Somatic Therapy: Engaging the Mind and Body

Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT
Updated on October 13, 2021

Somatic therapy is a holistic psychotherapeutic approach that is used to help treat symptoms of PTSD as well as other mental health conditions by engaging the mind, body, spirit, and emotions. It incorporates mind-body exercises, in addition to talk therapy, into the healing process.[1]

man practicing yoga

The Principles of Somatic Therapy

Somatic psychotherapy focuses on the connection between the mind and the body. Therapists practicing this modality 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 is the idea that past traumas can sometimes manifest as physical symptoms like pain, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, digestive problems, immune system dysfunction, and other medical issues.[2]

At the core of somatic psychology is the assertion that the mind and body are deeply connected; 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.[3]

How Does Somatic Therapy Differ From Other Therapies?

It is important to know that somatic therapy is unlike body therapy. Body therapy, although also a holistic approach, involves massages, bodywork and the belief that sometimes all a person needs to do is relax, receive, breathe, release or even play in order to improve their well-being.

Through therapeutic and non-therapeutic massages, and cosmetic skin treatments, body therapy, unlike somatic therapy, does not seek to resolve deeply rooted 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 individuals not only become self-aware of their bodily reactions, thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and personal beliefs, but also assist them in alleviating symptoms of mental health conditions that interfere with daily functioning.

While the more conventional types of talk therapy generally focus exclusively on the mind, somatic therapy involves engaging the body as well, differentiating this therapeutic approach from those you are more likely to encounter with most clinicians.

The Origins of Somatic Therapy

Psychologist 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.

He believed that humans and their impulses are supposed to be good, and that people should want to seek a treatment method that involves the body as a whole. In 1933, Reich published a book, “Character Analysis.” In his work, he explained 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 largely supported by the professional community.[4]

Another historical figure that made significant contributions to somatic therapy is Pierre Janet, a French neurologist and psychotherapist who was mostly known for his work in the field of dissociation and traumatic memory.[5] 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.

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 sensations.[1]

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 for the next, who might require breathing exercises or massages.

The Benefits of Somatic Therapy

Technically, anyone can benefit from somatic therapy. Those who have been dissatisfied with the outcomes of traditional talk therapy may benefit from this non-conventional psycho-therapeutic approach. This can include people of all ages dealing with a variety of mental health issues, especially those struggling with PTSD, as well as chronic pain, digestive problems and other medical issues.[1]

Engaging in somatic therapy has been reported as being helpful in the following ways:[7]

  • It can help you access subconscious actions and thoughts, enable you 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 you to look for subtle signs of pain or trauma so that they can potentially be fixed.
  • It has been shown to help increase your self-confidence because when we are self-aware, we are more mindful of our body and how we present ourselves. With somatic therapy, you 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, the ANS can again return to normal.
  • Somatic therapy helps you to complete biological responses to trauma in a way that does not overwhelm the nervous system.
  • It can decrease muscle tension.
  • You have increased energy.

What Are the Types of Somatic Therapy?

Since it’s more of a broad approach rather than a specific course of treatment, you may encounter different lists of the types and subtypes of somatic therapy treatments. They can include the following:

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. It 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 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 rather 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

The Downsides of 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 forms of somatic therapy, such as massage therapy. 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. So, 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.[8]

In Summary

While it may not be the default course of treatment by most therapists, there is certainly cause to believe that somatic therapy can very effective in treating a variety of mental and physical health conditions, particularly PTSD and it’s accompanying ailments. If this therapeutic approach seems appropriate for you or someone in your care, consult with a mental health professional to learn more.


References

  1. Payne, P., Levine, P. A., & Crane-Godreau, M. A. (2015). Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapyFrontiers in psychology6, 93. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00093
  2. Cohen S. L. (2011). Coming to our senses: the application of somatic psychology to group psychotherapyInternational journal of group psychotherapy61(3), 396–413. https://doi.org/10.1521/ijgp.2011.61.3.396
  3. Ogden, P., & Minton, K. (2000). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: One Method for Processing Traumatic Memory. Traumatology, 6(3), 149–173. https://doi.org/10.1177/153476560000600302
  4. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021, March 20). Wilhelm ReichEncyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wilhelm-Reich
  5. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021, May 26). Pierre JanetEncyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pierre-Janet
  6. Meehan, E., & Carter, B. (2021). Moving With Pain: What Principles From Somatic Practices Can Offer to People Living With Chronic Pain. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.620381
  7. Brom, D., Stokar, Y., Lawi, C., Nuriel-Porat, V., Ziv, Y., Lerner, K., & Ross, G. (2017). Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome StudyJournal of traumatic stress30(3), 304–312. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22189
  8. Berendsen, P. (2017). The Intervention of Touch in Psychotherapy and Trauma Treatment. In M. Rovers, J. Malette, & M. Guirguis-Younger (Eds.), Touch in the Helping Professions: Research, Practice and Ethics (pp. 85–106). University of Ottawa Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv5vdcvd.9
Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT

Adebolanle Ade is a Mental Health Social Worker and Registered Behavioral Technician. She has many years of experience writing and advocating for mental health awareness.