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What is Somatic Psychotherapy?

Over the last year or so I’ve been attending a lot of courses and workshops around somatic psychotherapy and somatic experiencing inspired by the Trauma Therapy course I finished last year and my introduction to Hakomi Therapy. I have recently started a formal course run by Babette Rothschild in Somatic Therapy and as I learn more, I integrate it into my current practice.

Somatic Therapy uses the body as its starting point for healing. The word “somatic” is derived from the Greek word “soma” which means “living body”. It is a holistic form of therapy that is grounded in the relationship between the mind and the body. Three decades worth of research in neuroscience and other medical fields have demonstrated the connection between the mind and the body. This is the core of somatic psychology – the assertion that the mind and body are deeply connected; the mind influences the body, the body influences the mind.

Contemporary practitioners of somatic therapy believe that viewing the mind and body as one entity is essential to the therapeutic process. The mind-body entity will move towards a path of healing and growth on its own when provided an environment that is safe and allows for positive interaction, guided by a professional therapist. Somatic therapy offers a variety of benefits. The theory behind this is the idea that past traumas can sometimes manifest as physical symptoms like pain, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, digestive problems, immune system dysfunction, and other medical issues. It reduces discomfort, strain, and stress in the body. It transforms negative emotional experiences, creates a greater sense of Self, builds resilience and offers hope. Somatic therapy aims to awaken people to the wisdom inherent in the body and how to access it.

Stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship conflicts are problems that exist both in the body and the mind – so the cure must involve both as well. Traditional therapy engages the mind looking for insights through talking and telling the story. While this is important it is not the whole picture. We live our lives in our bodies and experience the world through our five senses. Our nervous system is the mediator and registers our responses to life’s events throughout our body systems. Therapy that does not engage the information that the body offers is neglecting important wisdom. Your brain is constantly receiving information from your body and relaying information back out to it. We experience the world through our body. Your body is where your emotions live, your thoughts occur, your soul/spirit dwells, and your wisdom abides. It is a reliable resource, ally, and guide. You just need to learn how to listen to it- learn from it and love it. To live fully, we must live fully embodied, which means aligning body, mind, heart and soul/spirit.

What is the goal of somatic therapy?

The goal of somatic therapy is to help individuals become aware of the sensations in their body. The recognition and release of physical tension that may remain in the body in the aftermath of a traumatic event is usually the aim of this approach.

The therapy sessions typically involve the patient tracking his or her experience of sensations throughout the body. By being able to acknowledge the sensation in your body, the belief is that you’re better able to release negative emotions and tensions. Somatic therapy involves present moment awareness and explores bodily tension, gestures, and body sensations through a combination of mindful awareness, dialogue, breathing and movement. Through connecting and listening to the messages carried in the body, clients are guided to choices that support their moving with more ease and freedom in their lives, becoming the fullest version of themselves.

Somatic therapists take time to figure out the needs of each individual to help them find a positive way to relieve their stress. Everyone is different; a movement exercise might work for one individual but not for the next, who might require breathing exercises or meditation.

Emotions are a full body event

Even though feelings seem to be amorphous and ethereal, we do not have either feelings or thoughts separately from our body. Just as we feel physical pain when we put our hand on a hot stove, emotions are physiological events. Crying involves tears, sounds and changes in breathing patterns. Sometimes when we are about to cry or want to stop from crying we may tighten the muscles in our face and throat and restrict our breathing to hold back the tears. We feel a “lump” in our throat or a tightness in our jaw. These are some of the sensations of sadness and grief. Our heart may pound with fear when we stand up to give a speech or make an announcement or perhaps our mouth becomes exceedingly dry. Somatic therapy helps clients connect these sensations to feelings, assisting them to have an expanded emotional vocabulary and allowing them to navigate the ups and downs of their lives.

The body knows emotions differently than the mind

For example, trauma in the mind is often a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. In the body it often shows up as tension or hyper-vigilance. (E.g., “You know that feeling you get when someone jumps out and scares you and you are on high alert for a few minutes? That alertness never goes away for me.” “My nightmares when I’m asleep bleed into my daily life. At times after just getting up I’m unable to differentiate whether I’m awake or asleep. They feel so real, I even experience the physical pain in them. Then while I am at home if someone knocks on my door I could scream and start rocking back and forth.”). Together they bring a fuller picture of the client’s emotional experience and its effect on their lives. The body has clues that can guide the way out.

Is EMDR a Somatic Therapy?

As an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist I use this approach (when appropriate) with people who experience PTSD and have survived trauma. It involves processing traumatic memories and their associated beliefs, emotions and body sensations.

I have begun to integrate EMDR and somatic therapy as their effectiveness seems to be stronger when used together. According to trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, Somatic Therapy and EMDR Therapy are considered the best approaches for the treatment of trauma. EMDR Therapy is a comprehensive approach to therapy that integrates elements of psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural, interpersonal, experiential, and body-centred therapies to maximize treatment effects. EMDR Therapy uses a structured protocol for the treatment of trauma and PTSD and related past experiences that trigger emotions, beliefs, sensations.

EMDR Therapy uses a structured protocol for the treatment of trauma and PTSD and related past experiences that trigger emotions, beliefs, sensations.

Somatic Interventions such as tracking sensations, deepening awareness, boundary awareness, and self-regulation compliment and, in my opinion, increase the efficacy of EMDR Therapy. Collectively these therapeutic modalities offer a profound healing tool for anyone facing the pain of trauma. What is Somatic Psychotherapy? And How It Can Help You. · Christine J.  Harris

How does this link with Buddhism?

Buddhism teaches that the mind and the body cannot be understood independently of one another, they are seen as being mutually dependent. The body or physical form (called Rūpa) is considered as one of the five skandha[1], the five interdependent components that constitute an individual. The Buddha taught that there is no separate, permanent, or unchanging self, and that a human being is an impermanent composite of interdependent physical, emotional and cognitive components. Identifying either the body or the mind as separate or as the self is dismissed as a mistaken view by the Buddha; he clearly stated that none of the five skandha should be regarded as the self.

Citta (heart-mind) perceives, experiences moods and feelings, runs, reacts, gets agitated and stirred. It can also experience lovingkindness, gratitude, determination. It can know itself, it can calm and clear. This is the one we have to get on its feet and encourage it, then start grooming it. Start by accepting it as it is. The most direct way to do this is in your body. Feel the agitation and stirrings, accept the presence of that. Because the body is much more open to change than your personality. Your personality likes the idea of change, but generally wants to change for the ‘better’ quickly. It doesn’t want the growing and learning process. Direct participation in the learning process makes us humble. We’re as sane as we can be right now“.

Ajahn Sucitto

[1] form (or material image, impression) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara) and consciousness (vijnana)