What Is Somatic Therapy And How Does It Work?
By: Robert Porter
Updated May 05, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW
Until recently, many Western medical practices treated the mind and body separately. However, the last few decades have brought a new emphasis on the mind-body connection as Western doctors become more aware of the psychological aspects of physical illnesses. More therapists are learning to use somatic therapy to address mental health issues, too. If you're considering seeking treatment for emotional problems, it's a good time to learn about somatic therapy and how it can help you improve your mental health.
What Is Somatic Therapy?
Somatic simply means "having to do with the body." Therefore, a somatic therapy of any kind is one that works directly with the body. As a form of psychotherapy, somatic therapy seeks to enact emotional changes via the body. Talk therapy can be combined with mind-body exercises to treat PTSD and other mental health issues holistically.
Somatic therapy theorizes that traumas from the past cause instability in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our body's natural response to threats is vital for dangerous situations, but the nervous system can subsequently become stuck in a state of tension, arousal, or shutdown. If you've experienced trauma, you may feel both the emotional and physical effects of that instability.
Therapists can 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 create 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.
It's important to understand that many people rely on therapy to help themselves heal. Many people go through trying times, and the traumas we experience can have many physical and emotional consequences. If you're going through problems that have put you in a difficult position, then understand that you're not alone. Let's take a look at common types of somatic therapy, so you can better understand how it works.
Types of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy takes many forms. From ancient Eastern practices to recently developed Western techniques, beneficial somatic therapies can be found in nearly every culture. 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
- Reiki massage
- Somatic experiencing
- Meditation in movement
- Neurosomatic therapy
- Somatic gene therapy
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 techniques. However, somatic therapy can also be effective for people experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, relationship issues, and other mental health disorders. Somatic therapy can be especially helpful for any disorder that physically or energetically impacts an individual. Some somatic therapies are helpful for treating specific physical diseases (both inherited and acquired), and they may also help with life-threatening illnesses like cancer and cystic fibrosis.
Benefits of Somatic Therapy
Somatic therapy is considered to be a mind-body therapy because it relies on the connection between mental and physical processes. After all, your mind and body work together to shape who you are and to create the physical and emotional sensations you experience. So, how can somatic therapy help?
If you pursue somatic therapy to support your recovery from past trauma, your counselor will help you reframe your traumatic experiences, so you can overcome their negative effects on your mind and body. You can also learn to have a greater and more positive sense of self. Your self-confidence may grow as you reduce your worrying, gain a sense of hope, improve your ability to concentrate, and become calmer and more resilient to stress. From a physical perspective, you may find you become more active, and your physical pain and discomfort may diminish as well.
Below are different types of somatic therapies.
Neurosomatic therapy (NST) helps people whose pain, tension, and other symptoms exist closer to the physical end of the mind-body continuum. NST addresses potential issues in the nervous system, the skeletal system, and the soft tissues. This therapy identifies the underlying sources of physical pain and tension, and it is often used at pain management centers to help people deal with chronic or unexplained pain. The primary techniques used in neurosomatic therapy are massage, posture work, and exercises to correct imbalance.
Somatic Gene Therapy
A more recent development, somatic gene therapy, involves inserting healthy genes into the body where abnormal genes may be causing a disease, such as cancer. It can also be used to treat congenital conditions or other diseases that can develop over the lifespan. Somatic gene therapy allows doctors to target specific cells that are causing damage, such as tumors, or specific types of cells that are weakening or dying off, as in the case of degenerative diseases.
Somatic Experiencing Therapy
Somatic experiencing therapy is a body-first type of therapy that starts by addressing the body's reactions to trauma-induced stress. Depending on the therapist you choose and the techniques they employ, you may not talk about your traumatic experiences aside from your physical sensations during the event and the physical symptoms that still bother you. To the somatic therapist, the body’s “muscle memory” is more useful for treatment than your internal thoughts about the traumatic memory.
While you talk, the therapist observes your reactions and asks you what you're feeling. Then, you may be asked to move in a way that triggers a specific negative reaction. As you slowly activate it, you can identify the sensations you're having right before that physical reaction. Somatic experiencing allows you to release or discharge the energy buildup safely, so you can gradually remove the trigger over time. This can be done in several ways, including titration and pendulation.
In titration, your therapist takes you through a traumatic memory. They instruct you to notice the changes in your body that appear while you describe the traumatic event or situation in detail. If you have any physical symptoms, your therapist helps you address them fully when they occur.
In pendulation, your therapist guides you from a state of relaxed homeostasis to a state of unstable arousal that's similar to what you experienced during the traumatic experience. Then, they help you regain homeostasis. They will repeat this process several times, allowing you to discharge the energy you've been holding since the traumatic event occurred. While the energy is being discharged, you may feel anxious, uncomfortable, or even nauseated. However, your somatic therapist will help you repeatedly return to a state of calm. As you do this work, you will learn how to regain that relaxed state on your own.
Talk Therapy Combined with Somatic Therapy
In conjunction with somatic therapy, psychotherapy can help you deal with trauma, pain, or changes in your physical health. Specifically, talk therapy can help you to:
- learn to embrace life again after recovering from a disease caused by genetics.
- gain a better perspective on mental health and relationship issues that came up due to your illness.
- learn relaxation techniques to help reduce tension and cope with stress more effectively.
- improve social skills and reduce any isolation that occurred because of your trauma, pain, or illness.
- decide how you want to live now and make positive steps toward your future.
If you are experiencing physical symptoms alongside emotional symptoms in response to trauma or difficulties, or while living with a complex medical condition, you are not alone. These experiences are more common than you might think, and a variety of treatments are available to help. Many forms of somatic therapy, particularly somatic experiencing therapy, have been studied and found effective in helping individuals heal from trauma and pain. By incorporating talk therapy alongside somatic therapy, you can treat your whole self and find holistic healing. Furthermore, thanks to online therapy services like BetterHelp, you can do so without even leaving home.
If you are considering therapy, BetterHelp can connect you with a mental health professional in a flexible format that suits your schedule and life. You can connect with a therapist via video chat, phone call, or even text message, based on your comfort level, and your sessions are kept as private and discreet as you wish. Recovering from trauma or disease is difficult, and you don’t have to do it alone. Online therapy can support your recovery and help you find healing and wholeness. These reviews show how BetterHelp counselors have assisted others on their recovery journeys.
If you're searching for a therapist who you can trust, who will listen without judgement, and who can even make you laugh, then look no further! Dr. Clifton is all of that and more. He's kind hearted, intelligent, open minded, and the best therapist I've ever encountered. He helped me through some pretty heavy PTSD and in my time working with him I feel like I have control over my life again. Just be prepared to put in the work, but trust me when I say his assignments are not without thought or reason. I finally feel able to concor whatever life throws at me, all because of Dr. Clifton.
"Dr. Mohammed is a very good therapist to work with. She gets me to think and to challenge my core negative beliefs with more positive beliefs in ways that are easy to do. She is a caring therapist who makes me feel validated and is helping me to see my worth as a human being. I highly recommend Dr. Mohammed to anyone seeking therapy especially for past traumas."
A somatic therapist can help you regain your health and access the power of your body and mind. With the additional help of a counselor, you can live a healthy life on every level and enjoy the emotional benefits of overcoming past struggles. Take the first step today.
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