What Is Somatic Therapy?

Updated December 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Until recently, western medicine treated mind and body separately, contrary to the somatic approach. 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 approach uses a body-centered approach to connect the mind and body and improve symptoms related to various mental illnesses.

Are You Curious About Somatic Therapy?

What Is Somatic Therapy?

The American Psychological Association (APA) of somatic experiencing therapy is “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 is also known as somatotherapy.

When we talk about somatic therapy as a form of psychotherapy, we’re generally talking about a specific type called somatic experiencing. This is a form of body psychotherapy where the aim is to get in touch with your body and become aware of suppressed emotions in session. We’ll cover more about what this may look like below.

Autonomic Nervous System

Therapists who use somatic experiencing therapy understand 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 towards major organs, and thickening blood. While these changes helped humans escape physical dangers in the past, they are not always useful for modern stressors. Additionally, constant stressors can cause our bodies to become stuck in a constant 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 in body aches, headaches, nausea, and other symptoms.

Balancing Your ANS

Therapists can use somatic therapy techniques 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.

This approach doesn’t always look the same across physical therapies, however. A wide array of physical somatic therapy techniques can be used in conjunction with standard talk psychotherapy. This also varies in the United States and around the world. Your therapist may specialize in one of these physical sensation techniques, or they may use more than one to suit your specific issue or needs.

Somatic Therapy Techniques And Examples

The following list includes techniques that can be used in sensorimotor psychotherapy.

  • Breathing exercises

  • Vocal work

  • Sensory awareness

  • Body-mind centering

  • Dance

  • Kinetic awareness

  • Martial arts

  • Ayurveda

  • Yoga

  • Massage

  • Postural integration

  • Reiki massage

  • Acupressure

  • Meditation

It’s important to note that you’re in control of your experience with somatic therapy. Before you start working with a somatic therapist, you can speak with them about what techniques and approaches they like to use to see if you’re a good fit. As for how these techniques work, they all have one thing in common, which is that they require you to connect with your body.

Applications

Often, somatic therapy is used to help people who have experienced trauma or abuse. People with PTSD in particular can benefit from these types of somatic therapy techniques. One 2017 study investigated the impact somatic experiencing sessions had on those living with PTSD and found that this type of therapy improved both the severity of PTSD symptoms and depression. 

However, somatic therapy can also be effective for people experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, relationship issues, and other mental health disorders. Another study investigated the impact of somatic therapy on tsunami survivors. Results showed that after eight months, 90% of participants experienced significant improvement or complete delusion of “intrusion, arousal, and avoidance.”

Benefits

Somatic therapy psychology encompasses a range of mind-body therapies and relies 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’ll notice that they include 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 what emotions or feelings this discomfort is related to. For example, by tuning into the tension and pain that is present in your body both before and after therapy sessions, you can notice how relieving emotional stress leads to the release of physical stress.

Getting In Tune With Your Body

From a physical perspective, somatic therapy helps 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 have more regular movement. It may also help 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. Tuning into these feelings is often a sign that individuals have experienced events they wish they didn’t. However, when an individual leans into how their body is feeling, they may be able to better understand what emotions lead to these feelings. In the future, they can connect physical feelings with certain emotions, which allows them to be better prepared to act accordingly.

Integrating Somatic Practices Into Talk Therapy

Talk therapy is a term that encompasses a vast majority of client-therapist, client-psychologist, or client-counselor relationships. 

Talk therapy that integrates somatic practices may help participants:

  • Learn to improve quality of life during or after recovery from or management of a physical illness or trauma.

  • Gain a better perspective on one’s emotional, psychological, and social health as well as how these connect with the physical body.

  • Learn relaxation techniques and mind-body exercises to help reduce tension and cope with stress more effectively.

  • Improve and develop social skills.

  • Reduce any isolation that occurred as a result of trauma, physical pain, or illness.

  • Decide how you want to form your life now and make positive steps toward your future. 

Are You Curious About Somatic Therapy?

Get Started With Somatic Therapy

If you’re interested in exploring somatic therapy, or learning more about it, connecting with a licensed therapist is a good place to start. It’s important to note that not everyone practices 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 can turn to online therapy. Since online therapy allows you to meet with your therapist virtually, you can connect with providers from across the country. This increases the chances you can connect with someone who is experienced with somatic therapy.

While there hasn’t been much research conducted regarding online somatic therapy, researchers have looked at other types of online therapy. Studies suggest that online therapy may be just as or more effective as in-person therapy for improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, and panic disorder.

Takeaway

If you’re interested in exploring how the physical and emotional bodies relate, you may want to consider somatic therapy. This type of therapy can help you understand how emotional symptoms may manifest physically, and also help you to decrease both physical and mental stress.

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