The whole of us is involved in the healing process. A sensation in the body, an image in the mind, a feeling, an emotion, a movement, a touch, a thought, a memory.
Our mind and body remember our experiences and when we are able to quieten ourselves to sense and observe; we can access its biology, insights, wounds and its infinite wisdom to help us heal.
Somatic based psychotherapy is a form of body-centered therapy that considers the person as whole, meaning It does not consider the mind as separate from the body or spirit. In addition to talk therapy, Somatic Psychotherapy asks us to move within the body and not just focus within the thinking mind. By doing this we bring into awareness a more complete maybe even more accurate insight into our experience. Why? Because the body remembers. We can learn so much from our sensations, feelings, emotions, implicit and explicit memory and so forth. And when we can bring ourselves into the experience of being more "fully present with the mind and body", we can access a healing response.
Somatic Psychotherapy can help a number of emotional and physical issues for example, stress, anxiety, depression, grief and anger problems. It is probably most commonly associated with helping to resolve trauma, which one might say we have all experienced, to some degree. However, the effects and symptoms of trauma for some people deeply impacts their ability to thrive in the present. It can also be helpful for conditions that have been connected to somatisation (the manifestation of psychological distress by the presentation of bodily symptoms) or mind body connection issues. For example:
Systemic disorders, e.g. autoimmune issues, syndromes e.g. lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, chronic unexplained pain, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Digestive disorders such as loss of appetite, irritable bowel, ulcers and crohn´s disease, SIBO, systemic or chronic candida, gut dysbiosis.
Respiratory disorders, e.g. asthma
Cardiovascular system disorders, chronic arterial hypertension and myocardial infarction.
Skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema.
Immune and hormonal dysfunction e.g. Endometriosis, Hashimotos.
In my practice I mainly use 3 somatic based psychotherapy methods:
Somatic Experiencing (SE)
Mindfulness based Stress Reduction. (MBSR)
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
SOMATIC EXPERIENCING (SE)
SE was developed by Peter A. Levine, PhD to address the effects of trauma. Levine developed this approach after observing that prey animals, whose lives are routinely threatened in the wild, are able to recover readily by physically releasing the energy they accumulate during stressful events. Humans, on the other hand, often override these natural ways of regulating the nervous system which can lead to trauma or chronic stress related symptoms. Somatic Experiencing aims to help people move past the place where they might be “stuck” in processing a traumatic event.
THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM AND SOMATIC EXPERIENCING
The autonomic nervous system (ANS), which includes the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), and the enteric nervous system (ENS), is triggered into action when we’re faced with adversity and it governs the fight, flight, or freeze instinct. Although designed to be self-regulating, the ANS can become dysregulated, particularly when the full expression from the trauma is repressed. As a result, the body continues to respond as if it is under threat. Somatic experiencing contends that negative symptoms of trauma—such as anxiety, hypervigilance, aggression, shame and depression can result from the body not being given full opportunity to process the traumatic event. Unresolved trauma when left chronically can result or contribute to health issues such as those mentioned above in Somatic Psychotherapy.
METHOD OF SOMATIC EXPERIENCING
Somatic Experiencing sessions typically involve the introduction of small amounts of traumatic material and the observation of a client’s physical responses to that material, such as shallow breathing or a shift in posture. The therapist will frequently check in with the client to assess and record somatic sensations that may not initially be perceptible to the client, such as feelings of heaviness, tightness, dizziness or tingling, or involuntary body movements. The therapy is carefully designed to avoid re-traumatising or triggering the client and to gently help the client employ self-regulating strategies. A key component to enhancing one’s ability to self-regulate is the practice of alternating, or “pendulating,” between the sensations associated with trauma and those that are a source of strength and comfort.
The aim is to help the client find places of safety, whether that be a place in the body that is not activated by the trauma, or a physical place to retreat to in one’s mind or in the space with the therapist. Experiencing the sensations related to the uncompleted defense responses, allows the client to experience the traumatic event in a safe way; which allows them to fully process the trauma. It is not necessary for the client to talk or discuss the trauma in order for them to process it. Clients also achieve heightened awareness of their physical responses to stress and to triggers which can activate the nervous system. They can use Somatic Experiencing skills to help them in everyday life to assist in self regulation of their own nervous system and create more resilience in general to meet life and its inevitable stresses.
MINDFULNESS BASED STRESS REDUCTION (MBSR)
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which is based on Buddhist practices was developed in the 1970s by John Kabat Zinn in the US. It aims to address prolonged periods of stress, which can lead to poor mental and physical health. By bringing awareness to the body via, meditation techniques and mindfulness exercises, we can reduce our exposure to stress and the potential physical and psychological effects of the stress response which have been discussed above. MBSR has been extensively studied to assess its impact on mental health. It has been shown to reduce anxiety levels by 58% and stress by 40%.(mindful.uk). Along with MBSR for people with chronic and recurring depression or anxiety I may apply Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in line with MBSR this is called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This combines the techniques of Mindfulness with addressing and reconstructing thinking patterns that may be exacerbating symptoms.
INTERNAL FAMILY SYSTEMS
Developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an Integrative Therapy based on the concept that we are made up of many parts, yet in the core of us; there is something that IFS calls our SELF, the innate part of ourselves that is always wise, loyal and compassionate unaffected by any pain or trauma. Other possible descriptions for the SELF might be, our Higher Self, our Essence, Buddha Nature, Atman, or our Tao within. IFS believes that we can heal ourselves through accessing and working with our core "SELF" to heal the parts of ourselves that have been at some time wounded. IFS (along with many spiritual traditions) believe that we are born with the qualities of the core SELF, however, as we enter the world we impacted by our transgenerational traumas, early pre and perinatal traumas, our family upbringing and our experiences in our life in general. At some points in life we inevitably get hurt, disappointed, or traumatised.
When this happens some of our parts have may be forced to take on the role of PROTECTORS in order to protect the part of us that got wounded by these experiences. These protector parts want to keep the whole of us safe from the harm or pain that inevitably comes our way. Underneath our protector parts, there is what is called an EXILED part which is essentially the wound. It is being protected by its protector parts, so it does not have to feel the pain and suffering. However, if left unaddressed, it can lead to other symptoms or problems later on, such as depression, anxiety or behavioral changes such as addiction, self harm or it can lead to chronic health issues.
I would like to give a basic example of the IFS concept to help you understand how it works. Patricia had a father that always criticised her decisions and the way she did things. This led Patricia to feel and believe that she was unworthy and simply not good enough. The feelings related to this within Patricia were too difficult to bear ( her wounded exile develops). In order to survive and cope with these feelings of unworthiness, Patricia has some protective parts of herself that come in to try and help the wounded exiled part from feeling the pain. Each protector takes on a role. For example, Patricia may take on a new belief (protector part) that if she works harder, then she will prove that she is worthy. So she works day and night, eventually this overworking leads Patricia to a state of exhaustion and she becomes depressed. She starts to take up drinking alcohol to push away the depression (another new protector) and to help her cope with her feelings. The usefulness of some of these protectors "the hard worker" and the "alcohol drinker" parts eventually becomes questionable and there is a need to change to a better more helpful approach to self-care. As an adult we realise this was an early childhood wound for Patricia and that now the wiser more compassionate SELF can recognise that she is worthy. The SELF as part of the therapy can learn to help unburden the protectors from their roles, so that the original exiled wounded part can be healed and a better self-care approach can be achieved . Eventually Patricia hopefully no longer needs to overwork herself or drink in order to cope and feel worthy.
This therapy also utilises the felt sense in the body to work and identify parts.
The word SOMA derives from the Greek language, meaning living body.