What Is Somatic Therapy?
Until recently, Western medicine primarily treated the mind and body separately, which can be contrary to the somatic approach which combines physical therapies with an emphasis on mental health. A new emphasis on the mind-body connection has emerged recently as doctors and therapists make new advances, with somatic therapy being an example. This kind of therapy typically uses a body-centered approach to connect the mind and body and somatic therapy can help improve symptoms related to various mental health disorders. You may connect with a licensed mental health professional experienced in somatic therapy in person or through an online therapy platform.
What Is Somatic Therapy?
One somatization definition is from the American Psychological Association (APA) defines somatic therapy as “the treatment of mental disorders by physical methods that directly influence the body, such as the administration of drugs (pharmacotherapy) or the application of a controlled, low-dose electric current (electroconvulsive therapy).” It can also be called somatotherapy.
However, when we talk about somatic therapy as a form of psychotherapy, we’re generally talking about a specific type of somatic therapy called somatic experiencing therapy. This is a form of body psychotherapy in which the aim is usually to get in touch with your body by improving body awareness and noticing suppressed emotions and can be a type of trauma therapy.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
Therapists who use somatic psychotherapy generally believe that emotional traumas of all kinds can cause instability in your autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Human bodies have evolved to respond to threats by increasing heart rate and breathing, sending blood away from extremities and toward major organs, and thickening blood. While these changes may have helped humans escape physical dangers in the past, they may not always be useful for modern stressors. Additionally, constant stressors can cause our bodies to become stuck in an ongoing state of stress and tension.
If you've experienced trauma, you may feel both the emotional and physical effects of that response. Trauma symptoms may manifest as body aches, headaches, nausea, and other symptoms.
Balancing Your ANS
Therapists can use somatic therapy techniques and somatic psychology to get your ANS back into balance. Many people notice that both physical and emotional or psychological symptoms of disorders, such as depression, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), improve with this type of therapy.
This approach doesn’t always look the same, however. Practitioners of somatic therapy may use a wide array of physical somatic therapy techniques can be used in conjunction with standard talk psychotherapy. Somatic therapies can also vary around the world. Your therapist may specialize in one of the physical sensation techniques discussed below, or they may use more than one to suit your specific needs.
Somatic Therapy Techniques
The physical sensations that may be used by somatic therapists include the following techniques.
- Breathing exercises
- Vocal work
- Sensory awareness
- Body-mind centering
- Kinetic awareness
- Martial arts
- Postural integration
- Reiki massage
It can be important to note that you’re generally in control of your experience with somatic therapy. Before you start working with a somatic therapist, you can speak with them about which techniques and approaches they like to use to see if you’re a good fit. As for how these techniques work, they all usually have one thing in common, which is that they may require you to connect with your body.
Often, somatic therapy is used to help people who have experienced trauma or abuse*. People with posttraumatic stress disorder, in particular, may benefit from these types of somatic therapy techniques. One 2017 randomized controlled outcome study investigated the impact somatic experiencing sessions had on those living with PTSD and found that this type of therapy could improve both depression and the severity of PTSD symptoms.
However, somatic therapy can also be effective for people experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, relationship issues, sexual dysfunction, and other mental health or emotional health challenges. Another study investigated the impact of somatic therapy on tsunami survivors. Results showed that after eight months, 90% of participants generally experienced significant improvement in the negative mental health symptoms they were experiencing because of the tsunami.
*If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, please reach out for help. You can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Somatic therapy often encompasses a range of mind-body therapies and can rely on a connection between mental and physical processes. If you look at the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions such as PTSD or depression, you may notice that they include several physical symptoms.
Therefore, somatic therapy can help you get in touch with, and address, physical symptoms you may or may not have noticed. It can also help you recognize physical discomfort and question which emotions give rise to this discomfort. For example, by tuning into the tension and pain that is present in your body both before and after therapy sessions, you may notice how relieving emotional stress leads to the release of physical stress.
Getting In Tune With Your Body
From a physical perspective, somatic therapy can help you get in tune with your body and where your unpleasant feelings show up in your body. You may find that your physical pain or discomfort decreases with somatic therapy and, in some cases, that you’re able to be more active and enjoy more regular movement. This type of therapy may also improve sleep quality.
Understanding Your Body's Responses
Many people learn to turn away from, or ignore, how their bodies respond to stressful or traumatic situations. However, when an individual leans into how their body is feeling, they may be able to better understand which emotions led to these physical sensations. In the future, they may be able to connect physical sensations with certain emotions, potentially helping them respond accordingly.
Integrating Somatic Practices Into Talk Therapy
Talk therapy is a term that can encompass most therapy techniques.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a type of therapy that integrates talk therapy with somatic practices and may help participants:
- Learn to improve quality of life during or after recovery from, or management of, a physical illness or past trauma.
- Gain a better perspective on their emotional, psychological, and social health, as well as how these connect with the physical body.
- Learn relaxation techniques and mind-body exercises to reduce tension and cope with stress more effectively.
- Improve and develop social skills.
- Reduce any isolation that occurred because of trauma, physical pain, or illness.
- Decide how they want to form their lives and make positive steps toward their futures.
Get Started With Somatic Therapy
If you’re interested in exploring somatic therapy or learning more about it, connecting with a licensed therapist can be a good place to start. It can be important to note that not all mental health professionals may practice somatic therapy, so you may not be able to find a qualified professional near you. However, if you can’t find a local practitioner, you may turn to online therapy. Since online therapy allows you to meet with your therapist virtually, you can connect with providers from many different locations. This may increase the chance you can connect with someone who is experienced in somatic therapy and improve your mental health.
While there hasn’t been much research conducted regarding online somatic therapy, researchers have looked at the efficacy of other types of online therapy. Studies suggest that online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy for improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, and panic disorder, among other mental health disorders.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who are good candidates for somatic therapy?
How effective is somatic therapy for people with depression?
What is the typical length of treatment per SE therapy session?
What should I expect from an SE therapy session?
How does somatic experiencing help people with anxiety?
How does somatic therapy help people who suffered from trauma?
What is the primary objective of SE therapy?
How long should a person do SE exercises?
What are the possible negative side effects of somatic therapy?
When should I expect to see positive results from somatic therapy?
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