Gay Wellness
Posted 01/11/2023 in Mental Health

What is Somatic Therapy


A lot of people ask me this question, and I'm usually at a loss for immediate words, so I want to attempt to give an overview. I hope to provide a better sense of what it is,  who it's for, the history of it, etc. 


The first thing is the word somatic. This word means "of the body," from its Greek root:  “soma.”  With somatic therapy, we're really helping clients to process the states of fight, flight, and freeze, and release stuck energy - helping people to fully engage in life. 


Pause!

So, right now... can you notice your body? Can you notice the temperature in the room? the sensation of fabric on your body. ...whatever you're wearing... ...your feeling state... And as I talk about this, just notice what comes up for you.  


I'm going to go into detail here and just stay present with the body, if you can…


Somatic Therapy vs. Cognitive Therapy (Talk Therapy)

Let's talk about the difference between somatic therapy and cognitive approaches. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Dialectical Behavior Therapynare really about Noticing the negative thought patterns and "shifting the narrative" the story, the beliefs. We then replace them with more helpful ones. 


That's a powerful thing to do! 


Somatic Therapy emphasizes this huge domain of embodied experience. We pay attention to the moment-to-moment unfolding of what the body is telling us, and listen to the "Wisdom of the Body." 


There are a lot of "body-based" exercises looking at movement, gesture, imagery, that therapists will use to engage with a client. All of these things that arise in this moment to moment unfolding ...from the body. It's a totally different approach than cognitive. However, I do want to say that I see that cognitive as part of a holistic somatic therapy model. 


gay somatic therapist with client


About Trauma

If we're going to talk about somatic therapy, we have to talk about trauma. Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope with life. It diminishes our sense of self. We feel more contracted. 


Another definition that my mentor Steve Hoskinson gives is:  "Trauma is a part of us that is in the past... That's stuck in another place, in another time." 


But let's talk about what, in the broader sense,  somatic therapy can help with, which will include trauma. 


Issues that Somatic Therapy addresses

Some issues that Somatic Therapy works to address are:  


Events... like a car accident or physical assault, or any kind of impact right to the nervous system. 


Emotional abuse...  any kind of emotional abuse from relationships of any kind. 


Childhood trauma ...events that are ready to be released from our childhood.


Sexual issues... sexual dysfunction, and sexual abuse.


Emotional dysregulation... or emotional overload. An excess of anger, rage, fear, anxiety, etc. (panic attacks)


Chronic Syndromal Issues...  like fibromyalgia IBS, sleep problems, lack of energy, dissociation, headaches... body-based syndromes.


Shall we do a little history lesson? Let's do one.


History

 in the 70's, biologist and therapist Peter Levine was doing research on mammals, and he was observing their fight, flight, and freeze behaviors. Over the years, he, along with other therapists, developed this approach to therapy based on those observations. Somatic Experiencing is the work that resulted, and that has been kind of a cornerstone of somatic therapy. 


To learn more about Somatic Experiencing, and get a fascinating overview of Somatic Therapy, check out Peter Levine's book here, "Waking the Tiger." 


Also during the 70's, Ron Kurtz was developing the Hakomi Method, an approach in which the therapist will attune and guide the client to pay attention to body sensation, moment-to-moment. 


And here's a fantastic book on the Hakomi Method by Ron himself, called "The Hakomi Way." 


Fast-forward to the 80's Pat Ogden was developing Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and then there was the development of EMDR... and a wide variety of approaches started to emerge. "Somatic therapy" as a field is now established,  and is now a staple of many therapist's training. 


Two more book recommendations

So there are two more books I just want to mention... 


One is, "The Body Keeps the Score"  by Bessel Van Der Kolk. A fantastic overview... that is for anyone. It really fleshes things out and gives a lot of examples  


The other is, "Your Body Is Your Brain" by Amanda Blake ...an overview of how the brain is "embodied," an overview of embodiment. 


What does a Somatic Therapy Session Look like?

Let's now take things home with looking at the various aspects that will be at play in a somatic therapy session. The first is, you guessed it:  


Body Awareness

This is about noticing one's body and its sensations. So a therapist might ask a client to "notice if they're upset ...  what is it in their body that lets them know they're upset?" "Is it a dark feeling in the chest?  is it a tightening in the stomach?" 


Then also they'll be helping them to "ground." Grounding is an especially helpful tool for centering and becoming present in the Here and Now  of our environment... feeling one's body sink into the chair  as I speak right now, I'm grounding. 


Resourcing

This aspect is so important and gets overlooked a lot. Is about feeling those things which help us feel safe and stable...     those things that regulate us, A sense of "okayness." 


Like right now, is there anything about your experience that is even slightly pleasant. I just notice that breath come through my body... ...and I just notice how the light is hitting me, it's a very soft light, it feels good, and there's just a slight "okayness" about that experience  


Resourcing

Our body tells the story of our unhealed past, and there are so many tools that the therapist can use in the moment to really hone in  on what that story is. And the movements can help to actually release some of that stored energy  


Boundaries


whoo! HUGE topic!  


Boundaries are simply a sense of "this is me" ..."and that's you." ...a sense of "one's own limits" Here's a quote I love about boundaries:


"Having clear boundaries helps you adapt to the level of emotional or physical intimacy in the moment.  Maintaining successful boundaries involves accepting the fact  that you cannot please others all of the time.  They help you ask for what you need even though you may be told 'no,' or risk feeling rejected. Ultimately, healthy boundaries facilitates self-respect  and a sense of your own worth." 

- Dr. Arielle Schwartz 


So when we talk about self-worth, self-esteem, "I am enough"...  all of that good stuff, we start by cultivating healthy, boundaries. 


Emotional Release

Also" emotional discharge"  is what it sounds like,  and that will be a part of the session usually through the three things:  of shaking, laughing, or crying. it's all good, it's all wecome. 


Titration and Pendulation

These are two technical terms, that speak to the process of  going and feeling into something stressful... and then alternating over to something non-stressful, or resourcing... ...and then going back to the stressful... back to the resource. ...and doing so in a slow, methodical way. That's the titration. The pendulation is the oscillation back and forth. That's all I'll say about this now. More later. 


Co-regulation

It simply the fact that when we connect to another person, we feel their warmth  and their care. This helps contain the whole experience. Otherwise we would just all sit in our rooms by ourselves and process things. The fact that we need each other. 


Bodywork 

The therapist will/could use touch and attunement to listen to the body. ...and help move some of that stuck energy:   whether that's energy work or hands-on. 


Give it a Shot!

So that's a brief overview ..a rough overview of somatic therapy. 


I hope some of it has made sense and/or resonated with you,  and if it did, give it a try!  Find a somatic therapist near you, and give it a shot. 


And thank you for reading.


 
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