Somatic therapy integrates principles from traditional psychotherapy, physical therapy, and holistic treatment. Somatic therapists use various mind-body techniques to identify and release tension affecting someone’s well-being. The body, rather than the mind, is the foundational point for healing.
Somatic therapy derives from the concept of somatic, which means “doing with the body.” Consequently, somatic therapy refers to specific treatments that work with the body. It isn’t a singular concept- instead, it’s an umbrella term used to describe the many physical techniques therapists use to address mind-body stress.
Somatic therapists view the mind and body as inherently connected. What’s stored in our body affects our thoughts and feelings. Subsequently, if we fail to address the body, our mental health tends to suffer.
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How Do Our Bodies Hold Stress?
We all experience stress- it’s a normal part of the human experience. When we perceive danger- whether it’s real or not- our body tries to protect us by engaging in a fight-or-flight response.
When this happens, the body releases numerous stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to prep the body for an emergency. As a result, your heart beats faster, your muscles may constrict, and your breath sharpens. You may also notice heightened sensations and a surge of energy.
In his research, Dr. Peter Levine (the founder of Somatic Experiencing) observed the role of adrenaline in animals. He noticed that lions wrestle around with each other after hunting to help finish the stress response. He also observed that humans don’t take that same approach.
Instead of releasing stress like other mammals, we tend to hold it in the emotion. We often turn towards escape methods like drinking alcohol, scrolling through social media, or zoning out in front of the television. While this “escape” can feel good in the moment, it doesn’t actually release the stress hormones. Instead, it stays in our system, often accumulating with time.
Long-term stress isn’t good for the human body. While we need to be alert when real danger exists, being in a constant, elevated state can cause:
- Digestive and gastrointestinal issues.
- Heart attacks.
- Premature aging.
- Chronic pain.
- Thinking and memory issues.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Exacerbated mental health problems.
What Happens to the Body after a Traumatic Event?
Most people endure some kind of traumatic event during their lives. Trauma can include any life-threatening experience, such as physical abuse, sexual assault, natural disasters, and violence. It can also include emotional experiences like chronic bullying, emotional abuse, or dangerous threats.
Unfortunately, the residual symptoms of trauma can remain long after the injuries or wounds heal. After enduring a trauma, you may experience physical symptoms like:
- Panic attacks.
- Racing heartbeat.
- Feelings of numbness and realization.
- Extreme startle reflex and hypervigilance.
- Night terrors.
- Unexplained body aches.
- Headaches and migraines.
- Stomach problems
You might also experience a myriad of emotional symptoms, including:
- Increased depression.
- Suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
- The desire to isolate from loved ones.
- Performance issues in school or work.
- Memory problems.
- Extreme anger.
- Mood swings.
Trauma symptoms aren’t just a matter of “being in your head.” Some trauma researchers suggest that the body stores traumatic energy long after the trauma passes. In fact, PTSD studies show that trauma can fundamentally change the brain.
For one, the hippocampus (the region associated with memory and emotion) shrinks. Moreover, the amygdala function (the part of the brain associated with fear) increases. Additionally, some research suggests that our body cells also store memories- which means they can store trauma.
How Does Somatic Therapy Work?
As mentioned, somatic therapy isn’t just a single mode of therapy. Therapists may draw upon several body techniques to support your treatment.
Just like with all modes of therapy, somatic treatment starts with an initial intake process. You and your therapist will discuss your mental health history and goals. They will review the limits of confidentiality and collaborate with you on fees, scheduling, and all other administrative parts of therapy.
The main goal of somatic is to identify and release physical tension. Therapy sessions often begin by tracking the sensations you feel in your body. Let’s explore some common interventions therapists may use.
Somatic Breath Therapy
Everyone breathes, but somatic breath therapy refers to a form of active and conscious mindfulness. Therapists teach clients how to breathe diaphragmatically in a deliberate manner without pausing between inhales and exhales. This approach can increase energy, which helps release physical tension.
Somatic voicework refers to a body-based approach towards vocal training. It’s a form of bodywork that encourages people to tap into their five senses to harness their voices. This technique entails a specific approach of moving the ribs and abs while inhaling and exhaling. Many professional singers use this method to strengthen their vocal skills.
Somatic massage combines a gentle touch with empathic dialogue to increase the client’s insight about body tension. This technique can be helpful for clients struggling with chronic pain or trauma symptoms.
Grounding isn’t unique to somatic therapy, but it’s one of the best ways to deregulate the central nervous system. As mentioned, when we get stressed, the body moves into a heightened fight-or-flight mentality. Grounding gently brings us back to the present moment. Therapists may use a variety of grounding exercises, such as encouraging you to plant your feet on the floor and sink deeply into your chair.
Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is a form of expressive therapy that focuses on the connection between physical movement and emotion. Therapy sessions are focused on movement (and not just traditional dance) to improve issues like body image, depression, trauma, and self-esteem.
Resourcing is a visualization technique where you think about a positive person, place, or something that you love. This visualization can help you feel more calm and relaxed if you become triggered when processing trauma.
In chemistry and medicine, titration refers to the concept of adjusting the percentage of a particular substance until finding the appropriate balance. When used in somatic experiencing, titration refers to the slow process of integrating how your trauma impacted you. With this approach, therapists gently help you process the trauma while slowing it down and taking small breaks.
What Does Somatic Therapy Treat?
Somatic therapy usually helps people develop greater insight into their lives. The premise is simple- in becoming more attuned to your body, you simultaneously become more aware of your emotions and needs. Therefore, somatic therapy helps with promoting resilience and self-regulation.
Somatic therapy is a well-known treatment approach for PTSD. In fact, some trauma experts cite somatic techniques as essential for trauma work.
That said, somatic therapy can also treat a variety of mental health concerns, including:
- Relationship problems
- Emotional regulation
- Impulse issues
- Chronic pain
- Sleep problems
Is Somatic Therapy Evidence-Based?
Yes, some somatic therapies are evidence-based.
When a practice is evidence-based, it means it’s been closely evaluated and tested for efficacy. It should be noted that research in this area is limited- particularly when comparing it to other cognitive models like CBT.
When seeking therapy, evidence-based care is important in establishing the legitimacy of treatment. Additionally, most practitioners need ongoing training and certification to practice somatic therapy.
How Long Is Somatic Therapy Treatment?
It depends on your particular needs and progress. There isn’t a specified length of care. Many clients do start experiencing relief after just a few sessions. Complex issues, however, usually require more time.
Typically, most therapists meet with their clients once a week for about an hour. However, if you’re in immediate distress, you may benefit from increasing this frequency. After demonstrating clear progress, your therapist might recommend transitioning to bimonthly sessions.
Is Somatic Therapy a Standalone Treatment?
It can be.
Typically, it’s unethical for a therapist to treat a client if they’re already working with another therapist. However, there is an exception to this rule. If a client is working on a specific issue with a therapist, they may work with another professional on a different issue. For example, a client may work on alcohol abuse with one therapist and trauma recovery with someone else.
Additionally, some clients benefit from an integrated approach to their treatment. They may participate in group therapies. They might also attend couples or family counseling.
Furthermore, some therapists integrate somatic techniques along with other interventions. They may blend in cognitive, psychodynamic, or humanistic approaches into their work.
Are There Any Downsides to Somatic Therapy?
Touch in therapy remains a controversial issue. In fact, many therapists avoid touch altogether. That’s because there are inherent ethical concerns associated with a therapist touching a client. If someone, for example, has been sexually abused, this kind of interaction may be triggering and even traumatic.
Additionally, many clients feel a deep sense of attachment to their therapists. This phenomenon is known as transference. Transference happens when a client “transfers” feelings and reactions onto a therapist, usually because they remind them of someone from their past.
Touch, of course, can complicate these feelings, especially if the touch triggers any sexual or romantic feelings. It’s important that clients share their feelings with their therapist openly. Consent is an integral part of any successful treatment.
If you have reservations about touch, make sure to discuss them before starting treatment. Your therapist’s job is to help you feel safe- they don’t want to put you in any potential situation that could make you feel uncomfortable.
Is Somatic Therapy Right for Me?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment method that works best for everyone. Some people try somatic therapy after trying conventional talk therapy methods. Talk therapy has obvious merits, but some therapists believe it falls short in addressing the significance of bodily sensations.
To find a therapist, keep in mind that each professional has different credentials and expertise. For example, only certified Somatic Experiencing Practitioners (SEP) can provide somatic experiencing.
You may also have a specific preference to work with a therapist closer in age or of the same gender. These preferences are reasonable- keep them in mind when searching for potential providers.
There are many ways to find a therapist. If you want to use your insurance, call your insurance company for a list of in-network providers. From there, you may need to contact each therapist directly to determine if they offer somatic work. You can also look online or ask friends or family for their recommendations.
What Are Some Alternatives to Somatic Therapy?
Somatic therapy is just one approach to treating mental health issues. There are many other options worth considering.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a well-known model that treats virtually every mental illness. CBT practitioners focus on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In learning how to change your negative thoughts, you can improve your mood and cope with distress better. CBT may include techniques related to:
- Exposure: identifying, confronting, and working through fears.
- Cognitive restructuring: reframing how you perceive negative thoughts or experiences.
- Mindfulness: learning how to use relaxation exercises to stay in the present moment.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a structured treatment that entails using bilateral stimulations (usually through eye movements) while recounting traumatic material. This therapy is designed to help desensitize clients to the intense feelings associated with past traumas.
Psychodynamic therapy provides an in-depth analysis of how past experiences shape current reactions and feelings. This therapy may include techniques related to dreamwork, free association, and exploring the feelings you have about yourself and your therapist.
Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication can be extremely helpful in treating depression, anxiety, or PTSD symptoms. Many people take medication while also receiving therapy. Medication acts on the parts of the brain associated with mood, emotional regulation, problem-solving skills, and pleasure.
Somatic therapy can offer a profound healing experience for people struggling with numerous mental health issues. By learning more about your body- and how it reacts to certain stressors- you can experience higher levels of self-esteem, happiness, and mindfulness.