Somatic Psychotherapy

Somatic Experiencing® (SE™)

Somatic based psychotherapy is a form of body-centered therapy that considers the connection of the mind, body and spirit.  It does not consider the mind as separate from the body and works with a person as a whole.  In addition to talk therapy, somatic therapy uses mind-body exercises and other physical techniques to bring a deeper awareness to ourselves and to help release emotions that are negatively affecting our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Somatic therapy can help  a number of emotional issues for example, stress, anxiety, depression, grief and anger, problems, as well as issues related to trauma and abuse. It can also be helpful for conditions related to somatisation (the manifestation of psychological distress by the presentation of bodily symptoms) such as:

 

  • Systemic disorders, e.g. chronic physical pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), arthritis.

  • Digestive disorders such as loss of appetite, irritable bowel, ulcers and crohn´s disease.

  • 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.

  • Sexual function.

  • Addiction

In my practice I use 2 particular somatic based psychotherapy methods, which help bring awareness to the body; Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Mindfulness based Stress Reduction. (MBSR) along with other Buddhist Psychology related principles.

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 related symptoms. Somatic Experiencing aims to help people move past the place where they might be “stuck” in processing a traumatic event.  The word "trauma" is a term that is becoming more widely used in therapy and in society in general.  Here I should point out that trauma is not just related to dramatic events such as being in a war zone, a serious car crash or a hijacking. Trauma can be anything that the body perceives as a threat or stressful situation, even a stressful dental treatment can lead to trauma related symptoms. My blog gives you more insight into how trauma works.

 

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 in health issues such as those mentioned above in Somatic Psychotherapy. 

 

METHOD OF SOMATIC EXPERIENCING

Somatic Experiencing sessions 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. Experiencing the sensations related to the traumatic event in a safe way allows a person to fully process the trauma. Clients also achieve heightened awareness of their physical responses to stress, and they can use these skills to help them in everyday life.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which is based on Buddhist practises was developed in the 1970´s 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 developed and studied since the 1970s for 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 maybe exacerbating symptoms.

Internal Family Systems

Developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980´s, Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an Integrative Therapy based on the concept of healing ourselves through accessing and working with our core "SELF".  That is the innate part of ourselves that is wise, loyal, compassionate and able to help heal our earlier wounds.  IFS (along with many spiritual traditions) believe that we are born with the qualities of the core SELF and as we develop and start relating to the world around us through our family upbringing and life in general, we develop what are called inner PROTECTORS  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 often what is called an EXILED part which has been wounded and is being protected by its protector parts, so it does not have to feel the pain and suffering.  

 

Maybe it would help to give an example.  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.  These feelings within Patricia were too difficult to bear.  In order to survive and cope with these feelings, some protector parts come into try and help the part which has to be exiled due to her fathers behaviour.  One of these parts may say to Patricia, if you work harder then you will be worthy.  This becomes Patricia´s new pattern, to work really hard.  But eventually this overworking leads Patricia to a state of exhaustion and she becomes more depressed and may even take up an addiction to cope.  As an adult we realise this was an early childhood would and the SELF can recognise that she is worthy.  The self as part of the therapy can learn to help unburden the now outdated protectors so that the original exiled wounded part can be healed.  And Patricia hopefully no longer needs to overwork herself in order to feel worthy.  This therapy also utilises the felt sense in the body to work and identify parts.

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