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by Andrea M. Darcy
Heard talk of ‘somatic’ approaches but not quite sure what it all means? What is somatic therapy, really?
If you have trauma in your past or have distressing memories and struggle to deal with stress, then it’s certainly worth learning about.
What is somatic therapy?
Psychotherapy was traditionally about talking. But modern therapies have evolved, with popular therapies like CBT involving things like behavioural interventions (trying new ways of responding to situations). And many modern therapists integrate experiential tools like mindfulness and visualisation into their work with clients.
Somatic therapy brings the body into the psychology mix. Somatic therapies are ones which believe that we don’t just hold difficult experiences in our mind, but also in our body, and in the way our body interacts with our mind. Just think of the last few times you had the flu or a cold. How many times were you extremely stressed about something just before?
So somatic therapies aim to treat difficult past experiences using a body-centric approach. Somatic interventions are found to be particularly useful for dealing with PTSD, shock, and extreme stress.
The different kinds of somatic therapies and therapists
Some psychotherapists integrate somatic interventions along with other more traditional forms of talk therapy. So they are already trained as and working as a psychotherapist, but train in new body-based ways of working with clients that they integrate into their practice.
Other practitioners train in body-based psychotherapy from the start, and their practice is based fully around a somatic approach.
So when it comes to questions like ‘what does a somatic therapist do’ and ‘what happens in a somatic therapy session’, it depends on what somatic intervention your therapist uses and what somatic training they have undertaken.
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Using the definition of ‘somatic’ as being body related, things like breath work, and the body scanning that can be part of mindfulness, can be seen as somatic interventions.
But it’s really more developed tools that are seen as somatic interventions. These include the following.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is quite popular at this point. Not least as it can be very effective in helping clients who lived through a traumatic experience free themselves from their PTSD symptoms. In a nutshell, EMDR uses eye moments to reprogram your brain away from reactive responses to difficult memories.
Brainspotting also involves eye movements. It is based on the idea that when we recount a difficult experience, our brain always chooses to look at the same spot in front of us. By working with this spot, and training the brain away from it, it can help resolve the emotional response to the memory.
A very promising newer therapy on the block, a research study found it as effective as EMDR for reducing distressing memories.
This is a system created by well-known American trauma expert Peter Levine. Your therapist puts their focus on your body reactions when you speak a little of your past. This includes your breathing, small gestures, ways of speaking, and the sensations and tensions in your body. Together you then focus on those body responses, seeing your experience through the ‘lens’ of your body using dialogue, movement, and sometimes touch. The aim is to transmute the trauma and find positive ways of coping.
Somatic psychotherapies, where the entire approach is body-based, can be termed differently depending on what country you are in. So whereas in the United States you’ll hear ‘somatic psychotherapy’ being the popular term used, here in the UK it’s called ‘‘body psychotherapy’. And then there is ’dance movement therapy’ which can also come under the ‘somatic psychotherapies’ umbrella.
There is a body psychotherapy school of training in the UK that offers a 4 year psychotherapy program that is officially recognised by the UKCP. Students learn psychotherapeutic thinking alongside things like biodynamic massage and anatomy. You might therefore also hear talk of ‘biodynamic psychotherapy’.
Dance movement therapy
Dance movement therapy is really its own standalone form of psychotherapy, but is somatic. It is a MA level training. A dance movement therapist uses movement to help you understand yourself and your behaviours, so you can function better in the world.
But I’ve heard of other types of somatic therapy
Remember, somatic means body based. And there are many other ‘therapies’ out there that use body-based methods to help you with certain issues. But somatic psychotherapy means that your practitioner is a trained psychotherapist or psychologist.
So things like Rolfing, the Alexander technique, the Feldenkrais method, and Laban movement are what could be seen as somatic practices. They might indeed also be very useful for an issue you are dealing with. But are not forms of somatic psychology, and their main focus is not a psychological one.
Is somatic therapy right for me?
The next time something upsetting happens to you notice your physical response. Does it seem too big for the actual event? Do you feel full of hot red rage, given you an instant headache and muscle tension? Or feel like your heart is beating with sheer panic, are you sweating? Or do you feel totally numb, like you’re even floating out of your body? Does all of this result in your overreacting, and creating more stress for yourself, or under reacting? Doing nothing and staying stuck in life?
Often, if we had a traumatic past, we struggle in the present as our body is always going into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Somatic therapies are really useful for helping regulate these responses, so that we can start to respond to daily occurrences in far healthier ways that can start to be life changing.
As for issues somatic therapy helps with? Most mental health issues have trauma or tough experiences at their root. So somatic approaches can help with things like depression, anxiety, stress, addiction, and grief.
Ready to give a somatic approach a try? Working with a highly experienced therapist in a discreet and comfortable environment? We offer EMDR therapy and brainspotting therapy at three London locations. Or use or sister booking site to find UK-wide trauma informed therapists today.