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.