A new emphasis on the mind-body connection has emerged recently, with one tool known as somatic therapy being an example. Somatic therapy incorporates a body-centered approach to connect the mind and body, and 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 platform.
The word "somatic" means relating to the body; "somatic therapy" aims to heal trauma trapped in our bodies.
Learning More About Somatic Therapy
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines somatic therapy as “the treatment of mental disorders by physical methods that directly influence the body.”
It can also be called somatic experiencing (SE) therapy, which was developed by Peter Levine while he explored mind-body pathways.
The goal of SE and somatic psychology is to help release trauma and heal other mental health conditions through the combination of body awareness and traditional counseling.
This can also include counseling practices like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) counseling, which can use eye movements to improve mental health after humans experience trauma.
Exploring Somatic Therapy Physical And Mental Impacts
Therapists who use somatic experiencing 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 trauma, stress, or pent-up tension. Trauma response can also lead to these changes in our autonomic nervous systems.
If you've experienced trauma or a traumatic event, you may feel both the emotional and physical effects of that response. Trauma symptoms may manifest as body aches in muscle tissue, headaches, nausea, and other symptoms felt through the body as well.
Balancing Your Nervous System
Licensed therapists can use SE to get your nervous system back into balance during counseling. By using body-oriented techniques such as breathing exercises, dance, or body movement, the nervous system can be impacted at the cellular level. Connecting bodily sensations and body awareness with traditional counseling can be healing for people who have experienced a traumatic event or traumatic memory.
Many people notice that traumatic memories, as well as both physical and emotional or psychological symptoms of disorders (such as chronic pain or high blood pressure, bipolar disorder, digestive disorders, sexual dysfunction, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression) improve with this type of counseling.
This approach will often vary widely, however. Practitioners may use a wide array of physical techniques in conjunction with standard counseling. Your therapist may specialize in one of the specific interventions discussed below, or they may use more than one to suit your specific needs. SE counseling aims to create treatment plans tailored to individuals.
What Are Some Somatic Therapy Techniques?
Typically in somatic therapy, the physical sensations or body techniques include:
- Breathing exercises
- Vocal work
- Reiki massage
One form of somatic therapy is called the Hakomi method. The Hakomi method integrates core elements of mindfulness and nonviolence with the body-centered counseling.
It can be important to note that you’re generally in control of your experience with different types of somatic experiencing therapy. Before you start working with the somatic therapist, you can speak with them about which techniques and key factors 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 while relieving pain.
Often, somatic experiencing counseling is used to help people who have experienced trauma or abuse*. People with posttraumatic stress disorder, in particular, may benefit from these types of counseling techniques.
Examining the impacts of somatic therapy on people experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder, a randomized controlled outcome study found that this type of counseling could improve both depression and the severity of PTSD symptoms. This study was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, which follows a rigorous editorial process involving peer review and includes scoping literature review.
As an evidence-based counseling modality, somatic therapy can also be effective for people experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, relationship challenges, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, 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.
In general, somatic experiencing counseling may help regulate or rebalance the person's nervous system, and allow them to exist in the present moment in a relaxed state without experiencing symptoms of trauma.
*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 experiencing counseling often encompasses a range of mind-body therapies and can rely on the connection between mental and physical processes. If you look at the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions such as PTSD or depression (or the symptoms of people who have faced traumatic experiences), you may notice that they include several physical symptoms. People often describe how traumatic events can become trapped in the body.
Therefore, somatic experiencing therapy can help you get in touch with, and address, physical symptoms you may or may not have noticed. Somatic therapy 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 counseling sessions, you may notice how relieving emotional stress leads to releasing physical stress, or soothing tense facial expressions.
From the physical perspective, somatic therapies 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 and, in some cases, that you’re able to be more active and enjoy more regular movement. Somatic therapy may also improve sleep quality.
Understanding Your Body
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 understandwhich emotions led to certain physical sensations. In the future, they may be able to connect physical sensations with certain emotions, potentially helping them respond accordingly by gaining a deeper understanding of mind-body techniques.
Integrating Somatic Practices Into Talk Therapy
Traditional counseling is a term that can encompass most counseling techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or marriage and family counseling.
Sensorimotor counseling is the 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.
- Learn individualized methods for healing trauma and other mental health issues.
For more information on somatic therapy, visit the U.S. Association for Body Psychotherapy, the nonprofit committed to the advancement of somatic experiencing therapy.
Beginning Somatic Therapy: Important Things To Know
If you’re interested in exploring somatic therapy or learning more about it, connecting with licensed professional counselorscan 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 practicing this form of holistic healing near you.
However, if you can’t find a local practitioners of somatic therapy, you may turn to online therapy. Since online therapy allows you to meet with your therapist virtually, you can find a therapist from many different locations. This may increase the chance you can connect with someone who is experienced in this modality of therapy and improve your mental health. In general, online therapy can range from $65 to $90 per week (billed every 4 weeks), and in-person therapy ranges from $100 to $200 per session.
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 psychotherapy can be as effective as in-person therapy for improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, and panic disorder, among other mental health disorders. It can be important to note that only medical professionals are qualified to give medical advice and administer treatments.