When you experience something traumatic, it takes a serious toll. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress can last for weeks, months, or even years after an event. It can be hard to find equilibrium and reach a level of clarity after a devastating event. This is where somatic therapy, a holistic approach to therapy, comes in. Somatic therapy is defined by its use of the connection between a person’s mind and body to apply psychotherapy and physical therapies during treatment. Therapists who practice somatic therapy believe a person’s inner feelings impact their physical form — they use mind-body exercises to release pent-up trauma from the mind and the body.
How Does Somatic Therapy Work?
It is easy to feel trapped by our own physical and emotional stress. This feeling of being trapped might also lead you to feel panicked, anxious, and unable to calm down. Traditional talk therapy can effectively address many mental and emotional health challenges, but those who practice somatic therapy believe talk therapy can benefit from paying attention to a person’s body, which can help a person alleviate the stress and pain preventing them from fully experiencing life.
Somatic experiencing is a specific approach to somatic therapy and is based on the idea that traumatic experiences cause dysfunction in a person’s nervous system and prevent them from processing the experience. The goal of somatic experiencing, therefore, is to help an individual notice physical sensations stemming from their mental health issues and use that awareness to work through painful feelings and emotions.
Over time, somatic therapy aims to help individuals become more aware of their body and learn techniques to release physical tension. These can include breathing exercises, sensation awareness, physical exercise, massage, and grounding exercises. The key is helping a person develop new thinking patterns and behaviors to better respond to various experiences or emotions as they come up.
When Is Somatic Therapy Used?
Somatic therapy focuses on a person’s physical and mental connection during treatment and can be done in both an individual and a group therapy setting. It can be used to help address both physical and psychological symptoms of certain mental health issues, including:
- Trauma and abuse
- Problems with relationships
- Sexual function
Somatic therapy can also benefit those who have tried, but not found success with, more traditional treatment methods. These treatments can include those for physical pain, digestive disorders, sleep problems, and other medical issues. The idea is that once physical symptoms are resolved, most people will find it is easier to address psychological symptoms.
Key Somatic Therapy Concepts
Somatic therapy aims to engage a person’s body as a therapy technique and draw from the basic functions of the nervous system during treatment. Somatic psychology, the theory from which somatic therapy is derived, includes the following primary concepts.
Grounding is a body-based technique that refers to a person’s ability to experience themselves as embodied in the moment. It involves a person sensing their physical form, engaging their senses, feeling their feet on the earth, and ultimately, calming down their nervous system.
boundary development entails having an individual focus on the present moment, empowering them to stay responsive to their changing needs, and develop clear boundaries. It helps one respond in a way that feels strong and protected.
Emphasizing the importance of mindfully staying connected to the body during big emotions or sensations, the goal of self-regulation is to develop an awareness of physical sensations, with the intent to regulate (or respond effectively to) emotional intensity.
Movement and process
Somatic therapies tap into an individual’s capacity to heal by listening to their body. Postures, gestures, and use of space all provide insight into a person’s experience, and in somatic therapy, they are encouraged to mindfully engage with their impulses to drive a resolution.
When tension begins to release, the movement of emotion can happen throughout the body. Tension may build in the belly, move to the chest, and finally settle into tightness of the throat, or alternatively, tension may be released via tears and result in an ability to breathe more freely.
Titration refers to a process of experiencing small amounts of distress with the goal of relieving pain. As one slowly begins to revisit past trauma, your therapist will track your body’s response and the sensations they bring up. They will check in about how you feel in addition to watching your physical response — breathing changes, clenched hands, or shift in tone of voice.
Are There Limitations to Somatic Therapy?
While many report good results from somatic therapy, science-backed evidence of this approach remains limited. In 2017, the first randomized controlled study evaluated the effectiveness of this approach for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and found that somatic therapy does have positive benefits as a treatment option. However, the study had some limitations, as does some other research on PTSD.
In addition to the need for additional research, there are ethical concerns surrounding the use of touch during therapy. While some may find physical contact during therapy reduces pain and helps release tension, others — especially those affected by trauma and sexual abuse — may be triggered or uncomfortable.
What to Look for in a Somatic Therapist
Somatic therapy can be easily integrated into other psychotherapy and counseling practices — the key is to find a licensed and experienced mental health professional with training in somatic therapy techniques. Keep in mind that finding a therapist with the right educational background and experience is only one piece of the puzzle; it is just as important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable speaking and who you feel understands you and the challenges you’re looking to overcome. The connection between a person’s mind and body is strong and can open up new potential treatments for mental health issues. Practitioners of somatic therapy believe a person’s thoughts and feelings can impact their physical well-being and use mind-body exercise to help release pent-up tension. While greater research is still needed, there is evidence that finds benefit to somatic therapy. With the help of a licensed therapist, a person can better manage the physical tension in their body and experience a better life.