What is somatic therapy?
Most talking therapies revolve around, well, talking. We know that this can be incredibly powerful, with more and more studies revealing the effectiveness of certain types of talking therapies. The premise behind somatic therapy is to combine the power of traditional talking therapy with more body-centric approaches.
Counsellor Ian Wallace explains what somatic therapy is, including how therapists use the approach in sessions, and how clients may benefit from this type of therapy.
Our feelings are thought to impact our bodies physically and the idea behind somatic therapy is to identify and release negative emotions that have become stuck in our bodies. These emotions, such as stress and trauma, are believed to contribute to physical symptoms including chronic pain. Being able to recognise when certain emotions come up physically allows us to release the physical tension and work through them more easily.
An example often used to describe the concept is to think about an animal that has run away from a predator. The stress that’s created in its body needs to be released and, as well as running away, you’ll likely see the animal shiver or shake itself following the attack in order to complete the stress cycle.
This is something we are not very good at as humans. While we are unlikely to be in life or death situations regularly, our brains treat everyday stresses like a full inbox or running late for the school run in the same way. And if we don’t move enough physically to complete the stress cycle, those chemicals can continue to course through our bodies.
Using somatic techniques can help us resolve physical symptoms so we are more easily able to address the psychological symptoms.
Somatic therapy techniques
Different therapists may use different techniques depending on their preferences and training, however, the ones you are most likely to come across during somatic therapy include:
The aim of grounding is to help you come back to the here and now, something that can calm the nervous system. Often, when we’re feeling activated by stress, anxiety or trauma, our minds rush back to the past or ahead to the future. Through grounding techniques, we can root ourselves in the present moment to help us realise we’re safe.
An example of a grounding technique is to feel your feet on the ground, wiggling your toes to activate your sense of touch. Focusing on the feeling of our feet on the ground helps us come back to our bodies, calming down the nervous system.
The hope with somatic therapy is to arm you with the tools you need to support yourself once your sessions with your therapist are over. Part of this involves teaching you how to recognise physical and emotional symptoms and which self-regulation tools can help you deal with them then and there.
Titration and pendulation
Rather than diving head-first into traumatic memories, somatic therapy believes in pacing this work so you experience any distress in small doses, and from a place of strength. Titration is the term used to describe this process, working slowly and carefully to release and discharge tension from the body at a pace that works for you.
Pendulation is used to support this process, guiding you gently between stressful content and calming content. This helps you work in a balanced way that your mind and body can handle.
A key part of any therapeutic work, boundary setting helps you to stay present and respond to demands in a way that supports you. This is about recognising your needs and putting boundaries in place that will protect you in accessing these needs. Increasing your self-awareness here is key so you can recognise in your body how it feels when boundaries are crossed and how you can respond.
Helping you to listen more closely to your body, a somatic therapist will likely use movement in their work with you. Encouraging you to use certain postures and gestures to help you gain insight into your experience, your therapist will help you follow your physical impulses.
Acts of triumph
These can be especially helpful when distress from a past experience has become trapped in your body in some way. The idea here is to gently drop into the physical sensations you felt at the time and then act out what your body really wanted to do at the time. For example, this may mean using your legs to move away from a situation. The hope is that this can help your body find a sense of resolution and process what happened.
When tension starts to be released from the body, it can move throughout the body in a sequence. A somatic therapist can help you identify and recognise these sequences as they happen, allowing you to move through each movement mindfully and ensure the sequence is able to complete.
Types of somatic therapies
Outside of the somatic therapy techniques mentioned here, there are several approaches that build on this framework and sit within the somatic therapy family. Some examples include:
Somatic experiencing – this trauma healing modality uses techniques like titration and pendulation to help you notice and release physical reactions to past events.
Biodynamic psychotherapy – this approach helps you tune into the non-verbal communication your body is using to communicate with you and may involve massage techniques.
Brainspotting (BSP) – this therapy looks at eye positioning to access deeper emotions and target the physical effects of trauma.
Emotional freedom technique (EFT Tapping) – EFT Tapping (also known as psychological acupressure) is a form of therapeutic intervention that can be effective in helping a range of issues, such as stress, anger and anxiety. This approach seeks to release blocked energy in the body using a combination of tapping techniques and voicing positive affirmations.
The Havening Technique – incorporating touch, distraction techniques and eye movements, The Havening Technique looks to reduce anxiety and stress associated with past memories.
What can somatic therapy help with?
Somatic therapy can be helpful for a range of concerns, but it is believed to be particularly supportive for the following concerns:
Anyone who is seeking to build a better relationship with themselves and develop personally can also benefit from this approach. Many of the tools and techniques shared will be supportive regardless of an existing diagnosis.
So far, the science-backed evidence to support the approach is limited, with more research needed to learn about its effectiveness. There are, however, many people who find support through this approach, often when other talking therapies have failed.
Be aware that the physical focus of somatic therapy may not be suitable for everyone. Bear in mind what would be comfortable for you and don’t hesitate to talk through any worries with your therapist before deciding to go ahead.
Finding a somatic therapist
If this is an approach you’re keen to explore, we recommend chatting with a somatic therapist to learn more. Ensuring your therapist has had training in this area is key as well as learning more about their work to see if you resonate with them. Trust is an important part of the process, so try to make sure you feel comfortable with the therapist so you can get the most out of your experience.
When you’re ready, use our search tool to find a somatic therapist, read through their profile and reach out to those you’re interested in working with to learn more.