More people than ever are facing mental health issues today, with their fast-paced and high-pressure lifestyles acting as key contributors. However, on a more optimistic note, we’re seeing a huge rise in the number of available alternative therapies and treatments that can cater to them. In the deluge of offerings available to us, it often becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. What works, what doesn’t? Today we will deal with one of these new offerings, known as “somatic therapy”, and learn more about how it works and whom it may benefit.
The name ‘somatic’ actually comes from Latin, where ‘soma’ means ‘body’. This aptly reflects the very nature of the therapy, which is intended to connect mind and body, using physical techniques to impact the mental state. Initially, somatic therapies were developed to help trauma victims overcome their PTSD. However, over the years, it has expanded its reach to include individuals suffering from all kinds of mental pressures. Read on as we dive in deeper and unpack what somatic therapy is all about.
- Somatic therapy is an alternative therapy that uses the body-mind connection for healing, unlike traditional talk therapy,
- Somatic therapy is used to treat PTSD, anxiety, grief and addiction,
- Therapists in this field believe that our mental states impact our physical states and thus use mind-body exercises to release stored trauma in the body, bringing relief to mind.
What is somatic therapy?
There are numerous forms of therapies that try to help us think in different, more constructive ways. They work to identify and break old thought patterns, replacing them with more positive and rational ones. An example of this is CBT. Somatic therapy, however, is completely different. Rather than focus on the mind, this therapy takes a body-centric approach and aims to use the physical release as a way to bring about mental and emotional well-being, targeting the mind-body feedback loop.
The therapist will use certain techniques such as exercises, dance, meditation or other body movements to unlock past trauma, aiming to tackle the negative emotions that may get trapped in our bodies. After all, after stressful events, our bodies do indeed change. The stress hormone in our bodies, called cortisol, spikes up, as do our blood pressure and blood sugar.
Digestion slows down, and our muscles tense up. These are just some of the effects of stress, and if prolonged, may even lead to additional physical manifestations such as body aches, hyperventilation, constipation or insomnia. Somatic therapy thus aims to reverse this powerful connection between body and mind, using the body to tap into healing the mind.
How does it work? What are the uses of this therapy?
How somatic therapy works vary greatly, as it can take many forms. One of these types is standard somatic therapy, where the patient is asked to discuss their issues with therapists, who in turn guide the patient to focus on and alter their physical responses. Falling into this category is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).
Here, the patient goes over a traumatic experience they may have had whilst moving their eyes rapidly from left to right. Doing this simultaneously is hypothesised to dampen the power of those heavily emotional memories through the formation of new associations in place of the old ones and is thus often used to help those suffering from PTSD.
Whether it actually works is still up for debate as further research is being conducted, though a 2014 review found that 24 randomised control trials (RCTs) showed EMDR to be effective in healing emotional trauma. The same study also found that 7 out of 10 RCTs showed EMDR to be more effective and quicker than trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy.
Evidence in support is growing, as well as its popularity amongst patients and therapists, who use it to treat not only those with PTSD but also those suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction and grief, among others.
What are the types of somatic therapy?
Somatic therapy comes in many different forms. However, we will cover four of the main ones below.
1. Somatic Experiencing (SE)
In SE, as created by Dr Peter Levine, the goal is to help patients gain awareness of and release bodily sensations resulting from past trauma. The thought here is that along with our ‘fight or flight’ responses to threats, and we may have a ‘freeze’ response, where instead of fighting or fleeing, we freeze and become immobile in action, despite being incredibly mentally aware.
This energy accumulates over time and manifests in physical sensations such as dizziness, heaviness or aches and pains. Thus, through somatic experiencing, therapists guide their patients to gradually acknowledge and release this stored energy. This is often done using a pendulum approach where patients switch back and forth between sensations associated with trauma and those that are linked to comfort.
2. Hakomi Method
Another type of somatic therapy employs the Hakomi Method, as developed by Ron Kurtz in the 1970s. Here, the patient is guided to direct their attention towards their bodies and use this to uncover ‘core material’, i.e. unconscious material which may be causing trauma or psychological disturbances. The idea is that unconscious emotions can be elicited and tackled through sustained mindfulness of the body, right from facial expressions to posture and gestures.
The Hakomi Method is grounded in five principles: mindfulness, organicity (i.e. treating individuals as wise living systems), nonviolence, mind-body integration, and unity with others. A typical session covers mindfulness and guided focus on certain thoughts, images and feelings and is accompanied by guidance from the therapist as required to reframe and more objectively process any deterring beliefs. This method is often used to treat trauma, depression, anxiety, and ADHD.
3. Sensorimotor Therapy
This form of somatic therapy was developed by Pat Ogden in the 1980s, building upon the fundamentals of the Hakomi method and integrating them with other fields, including physiology, psychology, sociology and neuroscience. This therapy combines cognitive and somatic techniques through body-based talk therapy, using the physical body to help reframe traumatic experiences and memories into strengths for the patient.
In a session, the therapist would recall the events leading to a traumatic experience, focus on the physical manifestations, and gauge if any movements they would have liked to have made were cut off. The therapist works with the patient to complete those movements and help them move out of the fight or flight response, where they can think more clearly about the event at hand and gain a feeling of safety in their bodies when revising any unpleasant past memories.
4. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
EMDR was created in the 1980s Dr Francine Shapiro, who noticed that certain eye movement patterns helped decrease her negative emotions. She researched this with others and saw the same effect, one that was greatly multiplied when the eye movements were accompanied by cognitive therapy components. Today EMDR involves a session of up to 90 minutes, where a therapist will provide guidance, so your eyes follow a rapid movement back and forth whilst you simultaneously recall disturbing events.
This is thought to dampen the hold of emotionally charged memories and hence is growing in popularity for PTSD treatment, panic attacks and anxiety. The therapy appears to be safe and free from negative side effects. However, research around its effectiveness is limited, as current studies have had small sample sizes.
What techniques are used in somatic therapy?
To support a patient in building a connection between the mind and body, therapists use a few key concepts and form the basis of somatic therapy. These are detailed below.
1.Body awareness:Building body awareness forms a foundational part of somatic therapy. Helping an individual to understand and observe subtle physical changes helps build a deeper connection between body and mind and thus use the body to tap into the mind. Patients are taught to observe these sensations through various mindfulness techniques.
2.Grounding: Grounding is one of the most central techniques in somatic therapy and is concerned with connecting us physically to our surroundings, dropping us into the present moment. This can help those with frequent flashbacks or anxiety associated with certain memories but is also a great addition to meditative practices. Grounding simply means perceiving ourselves as embodied and can help when we feel a sense of overwhelming emotions.
Grounding can mean anything that allows us to feel something like this, right from literally planting our feet onto the ground or doing simple sensory exercises such as naming five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and taking one deep, slow breath.
3.Resourcing:Resourcing, as the name suggests, is a technique whereby an individual prepares resources that provide a sense of security and safety to turn to in moments of emotional distress. Such resources may include memories of positive experiences, people and places that provide comfort, thinking about relationships, one’s strengths and achievements or even imaginary places of calm. The individual is guided to dwell in the physical sensations of calm and joy associated with these resources so they can use these to overpower any physical discomfort arising from traumatic memories that might resurface.
4.Titration: Titration allows small levels of distress to come through, but only in amounts that can be dealt with by the individual. The aim of doing this is to allow release from the body so that pent-up tension can receive an outlet. This also helps an individual to strengthen and build tolerance, rather than simply avoiding their memories.
5.Pendulation: Pendulation is used in parallel with titration and refers to pendulating between stressful and non-stressful content. An individual may visit a painful memory for a short span of time but then oscillate towards a set of resources that provide comfort and empowerment. This allows for the gentle release of the painful stored emotions.
6.Sequencing: Sequencing refers to the process of observing which order the physical release of tension occurs in, for instance, first observing a tightness in the chest and following it through the body till it reaches a catharsis through tears or a movement in the legs or arms. This requires a sense of mindfulness and helps build a connection to one’s own body. Honouring the body’s sensations and impulses this way can provide a deep sense of relief and freedom.
What should one keep in mind about this form of therapy?
As with any type of therapy, one must be prepared emotionally and mentally to work through painful memories and feelings. Somatic therapy also involves physical touch, so consent and openness to this are also important, as is a clear and positive relationship with a trusted therapist. Certain victims who may be sensitive to touch, such as those who have been affected by sexual abuse, may want to deeply consider whether this type of therapy would be truly appropriate for them, as it could be triggering.
It is also important to be prepared for a realistic outcome of this type of therapy, as the body of research around it is in the early stages, albeit promising. Any type of therapy takes time and effort, and its results and effectiveness may vary greatly from person to person. Patience is key, but so is having a realistic outlook towards the process and journey.
In summary, whilst traditional forms of psychotherapy rely on talking, the rapidly emerging area of somatic therapy uses a body-based approach to providing treatment. Through observation of the physical manifestations of trauma, unpleasant past memories can not only be resurfaced but reshaped with the help of a therapist, such that the pain associated with those memories is attenuated. This type of therapy shines a light on the powerful link between the mind and the body and uses the body as a path toward the mind.
According to this type of therapy, trapped emotions need to be released from the body to support holistic healing. Current research, albeit limited, provides favourable support to this type of therapy, and it is indeed gaining traction amongst therapists and patients alike. However, for very deep-rooted mental health issues, one might be advised to use more traditional talk therapy in conjunction with somatic therapy.
Disclaimer:The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new health care regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.