What is Somatic Psychotherapy?
For those who are unfamiliar with the term somatic, its origins can be found in the ancient Greek word soma, meaning body. If you're seeking therapy for help with uncomfortable or intrusive thoughts and emotions you might be wondering "why the body when my thoughts originate in my brain?"
The brain, what we commonly think of as the center of thought, is in fact inextricably interconnected with the whole of the body through the peripheral nervous system and all the signals from the body's physiological processes. (Daniel Siegel) In other words, the brain is not only located in the head, neural net processors around the heart and the gut are part of the larger concept of brain. Somatic Psychotherapists work with the body while working with emotions and thoughts because optimal health emerges from an integration of body mind, and soul.
Undigested experience is stored on a cellular level.
Many of the symptoms related to stress, anxiety, and depression that lead individuals to seek therapy are due to developmental, physical or emotional trauma. Sometimes it is a single traumatic event, other times it is a life of one after another. Even if you have been fortunate enough to avoid suffering any big traumatic events, everyone has had an experience of overwhelm, and trauma is simply an experience of overwhelm that is beyond ones capacity to adapt effectively.
Years ago, while studying massage therapy, I began to realize just how much trauma was stored in my own body, in my cells, impacting my nervous system. This was Big T trauma I had worked hard to heal through traditional talk therapy accompanied by much reading, yet here it was overwhelming me for no apparent reason. I found myself being triggered often, my intense bodily and emotional responses felt beyond my control, and I did not feel safe.
I didn't know it at the time, but when we are overwhelmed by an experience, without the capacity to fully release sensations and emotions that accompany the traumatic event, the undigested experience is stored on a cellular level. Instead of discharging the energies of the overwhelming experience through our bodies we tense up, inhibit, and repress. We may feel under threat even when we are not in danger as the incident gets triggered by sensations that are experienced in the present and activate emotional states. This is what was happening to me, and what I have seen in many of my clients.
In this way, the experience of trauma is not about the past, it’s about a body that continues to behave and organize itself as if the experience is happening in the moment. For this reason working in the present, somatically, is key to healing from trauma and restoring a sense of safety, creative expression and vitality. We need support when we undertake this journey; trauma happens in relation therefore it needs to be healed in relation with a caring and kind other. This is why all of the books and talk therapy had not been enough to promote my healing.
For me the catalyst was mindful touch, for some it is a movement practice such as yoga or dance, yet I had practiced yoga for years without the bodily connection to my stored traumas being awakened. For many it is not so dramatic, a shift in levels of anxiety and emotions that sometimes feel out of your control can be enough to signal that you are not experiencing optimal health. Ideally individuals are exposed to the support needed to work through their healing before having such disruptive and emotionally painful symptoms, somatic psychotherapy offers such support.
Recent research points to the value of somatic psychotherapy practices.
The latest research in Neuroscience, Epignetics, Polyvagal Theory, Attachment Theory, and the treatment of trauma are making Somatic Psychology foundational for effective clinical practice. Science is demonstrating that a perceived, bodily experience of safety, and a felt experience that moves clients from "where they are to where they want to be", with an emotionally available and caring therapist is necessary for lasting results. (Marti Glenn)
Effective therapy needs to help individuals shift their internal experience, or "how the trauma is lodged inside of them... some of the best therapy is very largely non-verbal, where the main task of the therapist is to help people to feel what they feel - to notice what they notice, to see how things flow within themselves, and to reestablish their sense of time inside." Talk psychotherapy alone can convey a defense against feeling, and can distract from helping clients notice what is going on within themselves. (Bessel Van der Kolk)
What does a somatic session look like?
A somatic session is similar to other forms of therapy, I'll listen to you with attuned empathy in a safe non-judgmental and non-pathologizing manner. We may work with past wounds, current stressors, symptoms, and fears, or future worries and goals. In addition, I'll facilitate understanding and integration by emphasizing internal physical perception. For example, I may direct your attention to what sensations are present in relation to a thought or emotion. Since many movements and gestures are outside ones awareness, and reflect an integrative link to our psyche, we may explore habitual and non-habitual gestures, protective stances, spontaneous movement, and frozen or blocked impulses. We are likely to explore how you are in relation or resonance with another, and always with explicitly stated permission, I may incorporate touch.
Somatic Psychotherapists work with clients in a holistic manner bringing greater awareness to the body as perceived from within, supporting healthy integration of body, mind, and relationships. I understand that your body has an innate wisdom and drive toward health, I'll guide you along this path as you acquire insight to ranges of formation, claiming and reclaiming resources needed to grow the existence you envision for yourself.
For a Somatic Sensory Awareness Exercise please visit my March 2016 blog post. To schedule a session online or in San Francisco, or a free 15 min. phone consultation please message me or call 415.570.9409.