What Is Somatic Therapy And How Does It Work?
By Julia Thomas
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Debra Halseth, LCSW
Until very recently, most Western medical practices have tended to treat mind and body separately. However, there's been a new emphasis on the mind-body connection in the last few decades. Doctors are becoming more aware of the psychological aspects of physical illness. More psychologists are learning to use somatic therapy as a way of addressing mental health issues, too. If you're considering finding help to address emotional problems, it's a good time to learn what somatic therapy is and how it can help you improve your mental health.
What Is Somatic Therapy?
Somatic simply means 'having to do with the body.' A somatic therapy of any kind is one the deals with the body.
As a form of psychotherapy, somatic therapy is a way of affecting emotional changes via the body. Talk therapy is combined with mind-body exercises in a holistic approach to treating PTSD and other mental health issues. The theory of this type of somatic therapy is that our body's natural response to a threat is extremely helpful for immediately dangerous experiences. However, the nervous system can become stuck in this state of tension, arousal, or shutdown. At this point, the nervous system remains in that state on a chronic basis.
The idea behind the somatic therapy used to deal with trauma is that traumas from the past caused instability in your autonomic nervous system. You may feel both emotional and physical effects of that instability. Psychologists use somatic therapy to get your ANS back into balance.
Somatic therapy isn't just one type of therapy, though. A wide array of physical techniques can be used to bring about positive changes in the body and mind. Your therapist may specialize in one of these techniques, or they may use more than one to suit your specific needs.
Types of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy takes many forms. Beneficial somatic therapies can be found in nearly every culture, from ancient Eastern practices to recently developed Western techniques. The following list is just a sampling of the many somatic therapies available.
- Postural integration
- Sensory Awareness
- Body-mind centering
- Kinetic awareness
- Martial arts
- Polarity therapy
- Trigger point therapy
- Somatic experiencing
- Meditation in movement
- Neurosomatic therapy
- Somatic gene therapy
Somatic therapy is used most often to help people who have experienced trauma or abuse. People with PTSD often benefit from these types of techniques. However, somatic therapy can also be used effectively for people suffering from depression, anxiety, addictions, relationship issues, and other mental health disorders that come with distinct physical feelings and energy disturbances. People who are bothered by unexplained pain can often get relief with somatic therapy as well.
Some somatic therapies are helpful for treating pain as well as specifically-identified physical diseases, whether they're inherited or acquired. These therapies may help with life-threatening illnesses like cancer and cystic fibrosis.
Benefits of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy is mind-body therapy in that it relies on the connectedness of mental and physical processes. After all, your mind works with your body and your body with your mind to make you who you are and to create the physical and emotional pain you experience. So, somatic therapy makes sense, but how can you benefit from it?
During the process of somatic therapy for trauma, your counselor helps you reframe your traumatic experiences in a way that helps you overcome their negative effects on your mind and body. Also, you can learn to have a greater and more positive sense of self. Your self-confidence increases, and you become more positive. You can reduce or stop worrying, gain a sense of hopefulness, and personal power, improve your ability to concentrate, and become calmer and more resilient to stress. There are physical benefits to body therapies, too. You may find you become more active. Your pain and discomfort can diminish dramatically.
Other somatic therapies can allow you to deal directly with chronic physical pain and treat life-threatening diseases. Somatic gene therapy is a recently-developed way of inserting normal genes where abnormal genes are causing disease. This therapy is expected to become much more common in the next few years.
Neuro Somatic Therapy
Neurosomatic therapy helps people whose pain, tension, and other symptoms are closer to the physical end of the mind-body spectrum. NST addresses problems in the nervous system, the skeletal system, and the soft tissues. This therapy identifies the underlying sources of physical pain and tension. It is often used at pain management centers to help people deal with chronic and unexplained pain. The primary techniques used in neurosomatic therapy are massage, posture work, and exercises that correct imbalance.
Somatic Gene Therapy
Somatic gene therapy is one of the ways doctors can help your body fight cancer. It can be used for diseases that you inherited from your family or acquired since you were born. What distinguishes somatic gene therapy from other types of gene therapy is that genes bearing information for health are inserted into the cells in your body rather than into reproductive cells. This prevents the new genetic material from entering your reproductive system, so any children you have will still be your children in every way. It also allows the doctor to target specific cells that are causing damage, such as tumors, or a specific type of cells that are weakening or dying off, such as in degenerative diseases.
Somatic Experiencing Therapy
Somatic experiencing therapy begins by dealing with the bodily reactions to the stress that's related to the trauma you've experienced. It is a body-first type of therapy. Depending on the therapist you choose and what techniques they employ, you may not talk about anything having to do with the traumatic experience other than your physical sensations then and now, and the physical symptoms that still bother you. To the somatic therapist, the body memory is far more important than the thought content of that traumatic memory.
The therapist observes your reactions and asks you what you're feeling. Then, you may be asked to do the physical movement or action that triggers that specific negative reaction. As you activate it slowly, you can identify the sensations you're having right before that physical reaction in a clearer way. Somatic experiencing allows you to release or discharge the energy buildup from that physical reaction in a safely and gradually. This can be done in several ways, including the therapy techniques of titration and pendulation.
In titration, your therapist takes you through the memories you have of the trauma. They instruct you to notice changes in your body that come up as you describe the traumatic event or situation in detail. If you have any physical symptoms, your therapist helps you deal with them as completely as possible at the moment they occur.
In pendulation, your therapist guides you from a state of relaxed homeostasis to a state of unstable arousal like what you experienced during the traumatic experience. Then, they help you regain homeostasis. This is repeated several times, allowing you to discharge the energy you've been holding down since the traumatic event happened. During the time that energy is being discharged, you may feel anxious, uncomfortable, or nauseous. However, your somatic therapist helps you move back into a state of calm each time. As you do this work, you learn how to come back to that relaxed state on your own.
Talk Therapy Used With Somatic Therapy
Psychotherapy can help you deal with trauma, pain, or changes in your physical health, no matter what type of somatic therapy you have. Here are a few instances of how talk therapy can help you:
- You can learn to embrace life again after recovering from a genetically-caused disease.
- You can gain a better perspective on mental health and relationship issues that came up due to your illness.
- You can learn relaxation techniques to help reduce your tension and cope with stress more effectively.
- You can improve social skills and become less isolated than you might have been when you were suffering from the effects of trauma, pain, or illness.
- You can decide how you want to live now and make positive steps toward that end.
You can talk to a licensed therapist about how to deal with your traumatic reactions, pain, discomfort, and disease without leaving the comfort of your home. Counselors are available at BetterHelp.com for online therapy wherever and whenever you want to start.
'You only have one body' is a profound statement and one you need to remember when you are in physical or emotional pain. Until you deal with the physical and emotional effects of trauma or disease, you can't heal your body completely.
A somatic therapist can help you regain your health and access the power of your body and mind to make the changes you want to make. With the help of a counselor, you can live a healthy life on every level and enjoy the emotional benefits of overcoming many kinds of suffering. Soon, you can be on your way to a happier, calmer, freer, physically comfortable, and perhaps even a more satisfying life!