The Science of Somatics

Soma is an ancient Greek word, once used to describe the whole person.

Somatic psychotherapies are modalities which utilize the body’s role in diagnostics, as well as the healing process itself. Somatics combines the realms of the body and the mind, which were never to be divided in the first place.

Diagnostically speaking, working somatically means paying attention to the body. Heart rate, muscle tension, and the nature of one’s breath are major indicators of what’s happening in a person’s emotional landscape. When you start tracking these things, you are organically placed on the path to vibrancy, because the body speaks in simple, clear terms. Somatic work takes you beyond the “why” into the “how.” Knowledge and insight seldom exact major changes. You can absolutely know why you’re doing something, yet not understand how to stop or change.

Everyone has had the experience of hearing a sentence spoken with an emotional tone that negates the words themselves. Take the classic childhood interaction of being made to apologize. “Sorrrrrrryyyyy.” Are you really? If you’re the receiver of this kind of apology, you know you’re being ripped off. In the therapy room, we follow these inconsistencies. The body always has something to say. Somatic therapists are adept at helping you listen to the body and follow its messages, because it’s easier said than done. That is a major tagline of somatics! We’re trained in the doing, not only the saying.

Professor Don Hanlon Johnson, eloquently writes, “language emerges from the body, if we only wait and allow it to happen, with ever-fresh solutions to seemingly intractable problems.”

What’s happening in the body tells us both about the specific nature of a problem, as well as how to move through it. If, when taking deep breaths, you find it difficult to let your breath all the way out, this tells us something about your body’s ability to relax. An inability to take in enough air can point to tension that is restricting space. Typically, my client and I both have a sense of why this would be happening from our explorations about their past experiences. But again, now what? For the person struggling to exhale completely, we practice incrementally increasing their ability to relax. This is almost guaranteed to trigger emotions, because of its tie to past experiences. For that reason, somatic work is gentle and incremental. Like learning to play an instrument, you are invited to try something that is at the edge of your range of ability. Each time you practice, your range expands. Sometimes we find that certain contexts, people, or beliefs inhibit that expansion, and we deal with those as we encounter them. Therapy is about learning what it takes for you to feel like yourself, and to express who you are to others.

It’s not magic. It’s basic biology. If you don’t take in enough air, your body signals your brain that it’s in danger. If you don’t break this cycle, you are kept in a perpetual state of low-grade (or not so low-grade) anxiety. The more difficult experiences you’ve had, the more convinced your body becomes of perpetual danger, and the harder it is to recognize safety. Somatic work is very effective for exacting needed changes.

Read my article on the science of the orgasmic cycle for an example of working somatically in the sexual realm.

The body is really good at doing what it needs to do to thrive. When it acts up, it’s for a reason. Listen. Somatic therapists are here to help you make sense of what you feel, and to teach you how to meet your body’s request.

If you’d like to do a little reading on the research, check out the journals listed below. And for even more somatics resources, visit www.usabp.org.

The International Body Psychotherapy Journal
Somatic Psychotherapy Today
Hakomi Forum Professional Journal
Journal of Authentic Movement and Somatic Inquiry

 

Why Therapy Rocks

Let’s clear up some major misconceptions about psychotherapy, because it kinda kicks ass and everyone should understand why.

I’d like to start with something very basic. A few years back, I was in a conversation with a fellow patron at a local diner. When the gentleman asked what I do for a living and I said, “I’m a psychotherapist,” he gasped, furrowed his brow, and said, “Therapy for… psychos?” Now, this is the most extreme of the misunderstandings that I have ever encountered, but it points to a belief that comes up a bit too often. “Psycho” is a pretty commonly used word, and it doesn’t mean anything good. But “psyche” means soul. In fact, even that is a derivation. And it’s root is the Greek word for life. Life! Psychotherapy is the healing of the soul.

Therapy is not something you seek out because you are weak. Therapy engages you more deeply in both everyday occurrences, as well as more acute incidents. By “deeply” I mean that it assists you in understanding your underlying beliefs and needs, which affect most everything you do. When we know ourselves intimately, we are better able to get what we need in order to thrive. It’s for everyone. That said, sometimes we really need it. And that’s ok, too. A big part of therapy is learning when to lean, and when to use internal resources that you already have, as well as the ones gathered from your work with your therapist.

The work done in therapy cannot be done alone. Oodles of it depends on your involvement in the process, of course. But almost every last thing that hurts us is the result of an injury in a relationship with another person. Because of this, it takes another person to provide the external portions of what is needed to heal those wounds. We are hurt in relationships and we heal in relationships. This is a primary reason that beginning therapy can be scary. It means being vulnerable enough to open up to someone. But unlike many other places, therapy is a safe place to do so. We therapists are trained to find out what it takes for you to be exactly who you are. This is what makes the therapeutic relationship different from friends, family, or co-workers. This brings me to the next vital point.

It matters that you like your therapist. While you must expect there to be occasions of discomfort or disagreement, you should have a general sense of your therapist being your kind of person. This doesn’t have to mean that they are your same gender, race, age, etc. In fact, much healing can happen when you have diversity in the room. However, you must have some basic comfort and connection in order to get anything done. You could hate your G.P., and still benefit from the medicine she prescribes you. But the “medicine” of therapy is relational. You must be willing to take it in to benefit from it. If you’re seeing someone for the first time, give yourself two or three sessions to make a decision about the fit.

Therapy is not a place to go to feel crappy about yourself. You will not be shamed or judged for who you are, what you believe, or what you do. You will be assisted in identifying what works for you and what doesn’t. One of my favorite articulations about therapy is the metaphor of the thorn. We must find the thorn, and then we must pull it out. In that process, there is some pain and difficulty, but then it’s out! And then you will then be able to practice new or better ways of being in the world. Remember, the goal of therapy is for you to realize and actualize who you have in you to become.

If you’re a Los Angeleno, contact me. If not, check out the search engines at GoodTherapy.org or PsychologyToday.com. And enjoy!