Somatic therapy is a form of therapy focusing on the connection between the mind and body. The underlying principle is the belief that mental stress is stored in our body; to alleviate that stress, we must address both mind and body.
Somatic therapy often incorporates talk therapy in conjunction with any combination of the following: mindfulness, deep-breathing exercises, physical movement, vocalizations, dance, and more.
In this article, we will explore what types of issues are addressed in somatic therapy, what a somatic session might look like, the benefits of somatic therapy, some practice exercises, and what to look for in a somatic therapist.
What Does Somatic Therapy Treat
Clients who have experienced trauma tend to feel disconnected from their bodies and therefore, somatic therapy can be a very helpful technique to help clients recovering from trauma to become more connected to their bodies and physical sensations.
What are The Benefits of Somatic Therapy
There are many benefits to somatic therapy. The overall goal of somatic therapy is for the client to release stress, eliminate destructive emotions, and feel safe and present in their bodies.
For some clients who have participated in talk therapy and feel as though they have hit a plateau, somatic therapy may be a helpful technique to help move them further along in the healing process.
People who have participated in somatic therapy report feeling more in tune with their bodies, experience less physical pain, feel more present and experience greater overall satisfaction. (Bessel Van Der Kolk, 2014)
What are The Limitations of somatic therapy
There is limited research on the effectiveness of somatic therapy, however, current studies look very promising. Since there is a lot of variety in somatic therapy treatment, this may make researching the effectiveness of treatment more challenging.
According to the National Library of Medicine, “future research (is needed) to focus on extensive, methodologically rigorous studies to ensure the efficacy and effectiveness of SE (Somatic Experiencing) in the treatment of trauma-related disorders.” (Psychotraumatology, 2021)
What Happens in a Treatment Session
There are a variety of goals and techniques implemented in a somatic session dependent on where the client is in their process. Therefore, the clinician may utilize one or many techniques in any given session. Though these exercises are introduced in the therapy room, many of these practices can also be safely used by the client independently.
Talk therapy accompanies somatic therapy, though talking and conveying thoughts and feelings is only part of the focus. The other piece involves how those thoughts and feelings manifest in the body and how to diminish maladaptive stressors.
The following techniques are not in any intentional order, as the therapist would use each according to the client’s current needs.
Grounding – Grounding exercises, focus on bringing the client’s awareness to the here and now and to notice bodily sensations. This technique aims to help the client feel in the present moment by bringing in awareness of their physical self and their physical space.
Grounding can be used at any time in the therapeutic process. For those who have experienced trauma or anxiety, this can be a very useful technique to stabilize the nervous system during a life stressor.
Boundary Development – Involves the client learning how to set healthy boundaries with self and others. This practice might include having the client say “yes” or “no” statements while the therapist guides them, allowing the client to feel how those statements resonate internally.
Having the client feel how their “yes” or “no” sits in their body can help them to be more decisive in setting boundaries.
Self-regulation – Focuses on the client learning how to cope with stress. This might include the client learning how to take deep breaths or learn other techniques to self-soothe during stressful moments.
Movement – Movement exercises are often used to help clients connect to their bodies in a deeper and more meaningful way. Exercises can involve something as simple as tapping each knee or they can involve more complicated body holds, like those used in yoga.
Movement helps the body release energy and it also allows the client to notice what happens to emotions when the body is in motion.
Sequencing – Requires the client to pay close attention to their emotional and physical sensations as they travel throughout their body. They might first experience a tightness in their throat as they discuss a difficult emotion and then notice the sensation traveling to their chest and so on.
Titration – During titration, the therapist guides the client to experience small amounts of distress to release powerful emotions associated with the distressful imagery. This is an exercise used in conjunction with a therapist.
Resourcing – This is a practice in which a client is asked to recall safe people, places, and/or moments in time. Recalling these, helps the client remember those positive feelings and serves as a coping tool to use during times of stress.
In this way, the client is reminded that even when life is difficult, there have been moments of positivity and most likely, more positive events will occur in the future.
Somatic Exercises to Try
Though many of the exercises listed above are safe to use independently, the following grounding exercises are probably the most preferred exercises to give a client outside of the therapy office.
Name 5 things you can see
Name 4 things you can touch
Name 3 things you can hear
Name 2 things you can smell
Name 1 thing you can taste
This can be a helpful exercise for people who are experiencing a panic attack or excessive anxiety. The ability to name all of the above, allows the person experiencing anxiety to connect to their body as they engage their senses. They will also be able to connect to the present moment and their physical surroundings.
Anxiety tends to cause people to disconnect from their bodies as well as from their environment. This exercise helps to bring a person’s awareness back to their bodily sensations and their present environment, relieving the anxious sensation.
This exercise can be used in times of stress, upon waking, and/or before bed. This grounding exercise helps people to connect with their breath and their body.
Sit comfortably with your legs crossed. Close your eyes, inhale deeply, and slowly release your breath. Take a few more deep breaths and slowly exhale, for a total of five.
Continue to breathe and exhale as is comfortable for you. As you breathe, begin to gently focus on relaxing the tension in your forehead, between your eyes, your mouth, and jaw – working your way down, one by one.
Now, gently roll your neck clockwise five times, and then counterclockwise five times. As thoughts enter your mind, no need to do anything with them. Your main focus is on the sensations of your body as you work your way down to release any tension. No need to judge the thoughts, if you wander away from noticing your body, gently return to focusing on your body.
As you are seated, place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Take another deep breath in and exhale slowly. Do this three times.
Notice how your chest feels, and how your back feels. Notice any sensation that comes up. You may be uncomfortable, but that’s ok, the goal is simply to be aware of your body. You can adjust yourself as needed, no need for extreme posture if this is not comfortable for you.
Keeping your hands where they are, notice your legs now. Breathe into your legs and wiggle your toes. Feel the ground below you. Notice how supported you feel.
Now that you have gotten to your toes, you can decide if you are ready to end, or if you want to take more time to sit and notice your breath and body.
The more often you do this grounding exercise, the easier it will be to feel connected to your body. Just like anything in life, the more you practice, the easier the practice becomes and the more benefit you will receive from it.
Finding a Somatic Therapist
Whenever you are looking to work with a therapist, make sure to work with a licensed therapist. Licensure requires extensive education, training, testing, and supervised clinical experience.
When interviewing therapists, ask about their somatic therapy training. Did they take a weekend workshop? Or did they take semester-long courses under a seasoned somatic therapist? How long have they been practicing somatic therapy? It’s important to gauge their experience as this will often dictate their success.
Ultimately, as a client, you also have to feel safe working with the therapist you chose. Perhaps you have spoken with a well-trained somatic therapist but something isn’t clicking for you. Listen to your instinct and keep searching until the fit feels right. Education and experience alone are only part of the equation, personality and presence matter too.
If you live in an area where there aren’t too many therapists or therapy is very expensive, online therapy can be an excellent resource. At counselingreviews.com, you can look at a wealth of online therapy outlets, read the reviews, and decide which online therapy outlet is right for you.
Online therapy is very affordable (starting as low as $60/week), doesn’t require a commute, and oftentimes, you can be paired with a therapist within hours.
Somatic therapy might sound intimidating or cutting-edge to those who aren’t familiar with the term, but in eastern practices, tuning in to the mind as well as the body is an ancient practice.
Even therapists who do not identify as somatic therapists, incorporate some of the exercises above, as they acknowledge the importance of bodily sensations and healing clients in a holistic approach, serving both mind and body. No matter your goals, somatic therapy can be a very helpful modality in treating a variety of issues and offering effective treatment.