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Somatic therapy may sound unconventional, but it’s actually a proven method that helps to relieve us of our past traumas.
Somatic Therapy: More Than Just “Body Stuff”
“I hear you do that funny stuff with the body,” a potential new client says.
It’s funny to hear somatic therapy described that way.
But yes, I do work with the body, and I am not referring to touch. Although touch is part of somatic
work it is not the topic of this article.
I am so glad that the word is out that therapists work with the body. Because, in the same way that I cannot imagine assessing a client’s functioning through a lens other than attachment-based, I cannot imagine assessing my therapeutic interventions without a client’s body reaction.
Somatic therapy is a whole new world of therapy, one I was introduced to about the same time I
entered private practice. I am in the middle of two different three-year training courses in somatic work,
and have completed another one, alongside many colleagues who are somatic junkies like me.
Our personal and professional worlds have expanded with our knowledge, and this knowledge has allowed us to help our clients, specifically the traumatized ones, to extents far beyond what we had ever thought was possible — in the gentlest of ways.
What is Somatic Therapy?
Put simply, somatic therapy is when we directly address the way the body experiences stress and/or
trauma through body-based interventions in conjunction with talk-based interventions. It was first developed by Peter Levine, whose insight into trauma and its effects on people was adapted from his observations of animals in the wild. He observed that animals in the wild recover relatively quickly and easily from traumatic events, like escaping a predator! He then sought to understand human trauma and recovery as part of the mammal family.
Dr. Levine’s work outlined a model for understanding this capacity for self-healing from a somatic perspective versus a cognitive one, as a deer obviously can’t engage in talk therapy to process the trauma of being pursued by a lioness during a hunt for food. The deer’s trauma can only be processed through the body.
There’s a riveting video clip called Trauma Bear which elucidates this concept. It is pure poetry, showing a bear becoming traumatized in a chase in which it feels like the prey, and when it survives, its body somatically releases the traumatic aspects of the chase, namely through uncontrollable shaking and the involuntary movement of its paws in a running motion.
Just like animals, our bodies hold our trauma.
Our bodies hold all of our past and present trauma. When we think of the time a teacher embarrassed us, our hearts begin to race, our palms feel sweaty, and there’s a tingling in our arms or feet. That’s all part of our body remembering the trauma and not letting us live in the present. It may become a problem when we need to meet our daughter’s teachers at PTA or register her for school, even if your teacher has long since retired.
Our body reacts to the past. Somatic work helps our body let go of this trauma so that we can go to PTA ourselves instead of taking our husband or sister along, or putting on a face of makeup to hide our fears.
Somatic work doesn’t just help clients, it helps therapists too.
I had my own fascinating somatic experience when I was taking my very first somatic training workshop. I volunteered to be the client in the demo and was asked to share an issue that could be addressed somatically. Of course, as a therapist I have absolutely no issues, so I had to let someone else do it.
The issue I chose was my constant restlessness throughout the training, which was caused by my anxiety about my son’s upcoming MRI scan. There was obviously nothing I could do about the reality of the scan, but could I alleviate the anxiety and physical symptoms accompanying it? The answer was yes.
But that isn’t even the fascinating experience I wanted to share.
Before the instructor/therapist began the actual work, she asked me if I was comfortable in my chair and in my positioning. I had never thought about being comfortable in my chair. I was a therapist for a number of years at that point and barely paid attention to what seemed like such an insignificant detail of my work.
This got me to pay attention. I noticed how my feet did not touch the ground, my neck felt strained, I faced the left instinctively, and my herniated disc was acting up. She encouraged me to find space within my body to make adjustments for my comfort. I took a book as a support under my foot, I moved my chair so that my neck would be in line with my chin and not off center, and I positioned my body to alleviate the pain of the herniated disc.
That was all I needed.
Somatic therapy allows you to focus on just the body:
In another type of therapy, I may have cognitively explored why my neck and face are always turned left. I may have dove into it’s meaning and ramifications. In a cognitive-based therapy we could have explored the meaning of my back pain, and how being too short to reach the ground with my chair affects me. And then I could have done exercises, physical therapy, or yoga to alleviate the symptoms.
But in that short segment of preparation, when I placed the book under my feet, I understood the concept of groundedness in my body in ways simply discussing it could not achieve. I may not be certain why I have spent my life turned to the left, but my awareness of my body has erased all those years of neck pain in three months.
When I sit in my office today, my chair allows my feet to feel grounded on the floor, allowing me to be a more grounded therapist for my clients. I wear the necklace of heart charms my mother gave me, and when I am unsure if my face, neck and body are aligned, I check the middle heart charm against my chin and if necessary center myself. A centered therapist is better for a client than one who is off-kilter.
And, although I still suffer from back pain, I’ve started using a somatic tool called pendulation. It involves pendulating the discomfort of my back to another place in my body that feels neutral, calm, or pleasant. I have many chances to do this because my clients often use pendulation to address the physical symptoms of their anxiety or distress, and my herniated disc hops along for the ride.
So yes, I do that funny body stuff, and now you know why.
Are you brave enough to try it?
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This article was originally published in the Bina magazine.