What does 'somatic' mean and what models of somatic therapy do you use?
"Wounds of the psyche are held in the body. And it is not until we can experience these wounds in a very physical, embodied way that we can untangle them completely." ~ Tara Brach
What are somatic therapies? 'Soma' comes from the Greek word for 'body'. Somatic therapies work primarily with awareness of the body as well as talk. They sometimes use touch. These are often known as 'bottom up' therapies because they engage the limbic system, the lower portions of the brain. 'Top down' therapies work more with the pre-frontal cortex, the upper part of our brain. Bottom up and Top down are both important and the somatic therapies I use engage both to ensure better integration of the work.
Why somatic therapies? The body holds our experiences. This makes it a mine of information about who we are and how we see the world. It is also a site of great wisdom: often when we start working with the emotions and sensations in the body we find answers that we may not have found otherwise. Working this way can bring us to a sense of wholeness and deep connection to self and to life that can be profound and deeply transformative. What has felt tied in knots inside can begin to release and we can feel more empowered in ourselves and our lives.
I have trained in three somatic models of therapy:
Somatic Experiencing® (SE)
Somatic Experiencing® bodywork (an extension of SE)
Integral Somatic Psychology
Key features of a somatic framework include: bringing awareness to the body and how our experiences show up in the body; using awareness and exercises/experiments to see how we can shift the way the experience is living in the body; allowing insight and changes to emotional states arise from this exploration.
You can find more information on each of these below.
SOMATIC EXPERIENCING® Somatic Experiencing® (SE) works by supporting the nervous system to return to balance (or homoeostasis) largely through tracking sensations and shifting awareness. Hence the name, Somatic (bodily) Experiencing (what it feels like).
SE is primarily a trauma therapy, but it is also very helpful for bringing more regulation to your body systems overall. This means that even if you do not feel like you are 'living with trauma' this can be a helpful modality for reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and increasing a sense of connection with your body and life energy. It can also be a useful tool for exploring how to set boundaries, be more assertive in stating your beliefs or needs.
For more information on SE as a trauma therapy go to Trauma and Trauma Therapy. SE works primarily through tracking sensations in the body. We are often SE is suitable for adults and children and has applications to couples work.
SOMATIC EXPERIENCING® BODYWORK What is SE bodywork? SE bodywork brings the support of therapeutic touch to the process. The client remains fully clothed and may remain seated or lie on the massage table. The touch is in the form of hand placements to particular parts of the body (eg. legs, arms, kidney/adrenal area, head). The hand placements can be chosen by the practitioner or the client. Sometimes we will stay with one place or move through a sequence of movements to support the body. Unlike a massage or many other bodywork treatments this is a joint effort between client and practitioner. We will usually be tracking together the changes and what you are noticing in the body, just as we would if we were sitting in chairs without touch. SE bodywork can be used on adults and children.
Why bodywork? Bringing in touch can offer three extra layers of support:
Touch can be comforting and create safety. Caring, safe touch was often missing where trauma has occurred and can be very nourishing and an important part of our repair.
Touch provides an extra level of information to the therapist who is 'listening' with their hands. This can help the practitioner understand better what might be happening and what could be helpful to guide the process.
Touch can provide a way for the practitioner to help contain the experience which can be helfpul in the resolution.
Is bodywork necessary? No. We can always work in other ways.
Is bodywork always best? No. For some people it is contraindicated. Touch can be supportive but it can also be triggering or provoke too much activation. In these cases where touch might be helpful we rely on self-touch and props (blankets or cushions).
INTEGRAL SOMATIC PSYCHOLOGY Raja Selvam, the creator of Integral Somatic Pscychology (ISP) describes this as 'the embodment of emotions'. It is a model that creates 'emotional regulation through expansion of the emotion within the body'. If that sounds abstract, don't worry, I will explain.
What is meant by 'emotion'? Raja defines emotions as 'our best summary of an experience'. And we all know that emotions show up as feelings - feelings in the body. We don't 'think' an emotions we feel it. Some feel great and some feel awful and even frightening.
Why 'emotional regulation'? There is a lot of talk about emotional regulation these days. Essentially what it means is that when our emotions are overwhelming we are driven by them. No one likes feeling lonely, hopeless, ashamed, fearful, guilty. But if we cannot tolerate and feel and work with these emotions in our bodies, we act in ways we regret later: we lash out or we eat or drink or keep busy to try to hide from them. And they are part of being human. We will feel everything on the spectrum (or numb ourselves out so we don't have to feel them up close).
It is also useful to know that when we are overwhelmed by emotions our thinking is compromised and our bodies. We may develop chronic pain or other conditions that are emotions locked in our bodies, waiting to be safely felt.
As we begin to expand these emotions in the body, get to know them, and they become less distressing we can think more clearly and we often gain insight into why the emotion is there and what we need to do in response to what we learn. If you have ever had the experience of being troubled by nagging anxiety or shame, guilt or something less well-defined then this becomes very helpful.
How does ISP work? Many unpleasant emotions become concentrated in one part of the body. You may know this as that 'awful feeling' in your chest, or 'the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach'. By finding where you feel 'good' or 'bad', 'happy' or 'sad' we can work to expand these feelings such that you can embody and tolerate them better. Raja describes this as trying to lift a heavy suitcase with two handles rather than one - we spread the load so we can bear it better.
What do you do? This way of working is less intuitive than Somatic Experiencing, it is more directive by the therapist. It can be profoundly transformative to feel into our deeper states of terror or hopelessness, of rage or joy in this way, with someone with us as a witness and guide can open us up to possibilities in life that were locked away in the old fears and sorrows.
Background Integral Somatic Psychology is the creation of Raja Selvam, a senior SE faculty member. There are elements that are similar to SE, but he has drawn on many other modalities and traditions in the development of this modality.