What Is Somatic Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Somatic psychology can be defined as a body-oriented therapeutic approach that may be beneficial for various mental health concerns, particularly those related to trauma. It generally uses the mind-body connection to address mental health challenges, employing physical exercises like massage and dance as well as traditional talk therapy principles. Somatic therapy may be helpful for those who wish to gain self-awareness, treat PTSD, and improve their self-esteem and confidence. You may find a somatic therapy practitioner in your local area or through an online therapy platform.

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About somatic psychology

Somatic psychology, also known as somatotherapy or somatic psychotherapy, is generally a body-oriented therapeutic practice. The basis of this method is often attributed to Wilhelm Reich, a student of Sigmund Freud, who supplied the theoretical bases for somatic psychology and the somatization definition

The word "somatic,” from the Greek word “soma,” normally refers to the body, as opposed to the mind, soul, or spirit.

Reich's work can be considered fundamental in establishing a connection between trauma and the body. Building on the work of his teacher, Freud, Reich argued that repressed emotions and personality traits can be seen in body language, muscular tension, and movement. 

Reich believed that a corresponding physical release could be necessary to let out emotions. Although he received some criticism, Reich's work later led to developments in somatic psychology.

In the 1970s, for example, Dr. Peter Levine worked on a psychological approach that emphasized the body and its connection to the mind. This could be seen as a clear refutation of much Western thought since René Descartes, who famously posited a dualism between mind and body, arguing for the centrality of thought with his well-known expression, "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito, ergo sum).

Somatic therapy or psychology generally depends on this connection between mind and body and the belief that traumatic experiences can create tangible changes in the human body, especially our nervous system. Somatic therapy typically aims to release tension through physical and mental treatments, potentially healing the mind and body together.

The goal of somatic therapy is usually to identify physical and mental pain and work to heal any psychological scars inflicted by the traumatic event.

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How somatic psychology can help

Somatic therapy usually emphasizes the body and physical factors in mental health. For example, it normally understands that diet and exercise can play fundamental roles in our mental well-being. 

Practitioners of somatic therapy may also look to body language. For example, the way people carry themselves can often say a lot about their present and past circumstances. By considering both the body and mind, somatic psychology's holistic approach can offer a well-rounded perspective.

Most somatic therapy also uses some form of talk therapy, a common staple of psychoanalysis since Sigmund Freud. However, the psychologists who theorized somatic therapy tend to agree that talk therapy alone may not address the full picture, particularly pertaining to how the body absorbs trauma.

Ultimately, somatic therapy may endeavor to bring greater awareness to the body by cultivating this sense in patients. Individuals may become better at releasing certain emotions and tensions by becoming more aware of bodily sensations and how they relate to trauma.

As such, somatic therapy often uses deep breathing, dance, and massage exercises. In this way, some find it more relaxing and effective than treatments that only consist of talk therapy. 

Here are a few ways that somatic therapy may be helpful.

Self-awareness 

Somatic therapy can increase one's self-awareness. Almost everyone has some degree of unconscious actions and thoughts. Somatotherapy may help by teaching you about unconscious behavior and mental activity, potentially increasing your awareness. As a result, you may see changes and identify your emotions more easily. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptom relief

Somatic therapy may be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When an individual experiences trauma, it can manifest in different ways. Somatic therapy generally looks for more subtle signs of trauma and seeks to address them.

Confidence and self-esteem 

Somatic therapy may be beneficial for your confidence and relationships. This may be because it can make you more self-aware and mindful of what you say and your body language.

Possible shortcomings of somatic psychology

Everyone tends to be different, so therapists usually must ensure that they work to find the best treatment for each individual. For example, some people may not enjoy or need somatic therapy, potentially preferring a more traditional talk therapy treatment. 

If a therapist tries to force someone into somatic therapy when it isn't a good fit, this could be a disservice to the patient. The same can be true of trying to force anyone into any school of psychology or therapy that they don’t feel aligned with.

Even within somatic psychology, exploring various exercises and finding the best outlet for each individual can take some time. For instance, some may benefit from voice work, while others may prefer grounding exercises. If the time isn't taken to explore various options, the individual may not experience significant benefits.

There can also be the question of touch. Some people can be sensitive to being touched, particularly if they have experienced physical trauma. It can be essential to establish firm boundaries to ensure that the client always feels safe and respected. If carried out haphazardly, somatic therapy can create more stress and trauma.

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Support through online therapy

Some people may prefer online somatic therapy, which can involve many of the same somatic experiencing methods without being in the physical presence of the professional. Practicing bodywork from the comfort of your home might make it easier to engage with somatic exercises. 

More research may be needed regarding the efficacy of online somatic therapy. However, a large body of evidence generally suggests that online therapy can be just as effective as its face-to-face counterpart. Online therapy can be used to address and treat many mental health disorders and concerns.

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Takeaway

Somatic psychology generally focuses on the connection between mind and body to address mental health concerns, especially those related to traumatic experiences. It may use talk therapy in conjunction with physical exercises, such as deep breathing, dance, and voice work, to alleviate symptoms of PTSD and other mental health disorders. Somatic therapy can increase self-awareness, self-esteem, and confidence. You may attend somatic therapy sessions in person or online via an online therapy platform.

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