Somatic Therapy: Definition, Types, Techniques
Reviewed by therapist.com Team
Somatic therapy is a holistic approach to mental health that addresses both the mind and the body. It prioritizes the mind-body connection, exploring the ways that our physical health affects our mental health and vice versa.
People seek therapy to address, change, or better understand their thoughts, emotions, behaviors, relationships, and physical sensations. Some therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), address a person’s thoughts to affect or change their emotions and behaviors. These therapies work from the “top down” since they attempt to enact change by working with a person’s cognitive processes first.
Somatic therapy, on the other hand, works from the “bottom up” by starting with a person’s body sensations. With somatic therapy, you address your physical symptoms first so you can gain a deeper understanding of how stress or trauma may be affecting both your body and your mind. This can lead to physical, emotional, and even spiritual healing.
When someone is confronted with a dangerous or life-threatening situation, their body prepares them to survive the perceived threat by enacting a host of physical changes. Their heart rate speeds up, their lung capacity increases, their muscles tense up, and adrenaline flows through their body. These changes represent the body’s fight-or-flight response in action.
But fight or flight aren’t the only two responses to danger. Experts have identified two additional responses that may occur in these situations: freeze or fawn.
When a person freezes, they may literally stand still, avoid making decisions, or feel outside of their own body. When a person fawns, they try to please the person threatening them to avoid harm or conflict.
When someone fights back or flees in response to a threat, their body uses up the energy and resources that were released for their survival. But freezing and fawning do not engage the body in the same way. The energy built up from the stress response lingers in the body, unused and unprocessed.
As a result, people who exhibited a freeze or fawn response at the time of the threat may stay in a perpetual state of hypervigilance, which can negatively affect both physical and mental health. Even if their physical trauma response dissipates, it will likely resurface later through other physical symptoms.
Somatic experiencing (SE) allows your nervous system to process and resolve the physical effects of trauma. SE therapists use multiple techniques, including:
- Resourcing: Drawing on positive memories to help you stay calm as you reprocess your trauma
- Titration: Slowly reprocessing your traumatic experience step by step as a way to expand your “window of tolerance” for stressors and trauma triggers
- Pendulation: Alternating back and forth between releasing traumatic energy and calming your body’s stress response to a relaxed state
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is similar to SE in that it guides the body through a trauma response. However, these two methods differ slightly based on what they aim to accomplish.
SE intends to release energy that was not used during your body’s trauma response. Sensorimotor psychotherapy, on the other hand, operates based on the idea that your body’s trauma response was never actually completed. The idea is not that leftover energy needs to be discharged, but rather that the body’s trauma response needs to be completed in order for healing to begin.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy follows a three-step process:
- Stabilization & symptom reduction: Your therapist will help you feel safe and relaxed before engaging in sensorimotor psychotherapy.
- Processing: Your therapist will lead you through your traumatic experience and help you notice and regulate your physical and emotional responses.
- Integration: To complete the trauma response, your therapist will help you avoid freezing or fawning. Instead, you may say or do things you wish you had done during the original trauma. For example, you may say, “Stop!” if you’re reprocessing a physical assault in which you didn’t say anything.
The Hakomi Method is a mindfulness-based approach to somatic therapy. Its central idea is that every person has what is called their core material. This core material, made up of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, affects an individual’s personality, even if they are unaware of its existence.
The Hakomi Method allows people to become aware of their core material and accept, challenge, or transform it. This is accomplished through the Hakomi Method’s five core principles:
- Mindfulness: The process of living in the present moment; allows a person to observe, meditate, and reflect on their beliefs from a place of compassion and non-judgment
- Nonviolence: The support of a person’s defensive mechanisms in an effort to learn from them
- Mind-body integration: The belief that the mind and the body both reveal a person’s core material
- Unity: The belief that individuals are interconnected systems that participate in larger interconnected systems
- Organicity: The belief that the self is naturally bent toward healing, wisdom, and wholeness
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a helpful therapy often used to process trauma. However, it is not a somatic therapy. An EMDR therapist may choose to incorporate somatic interventions to increase the efficacy of treatment, but it is not required.
Across various types of somatic therapy, there are common interventions you can practice, including:
- Grounding: Using your senses to fully enter the present moment, thereby calming the nervous system
- Mindfulness: Observing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the present moment nonjudgmentally
- Self-regulation: Observing, managing, and adapting your emotions and behaviors to suit the situation
- Movement & processing: Listening to the body to find a resolution
Certain exercises can also be adapted to incorporate somatic therapy, such as yoga, pilates, and dance.
Somatic therapy is particularly helpful in addressing trauma, stress, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, it is also used for both physical and mental health disorders, including:
Although research is still ongoing regarding the effectiveness of somatic therapy, recent studies have shown promising results, especially regarding its treatment of trauma and PTSD.
It’s important to keep in mind that even if somatic therapy is evidence-based, it may not be right for everyone. In particular, some somatic therapy interventions that use physical touch as a way to release tension may not be suitable for victims of sexual abuse or assault.
The mind-body connection is important to address when dealing with mental health issues, especially trauma. Click here to find a somatic therapist near you.
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