-switch’ afterward, leaving levels of stress hormones high, along with accompanying changes in the brain’s neuro-chemistry. Someone stuck in trauma hasn’t gone back down to a normal baseline in their nervous system. That leaves them at risk of being ‘flooded’ when they seek to re-tell an incident and this, in and of itself, can be re-traumatizing.

Another limitation of talk therapy is that the survival response can interrupt communication between the brain’s hemispheres, leaving a person with a sort of ‘speechless terror’ when it comes to telling what happened. Accessing the words to tell the story may not even be an option.

Establishing safety and building trust is always the starting place for healing. A body-centered method that does not pose the same risk of overwhelm as ‘talk’ can be extremely beneficial, and is less threatening. The story of ‘what happened’ can then be told when the person is ready, and with less risk of flooding since they are starting from a calmer baseline.

In Trauma Recovery for Refugees we will be using Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), an easy to learn body-centered method created by Dr. David Berceli. This simple technique helps release the stress or tension from the body caused by prolonged stress or trauma, which in turn relaxes the mind. It was designed to help bring recovery into areas of the world where it is most needed and least available. It has been successfully used in numerous countries of the world, (including eastern Africa) especially where conflict zones or natural disasters have traumatized mass numbers of people.

In contrast to most Western approaches to trauma recovery, TRE offers flexibility in that it can be effectively be practiced by an individual, or in a large group.

TRE is incredibly well-suited to work with refugee populations. Our bodies are the same regardless of the language we speak, or the culture of our home country. It affords the added benefit of being able to work with a larger group than many other methods.  That greatly reduces costs, and also gives a community-oriented culture a sense of being together in the healing process. It is not dependent upon an individual telling their story, and yet it makes it more likely that for one wishing to do so,  he or she can do so with the safety that being in a state of calm can provide.

Trauma is caused when we are unable to release blocked energies, to fully move through the physical/emotional reactions to hurtful experience. Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathic witness.

The salvation, then, is to be found in the body. “Most people,” Levine notes, “think of trauma as a ‘mental’ problem, even as a ‘brain disorder.’ However, trauma is something that also happens in the body.” The mental states associated with trauma are important, but they are secondary. The body initiates, he says, and the mind follows. hence, “talking cures” that engage the intellect or even the emotions do not reach deep enough….

Potentially traumatic situations are ones that induce states of high physiological arousal but without the freedom for the affected person to express and get past these states: danger  without the possibility of fight or flight and, afterward without the opportunity to “shake it off,” as a wild animal would following a frightful encounter with a predator…. the paralysis and physical / emotional shutdown that characterizes the universal experience of helplessness in the face of mortal danger — comes to dominate the person’s life and functioning. We are “scared stiff.” In human beings, unlike animals, the state of temporary freezing becomes a long-term trait.

— Gabor Mate M.D., excerpted from the Foreward of traumatologist, Peter Levine’s book, “In An Unspoken Voice”

Read more about Phase 2 of Trauma Recovery for Refugees – Educating Refugee Leaders about Trauma, PTSD and Recovery and find out how you can help us make it a reality.

* * *

More than 80% of refugees in San Diego suffer from symptoms of trauma & PTSD

Phase 2: Educating Refugee Leaders About Trauma, PTSD and Recovery

What can we do to help?


Barbara English is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Certified Bioenergetic Therapist (CBT) with over 20 years of experience. She is the Executive Director of Living Ubuntu, a non‐profit organization founded in response to her concern about the effects of mass trauma on populations around the globe. She is also a 2009 Carl Wilkens Fellow.

[Ubuntu] n.
Every human being truly becomes a human by means of relationships with other human being.

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3 thoughts on “Why does trauma recovery for refugees require a somatic approach?

  1. Pingback: Why is it difficult for refugees to get help for trauma & PTSD? | Living Ubuntu Blog

  2. Pingback: If their homeland had been a safe place to live, they wouldn’t have become refugees | Living Ubuntu Blog

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