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What is Somatic Therapy?




For many of us, after having gone to therapy for a few years doing the usual CBT route, we start to get a little antsy. Yes we get to talk about our past and explore some new ways to be in our present, but it just doesn't feel like quite enough.

If you're like me, maybe you've noticed that sometimes, no matter what you do, those same patterns of feelings and behaviours exist in your life and no matter how many times you go through the CBT thought/feeling/action wheel, you just can't quite find the relief you were looking for.


Somatic Therapy is an up and coming modalities which was created by Dr. Peter Levine. Dr. Levine has created a form of therapy called Somatic Experiencing, which in its core, provides clients with an opportunity to notice the subtle shifts, cues and inner landscape presented to them by their autonomic and central nervous systems. The goal of Somatic Experiencing is for clients to not only think about what they know of their past experiences, but to get a visceral experience of what patterns still remain in their day to day functioning, layered below that which we have come to call "normal".

Somatic Therapy is much the same as Somatic Experiencing, though Somatic Experiencing Practitioners go through a very rigorous and extensive training program to bring even more to their clients.


Somatic Therapy (I may refer to it as Somatic Informed Therapy, Somatic Therapy, or Somatics throughout my post, and I do mean them interchangeably!), is a form of therapy which calls upon our senses, movement, mindfulness, imagery and visualization. The word itself, "Somatic", stems from the word soma, or body. Somatic essentially means, relating to the body.


Sometimes when we speak about healing, trauma and experiences stored in the body, we may mean it or perceive those statements metaphorically. What Dr. Levine's research, and all those who are now exploring this form of therapy, are seeking to explore is the possibility that it is not simply a metaphor, but something that can be perceived on a neurobiological, cellular, and chemical level. A concept that I use to contextualize trauma, or chronic stress patterning in the mind/body, is that of a bow and arrow. If we repeatedly allow the string of the bow to snap back into place without releasing an arrow, over a short amount of time the string will begin to fray and the wood of the bow to crack and deteriorate. The reason for this is that the kinetic energy from my arm pulling the string taught then travels...nowhere. The energy simply gets absorbed over and over again by the wood and string of the bow (and maybe my arm. Ow). However, if we allow the energy to escape the mechanism by shooting an arrow off into a target, now only some of that energy is cycled back into the bow. The rest is spent on the arrow's trajectory, and sent back down into the earth as the arrow hits its target.


Stress, and trauma along with it, are energetic. The chemicals produced in our body at the detection of threat have a few jobs, but all of them are to do something. Whether that's run, fight, freeze or faint, some process is being asked of our system. And when we are either unable to do that process, or we stop ourselves from doing it, where does that energy go?


Back into our body. Into our cells. Into our muscles. Into our gut. Into our fascia. Into our deep tissue.


This is the first part of what Somatic Therapy seeks to support is the releasing of that stored energy. We do so by allowing some of the activation (energy) to come back up into the body, ever so slightly, and allowing the body then to complete the process it initially demanded. Perhaps that means to allow someone to scream and shriek. Perhaps that means to curl up in a ball and shake. Perhaps that means shifting the hips ever so slightly. We do so in a gentle way, the body doesn't need much to gain access to those old stored patterns - it remembers. It s subtle, slow and nuanced work, safely touching back in on the felt memory of a potentially violent and dangerous time. Yet by doing so, we allow our body to release some of the tension, potentially saving ourselves from further deterioration and cracking. Some symptoms folks with PTSD may experience are not mental at all, but gastrointestinal distress, arthritis, asthma, chronic pain, and cardiovascular disease (Pietrzak et al).


The second part, in my opinion, of Somatic Therapy is the tender work of re-conditioning our nervous system. Many of us have heard of fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses at this time. There are many theories, some I will explain in future posts I've no doubt so keep an eye out!, but for now let is suffice to say that our inner systems of threat and safety detection are always feeling out the environments we find ourselves in. They have learned since we were in the womb what can feel safe, and what does not. The nervous system is biased by our early childhood experiences and every experience we've had ever since. Somatic Informed Therapy is an invitation to come into a therapeutic relationship, one of inherent trust and safety, and allow clients to dip their toe back into the memory or sensation of a stressful, potentially dangerous, experience. We call this titration. The nervous system will likely respond to the threat again, warning us of danger, and bring about certain symptoms (anxiety, fear, nausea, panic, tears, etc). Then, as we are still in that safe environment and relationship, we gradually let the nervous system (and the whole body) attune to the space. To notice the safety that is present in tandem with their stress response. As the body starts to acclimatize to the safety around it, it starts to regulate. We oscillate back and forth from these states, gradually allowing the nervous system to experience the "trigger" (whatever was perceived as a threat) without as much of a visceral response. The trigger and the behaviour can uncouple, and the nervous system can experience the world with less activation and therefore brand new possibilities for the individual.


Somatic Therapy holds a lot of promise, and it is still only now being researched and implemented. In my own clinical practice, I can't tell you the number of times I have seen body based mindfulness and tender exposure to that which feels threatening in a safe environment offer clients something fruitful and rewarding. It is deeply uncomfortable, opening up to the recesses of ourself that have developed for the sole purpose of protecting us. Yet, when we are willing to go into those hurt places and ease out some of what's been stored there, it can truly be a breath of fresh air.


Thank you so much for reading!

If you have any questions, or you'd like to experience Somatic Therapy for yourself, please send me an email at resonantenergytherapy@proton.me


References

Pietrzak RH, Goldstein RB, Southwick SM, Grant BF. Physical health conditions associated with posttraumatic stress disorder in U.S. older adults: results from wave 2 of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2012 Feb;60(2):296-303. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2011.03788.x. Epub 2012 Jan 27. PMID: 22283516; PMCID: PMC3288257.


Payne P, Levine PA, Crane-Godreau MA. Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Front Psychol. 2015 Feb 4;6:93. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00093. Erratum in: Front Psychol. 2015;6:423. PMID: 25699005; PMCID: PMC4316402.


Salamon, M. (2023, July 7). What is somatic therapy? Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-somatic-therapy-202307072951


Elman I, Borsook D. Threat Response System: Parallel Brain Processes in Pain vis-à-vis Fear and Anxiety. Front Psychiatry. 2018 Feb 20;9:29. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00029. PMID: 29515465; PMCID: PMC5826179.



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