Somatic therapy is a form of body-centered therapy that looks at the connection of mind and body and uses both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing. In addition to talk therapy, somatic therapy practitioners use mind-body exercises and other physical techniques to help release the pent-up tension that negatively affects a patient’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
Practitioners of somatic therapy address what they see as a split between the body. Instead, they believe mind and body are intimately connected, though not always in apparent ways. Thought, emotions, and sensations are all believed to be interconnected and influence one another.
If talk therapy has reached its limits for a patient, somatic therapy holds that the body is a largely untapped resource for psychotherapy. These resources include what can be learned from one’s gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye gaze, and movement.
Somatic therapies of different kinds have been practiced for centuries. Fundamentally, yoga and meditation can be considered somatic therapies, and both are often incorporated into guided treatments. Modern somatic therapy can take many forms:
- Somatics: A broad term, somatics focuses on body movement as a means to improve mental health. Its history dates back to physical education movements of the 19th century, and included many practices, including yoga, pilates, and judo. Among the most prominent schools of somatics is that created by Thomas Hanna, who, in the 1970s, introduced and named the concept of “Somatics.” He theorizes that for sufferers of chronic pain, a significant amount is a result of “sensory motor amnesia,” in which neurons in the brain have lost their ability to properly control muscle tissue. He believes that through education, mindfulness, and vigorous, intentional movements akin to physical therapy, a patient can reinvigorate their mind-body pathways and relieve chronic pain.
- Somatic Experiencing: In the 1970s, Peter Levine developed a version of somatic therapy called “somatic experiencing,” which came, in part, out of Jungian therapy and his observation of animals. He posited that when humans experience trauma, they can become trapped in the “freeze” part of the fight, flight, or freeze response. His idea is that we remain frozen in many parts of life as a reaction to a traumatic experience. These frozen parts of ourselves accumulate energy as they should, but expend it in ways, that are counterproductive to a healthy life, such as through stress and anxiety. The goal of somatic experiencing is to redirect this energy in healthier directions.
- Hakomi Method: Also developed in the 1970s, by Ron Kurtz, the Hakomi method emphasizes the physical nature of how we live in our bodies. It relies on deep and sustained mindfulness. The therapy may not involve any bodywork, as the therapist will guide the patient’s attention to their bodies verbally. Non-violence is a guiding principle for the method.
- Sensorimotor Therapy: In the 1980s and 90s, Pat Ogden helped create the field of “sensorimotor therapy.” Drawing on the fundamentals of the Hakomi method, sensorimotor therapy incorporates ideas from cognitive behavioral therapy and neuroscience.
There are many more types. What underlies all somatic therapies is the belief that the body can manifest mental unease and can also help heal it.
Somatic therapy can help patients who suffer from a range of ailments, including:
Somatic therapy is also used in the treatment of some physical conditions, including:
- Chronic pain
- Digestive disorders
- Sexual dysfunction
Somatic therapy sessions can vary widely among practitioners, but fundamentally, somatic therapy combines mindfulness, talk therapy, and what can be considered alternative forms of physical therapy. The therapist helps you focus on your body or revive memories of traumatic experiences and pays attention to any physical responses you have once the emotion is experienced or the memory is recovered.
Treatment techniques include deep breathing, relaxation exercises, and meditation, each used to help relieve symptoms. Some of the adjunctive physical techniques that may be used with somatic therapy include dance, exercise, yoga, vocal work, and “bodywork” akin to massage or physical therapy. Treatment techniques can be used in individual or in group therapy settings.
You may have strong emotional and physical sensations arise during somatic therapy as a result of working through memories of experiences that were painful for you.
Somatic therapy emphasizes helping patients develop resources within themselves in order to self-regulate their emotions, or to move out of the fight/flight/freeze response and into a higher-functioning mode where they can think more clearly. Through developing awareness of the mind-body connection and using specific interventions, somatic therapy helps to release the tension, anger, frustration, and other emotions that remain in a patient’s body from these past negative experiences. The goal is to help free the patient from what is preventing them from fully engaging in their lives.
Physical awareness is a key part of somatic therapy. A therapist might help the patient get into a mindful state by asking them to notice certain things: If they are upset, what is it in their body that tells them they are upset? Is it a tightening in the stomach? Or a dark feeling in the chest? Then the therapist asks the client to focus on those sensations, and by observing the client’s gestures and postures, find out what movement the client would have liked to have made, but couldn’t.
Centering is a foundational practice in somatic therapy in which a patient develops a calm home base in the body. It is achieved through building awareness of one’s muscles, breath, and mood. By slowing down one’s breathing, patients are able to “feel” more of what’s going on around and inside them.
Bodywork is also a part of somatic therapy. Bodywork involves a practitioner working with the motion of a patient’s body or face and can involve the therapist manipulating a patient’s tissue. Bodywork can also involve breathing patterns and guided meditation.
Somatic therapy can be integrated into other psychotherapy and counseling practices. There is no official accreditation for somatic therapy. It’s most important to look for someone with experience in the practice and someone with whom you feel comfortable discussing personal issues.