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Somatic Therapy - what is it?

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

This is a question I get asked often, and it can be hard to describe so I'll make an attempt here. The dictionary definition of somatic is 'relating to the body, especially as distinct from the mind'. Western medicine has long made such a distinction between the mind and body that we often think of them as two completely separate entities - in reality our body is usually the first messenger of something unusual going on, and our brain has to catch up and fill in the story. In somatic therapy, we are trying to bring the body and mind back together so that we can more accurately determine what's happening in our reality.

Most of us will have felt the physical effects of emotion; the butterflies in your tummy, a lump in your throat, a tightness in your chest. For some people those feelings can be overwhelming and result in panic attacks or physical illness such as IBS or migraines as manifestations of difficult emotions. For others there may be a disconnect from those sensations to the point that it feels almost impossible to work out what they're feeling at all.

Many times I will ask clients to describe what they're feeling and they say they don't know. They don't have the words. I ask them to think about what they're feeling in their body and some look at me quizzically, as if I've asked them something really strange; others still say... 'I don't know'. Somatic therapy is about reconnecting those dots, joining up what's happening in our mind and body so that we can more easily recognise what state we're in.

Much of the somatic work I do is centred around Polyvagal Theory (Stephen Porges and Deb Dana are my go to experts). The vagus nerve is also known as 'the wandering nerve', because of it's far reaching paths through the human body, coming from the brain stem all the way down into the abdomen. Simply, but not solely, it is responsible for telling the brain what's going on in the body (and sending messages back down), and as part of the parasympathetic nervous system helps our body to come back into balance (or homeostasis) when it's experiencing a stress response. Sometimes when we have experienced chronic stress or trauma, the sympathetic nervous system (activating our fight or flight response) can go into overdrive and our vagus nerve struggles to keep up with bringing it back down, leaving us feeling on edge or anxious. Over time this can have an effect on our over all physical health - I'll write about that another time. By learning how to notice and recognise the cues our body gives when it is stressed, we can also learn exercises to help us come back into a calmer space. Increasing polyvagal tone by regularly practicing the exercises is almost like lifting weights to make our muscles stronger, increasing our resilience to the weight of life's stresses. I work with clients to figure out the triggers for stress responses, as well as the glimmers that help lift them back into balance. It doesn't mean that we will never feel stressed - simply that we are more easily able to move back into that connected, easy to live in space. I am still learning, and plan to do much more study into how working with the body can be beneficial in the therapy space, but here are some exercises you might like to try. Pick one that resonates with you and try to notice how you feel before and after.

  • Humming or gargling loudly - don't worry about it being tuneful!

  • Breathe deeply into your belly for the count of 4, then breathe out for 6. Repeat as long as you feel comfortable. You can pair this with putting your right hand on your ribs under your armpit and your left on the outside of your arm to feel like a self-hug.

  • Ear massage - really massage every part of the ear, gently pulling away from the head. Repeat on both sides for a few minutes each.

  • Shake it out - particularly useful for discharging stress hormones, shaking your arms, legs and head out can feel like a release.

  • Lie down with your hands interlinked behind your head. Without moving your head look up and to the right as far as is comfortable, holding for 30-60 seconds. You might feel you want to sigh, swallow or yawn - this is a sign your vagus nerve is activated. Repeat looking up to the left.

How did that feel for you? What did you notice about your state before, and after?

I hope this has shed at least a little light on what I mean when I talk about somatic or body based therapy. It is a huge and fascinating subject and one that is very close to my heart. I will no doubt be back to this subject again!

Thank you for reading,

Sam x

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