What Is Somatic Therapy?
Discover somatic therapy and how it can help you and the people you love.
Many of our experiences in healing treat our mind and body like they are separate entities. The tradition of seeing things this way is called Cartesian dualism, named after the French philosopher, Rene Descartes, who thought our minds had no physical form and were therefore completely separate from our physical bodies (Descartes, 1993).
Although this dualism has guided scientific and medical thinking for many years, in the last several decades, more and more healthcare providers have recognized that healing the mind and healing the body are in fact closely connected or overlapping tasks. Some of these providers use somatic therapy to treat the mind and body at the same time, helping both heal simultaneously.
Somatic therapy seeks to heal people by helping them perceive how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected to their physiological experiences. Using activities that focus on naming and understanding bodily sensations – and relating them to the thoughts and feelings one is experiencing – somatic therapy puts what is happening in the body front and center, as the starting place for learning about and understanding the rest of one’s experience (Heller, 2012).
Our bodies carry memories of everything that has happened to us, just like our brains do. Those memories get activated and show up in our bodily experiences every day, just like our mental memories. Somatic therapy heals us by focusing on what those bodily sensations are telling us about our reactions to the moment. What memory is my body reliving? What is this experience of my body telling me I want or need right now?
Here are some of the most frequently practiced forms of somatic therapy.
Somatic experiencing is a form of therapy originally designed to treat people who have experienced trauma and are experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD (Levine, 2010). Levine (2010) observed that when people experience upsetting events, they often respond by freezing. The energy that people could have used to respond to the situation in a different way then gets stuck, remaining in the body and being expressed in unhealthy ways, such as anxiety, stress, or illness.
The goal of somatic experiencing is to intentionally enter that state of being frozen, and then find ways of expressing the negative energy – perhaps through bodily movements or shouting or yelling – that feel better and release the energy. Over time, people who practice somatic experiencing learn to respond more effectively (e.g., by releasing that energy in healthy ways) whenever they encounter a new situation that upsets them in this familiar way.
Eye Motion Desensitization and Reprocessing
Eye Motion Desensitization and Reprocessing is usually known by its acronym, EMDR. EMDR is a therapeutic technique where the client talks about upsetting or traumatic experiences to their therapist, while also focusing on an activity or object in the room that isn’t related to their traumatic experience. For example, a client might discuss witnessing a car accident while watching the therapist move their hand back and forth across their field of vision, or while tapping their finger regularly against the arm of their chair.
EMDR appears to work by interrupting the typical physical response we have when we remember traumatic events. Changing our physical response to the memory allows us to change our mental response to the memory, giving us the opportunity to develop more effective ways of thinking about and responding to it.
Hakomi has some similarities to somatic experiencing. Where somatic experiencing focuses on changing reactions to traumatic events, the goal of Hakomi is to gain insight into your existence by remaining in the present moment and being very mindful of your bodily experience. For this to happen, the therapist running the session works hard to establish the expectation that no bodily sensations, thoughts, or feelings are wrong or unacceptable.
In a typical Hakomi session, the therapist might start by noticing aspects of the client’s physical presentation – whether they are slouching, bouncing their fingers, or avoiding eye contact – and then make gentle suggestions about how the client can pay attention to and learn from what their body is doing. Ongoing attention to bodily sensations, choosing to move the body, and sometimes gentle, and consensual touch from the therapist are used to keep the client growing in awareness of how their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and body are interconnected.
Somatic Therapy Exercises
Here are a couple of somatic therapy exercises you could try on your own. Try not to rush through any of the steps suggested here for each activity.
Feeling Like Yourself
Put yourself in a comfortable position. Now, bring to mind the most recent period of time when you felt most like yourself. Place yourself in the situation as best you can mentally, recalling all the details you can. Notice how your body feels right now, as you relive this moment. Next, bring to mind another time you felt this way – that you were being yourself, the best version of you possible in the moment. Notice again what is happening in your body as you try to relive that moment. And as you let go of those memories, can you notice any differences in your body that are still present, compared to how you felt before the exercise?
Settle into a chair. Take in your surroundings and how your body feels in this exact moment. Now, change the positioning of your feel – play around with it until you feel a strong, grounding connection to the floor. Notice how not just the ground, but also the parts of the chair, are supporting you, keeping you upright. Move your body in your chair – be curious and take your time – until you feel as comfortable and stable as possible. Finally, pay attention more to your overall experience. How emotionally and physically comfortable are you in this moment? How can you tell?
For many people, but especially people who have not gotten the results they wanted from pure talk therapy, somatic therapy offers a powerful alternative. I hope you will keep exploring this topic to get a better understanding of which kinds of somatic therapy might be most helpful to you.
Descartes R. (1993). Meditations on first philosophy. In S. Tweyman (Ed.), Rene Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy in Focus (pp. 45-100). Routledge.
Heller, M.C. (2012). Body psychotherapy. History, concepts, methods. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Levine, P. A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.