What is a Somatic Approach to Therapy?

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Somatic approaches to counseling and therapy pay attention explicitly to the physical reactions that accompany psychological issues or symptoms. They take into account current information about the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and how it works. (The ANS is the part of your nervous system that controls things like heart rate, blood pressure and other non-conscious functions.) Traumatic experiences overwhelm the body’s natural defenses. Sometimes people heal from this on their own; sometimes we don’t. When that happens, we develop some form of PTSD (or something similar to it).

Somatic Therapy: Why it’s needed

Many of the approaches to therapy that are used today are cognitive and behavioral. This means they focus on what you think and what you do as well as (sometimes) how you feel about it. But the problem of PTSD is not primarily a problem of thoughts, nor of behavior. It’s a problem of emotions, bodily sensations and perception (like flashbacks). In PTSD, these elements are out of balance, far out of balance. So it makes sense that a therapy that addresses more than just thoughts and behavior is needed to impact the symptoms. That’s where somatic therapy comes in. (Read more in Psychology Today about this.)

Somatic Therapy: What it Isn’t

When I say that a somatic approach to therapy works with the body, I’m not talking about massage or touch; these things can be helpful, but that’s not what I provide. A somatic approach does involve talking. But we don’t just talk about problems, issues, ideas, solutions, relationships and the other things that more traditional “talk therapy” involves. Instead, we actually work with your ANS to jump-start your natural healing process and move it forward. While this involves talking, we’re talking about you as a whole person–with emotions and physical reactions–not just about your thoughts.

Paying Attention

Everything starts with paying attention. In modern culture, we are used to using (or abusing) our bodies. We feed them, exercise them, allow them to rest–sort of like we do our pets. We think of ourselves as brains that own bodies. But this is a flawed perspective. We are bodies. Our brains are just a part of us, even if they are a very important part.

So the first aspect of a somatic approach is to learn to simply pay attention to our physical selves. When you’re angry,
for example, what does it actually feel like? What do you feel in your chest, in your arms or legs, on your skin? To work with anger, we don’t just work with the thoughts that go with it, we work with the ANS reactions, the physical reactions that we don’t consciously control. Paying attention is the beginning of this.

Taking it Further

Of course, there is more to a somatic approach than just paying attention. If we are going to change, the physical reactions we have will need to change. This is particularly the case with PTSD. The symptoms of PTSD (whether due to adult trauma or childhood trauma) are mostly not conscious reactions. They are not things we choose. They are things that happen even though we don’t want them to. To change them, we have to involve the system that manages those reactions, the ANS.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this. If you’ve heard of EMDR or Trauma Dynamics, you’ve heard of approaches to therapy that work with the body to heal the effects from past events that still linger with us. There are other approaches, and there are new ones being created all the time, along with modifications of the “old” ones (almost all somatic approaches are new, based on a modern understanding of how the ANS works).

If you live in Colorado Springs and have physical reactions that you don’t like (the agitation of anxiety, the listlessness and muscle pain of depression, flashbacks or uncontrolled anger), then you may benefit from some of the somatic approaches I can provide. Please contact me (below) to see if we’re a good fit.

I appreciate any comments. :)