Somatic Therapy: Exploring Mind & Body Psychology

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Somatic therapy is a holistic psychotherapeutic approach that is used to help treat or alleviate symptoms of different mental and physical illnesses. Holism is the idea of wholeness. In therapy, this means that for a person to be completely healed, they must be treated as a whole, to include every aspect of their being – body, mind, and spirit. Somatic psychotherapy focuses on the connection between the mind and body; somatic therapists use both psychotherapy and physical therapy approaches to help individuals release built-up tensions that are negatively affecting their physical and emotional well-being. The theory behind this means of psychotherapy is the idea that past traumas can sometimes manifest with physical symptoms like pain, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, digestive problems, immune system dysfunction, and other medical issues.

Somatic psychology asserts that the body and the mind, that is, the powerhouse of a person’s reasoning and thoughts, are deeply rooted. The mind influences the body, the body influences the mind. Contemporary practitioners of somatic therapy believe that viewing the mind and body as one entity is essential to the therapeutic process. The mind/body entity will move towards a path of healing and growth on its own when provided an environment that is safe and allows for positive interaction, guided by a professional therapist.

It is important to know that somatic therapy is unlike body therapy. Body therapy, although also a holistic approach, uses massage, bodywork and the belief that sometimes all a person needs to do is relax, receive, breathe, release or even play, to help the individuals become better. Through therapeutic and non-therapeutic massages, and cosmetic skin treatments, body therapy, unlike somatic therapy, does not seek to resolve deeplyrooted mental health issues or provide psychological insights, but rather helps to increase self-awareness to ultimately decrease stress. Somatic therapy, on the other hand, seeks to help the individual not only become self-aware of these bodily reactions, thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and personal beliefs, but also, with the help of a somatic therapist, helps provide functional ways to address them

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Brief History

Wilhelm Reich is one of the first and most prominent names when it comes to the history of Somatic therapy. He is believed to have made the largest impact in the establishment of this holistic approach as a therapeutic modality. This Austrian psychoanalyst was a student of Sigmund Freud. He believed that humans and their impulses are supposed to be good and that people should want to seek a treatment method that involved the body as a whole, not detached. In 1933, Reich published a book, “Character Analysis.” His book believed that people have repressed emotions and personality traits that can be looked at through one’s muscular tension, movement, and body language. He called this body armor. He further explained that, in order to let out these emotions, one might need to use physical pressure such as massages and other physical treatments, thereby easing the tension that comes with the built-up emotions. His views were supported at large by the community.

Another historical figure that made significant contributions to somatic therapy is Pierre Janet, a French psychologist, and psychotherapist who was mostly known for his work in the field of dissociation and traumatic memory. He worked alongside Wilhelm Wundt – one of the founding fathers of the field of psychology. Janet’s work on somatic therapy, although little, was quite impactful. In his work as a psychotherapist, he wrote extensively on the importance of the body in traumatic events and treatments. Although Wilheim Reich was the first researcher who tried to demonstrate a clear psychodynamic approach and the relationship between the body and mind, Janet’s work and his significant reference to the body dates even before Freud.

One cannot talk about somatic therapy without acknowledging Sigmund Freud’s work. Freud explored the role of the body in neurosis. He believed that there might be some bodily issues to consider when dealing with mental health problems.

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Peter A. Levine is the founder of somatic experiencing – a form of somatic therapy that aims to help alleviate symptoms of trauma and other mental health problems by focusing on the individual’s somatic experiences or bodily sensation.

How It Works

So, how does Somatic therapy work? The goal of somatic therapy is to help individuals become aware of the sensations in their body. The recognition and release of physical tension that may remain in the body in the aftermath of a traumatic event is usually the aim of this approach. The therapy sessions typically involve the patient tracking his or her experience of sensations throughout the body. By being able to acknowledge the sensation in your body, the belief is that you’re better able to release negative emotions and tensions. Therapy may include the use of breathing exercises, physical exercises, dance, massages, and other unique ’therapies’. Somatic therapists take time to figure out the needs of each individual to help them find a positive way to relieve their stress. Everyone is different; a dance exercise might work for one individual but not the next, who might require breathing exercises or massages.

Diagnosis It Can Be Used For

Anyone can benefit from somatic therapy. Anyone who has experienced or is experiencing something overwhelming might benefit from this non-conventional psycho-therapeutic approach. This can include infants, toddlers, teenagers who had childhood traumas, assault, accidents, or early medical procedures, to adults who have a history of all these and/or other overwhelming life changes, exposure to natural disasters, military experiences, and so on.

Some people who might especially benefit from somatic therapy include individuals with the following:

Post-Traumatic Stress DisordersTraumatic experiences are linked with a continuum of mental disorders and physical complaints. Individuals with a trauma history have often reported somatization disorders, somatic symptoms, and other unexplained medical symptoms. Some research has shown reports of chronic pain, sleep disorders, musculoskeletal, neurological, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal issues as co-occurring in some individuals that have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorders. Other research has shown that females are more likely to experience somatic symptoms with PTSD than men with the disorder.

Our nervous system is built to help us feel things like intimacy and safety around others. If danger is detected the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes us to shut down and conserve energy, kicks in. Because these systems also control things like digestion and heart rate, once they spring into action, your body works differently. This could explain why trauma is linked to everything from constipation to fainting. Trauma survivors are also about three times more likely to deal with irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

In somatic therapy, healing is allowed without the full explicit retelling of the traumatic events, and by focusing on releasing bodily tensions in the therapeutic process. The idea is that by being aware of your body, you are aware of your emotions, and therefore you are able to address them in a healthy manner.

Depression – Some cases of depression might be as a result of underlying emotions that are being suppressed, therefore causing an individual to ‘shut down.’ Most depression involves the numbing of emotions, especially grief, fear, anger, and shame. Depression occurs when these emotions loop back on themselves, having feelings about feelings, sometimes without limit. Somatic therapy can help an individual with clinical depression access suppressed emotions and tension, help them feel it in a safe way, and then ultimately address it in a functional way.

Somatic therapy has been shown by some research studies to be an effective option in treatment for those who have the following:

How Somatic Therapy Can Help

  • It can help individuals access their subconscious actions and thoughts, to become more aware of them. The belief is that self-awareness promotes the ability to explore pain, and therefore heal from it.
  • It helps individuals look for subtle signs of pain or trauma and seeks to fix them.
  • It has been shown to help increase self-confidence in individuals because when we are self-aware, we are more mindful of our body and now we present ourselves. With somatic therapy, individuals can feel more “capable”.
  • The idea behind somatic psychotherapy is that trauma symptoms are the effects of instability of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). With Somatic therapy, ANS can again return to homeostasis/baseline.
  • Somatic therapy helps an individual to complete biological responses to trauma in a way that does not overwhelm the nervous system.
  • Decrease muscle tension.
  • Increase energy.

Types of Somatic Therapy

Neurosomatic Therapy (NST)– This type of somatic therapy helps people who have pain and symptoms that are more physical than mental on the body-mind spectrum. This therapy addresses the skeletal system and the physical body to help individuals alleviate pain. It helps individuals identify underlying sources of this physical, sometimes, unexplained pain.

Somatic Gene Therapy – This form of gene therapy have been used by medical doctors in helping patients with cancer. This therapy inserts genes bearing information about health into the cells in the body. A doctor can target specific cells that are causing damages, weakening, or dying off. These inserted genes can also be used for hereditary diseases…

Somatic Experiencing Therapy – This body-first type of therapy starts by addressing the body’s reactions to trauma-induced stress. To the somatic therapist, body memory is far more important than your thoughts about traumatic memory. So, your therapist may not talk to you about the traumatic events, but will discuss the physical sensations during the event and the physical symptoms that still bother you.

 Counseling Combined with Somatic Therapy – In conjunction with the somatic approach, some therapists use talk therapy to help individuals deal with pain and changes in their physical health. Counseling might help individuals with depression, by giving them the skills they need to handle their symptoms. When combined with a somatic approach, individuals can release built-up tensions and fear that comes with talking about their trauma or symptoms

The somatic approach can take many other forms in therapy. Here is a list of some ways that your therapist might help you relieve tension through bodily sensation:

  • Massage
  • Dance
  • Body-mind centering
  • Martial arts
  • Kinetic awareness
  • Yoga
  • Acupressure
  • Trigger point therapy
  • Meditation
  • Reiki

Some Downside To Somatic Therapy

Touch in therapy is a major ethical concern. There have been some researchers that have had concerns about the use of touch in some form of somatic therapy – massage, for example. While some individuals assert that therapeutic techniques involving physical contact with the therapist result in pain reduction and the release of tension, some people—such as those affected by sexual abuse — may have significant issues with being physically touched as a way to alleviate symptoms from their trauma. The use of touch could have the unintended effect of rendering therapy sessions frightening, arousing, or sexual. This could even contribute to the development of greater transference and countertransference issues within the therapeutic relationship. For this type of treatment to be effective, both the therapist and the individual in treatment must consent and be comfortable with the use of touch, while possessing the capacity to learn how to develop their body awareness despite the physical engagement.

When you pursue somatic therapy, your therapist will work to help you reframe your traumatic experience(s), so you can overcome the negative effects it brings to your mind and body, therefore, fostering healing.

Adebolanle A.I. is a Mental Health Social Worker and Registered Behavioral Technician. She has many years of experience writing and advocating for mental health awareness. She runs a mental health and lifestyle website, where she shares tools to help individuals work through daily life challenges.