BODY – Somatics
When we talk about body, mind & soul, the “body” part of the equation is often imagined to be physical fitness, a healthy diet and self-care in the form of yoga, massage etc. That’s all good stuff, and important for overall wellbeing – and I would encourage everyone to give thought to their diet and prevent or treat physical pain and weakness through exercise, physiotherapy, massage, acupuncture etc. – and connect the body and mind through yoga, tai chi and other disciplines that encourage a balanced, centred and present mental state.
However, when someone is suffering from complex psychological and emotional issues such as chronic anxiety, panic disorder, depression, PTSD etc., everything mentioned in the previous paragraph could help that person, but none of it is likely to fix the root cause of the problem. The same could be said at times for talk therapies where the client is going over past traumatic experiences and discussing their emotions at length with a psychologist, but not changing anything in the way their body reacts to traumatic and stressful stimuli – and it all starts with the body. But why?
Why therapy and healing start with the body and the nervous system
Humans are “bottom-up beings”, and what we mean by this is that 80% of the information travelling through our vagus nerve (the body’s information superhighway) is going from body to brain, and only 20% of information is going from brain to body. Think about that. Our body is sending our brain way more signals than our brain is sending our body. So, the idea that our mind is in control of our body is something we like to tell ourselves, but it simply isn’t true. Rather, it is signals from the body that often influence and form our feelings and reactions, therefore we cannot think or talk our way into healing (practising gratitude and thinking positive thoughts can’t cure a broken nervous system, for example).
Somatic therapy focuses on making the body feel safe and relaxed first, before any traumatic material is raised for processing. It focuses on the body-mind connection and the importance of having a regulated nervous system – meaning that you are in a calm and relaxed state (called the ventral-vagal state, or the “rest and digest” state), rather than working from a state of dysregulation in the nervous system (called the sympathetic state – “fight or flight”, or the ventral-dorsal state – also referred to as “shutdown” or “freeze”).
Nervous system dysregulation
Using various body-centred exercises that use both psychotherapy and physical therapy techniques, somatic therapy helps clients release tension they are carrying which is causing the nervous system to be stuck in a dysregulated state (the main cause of anxiety, panic disorder, dissociation etc. plus various chronic health issues such as autoimmune disorders and IBS).
When our nervous system is in a dysregulated state for a prolonged period of time (i.e. not just during the course of one stressful day or one scary experience), we start to feel unsafe in our own bodies and cut off from our own bodies, feelings and ability to be present. And the more we are caused to disconnect from our bodies, through dissociation or physical tension, pain and illness, the more we become trapped in the mind – unable to truly feel or process our emotions, or ground ourselves in the safety and comfort of physical sensation.
We’ve all heard stories about, or directly known people who quit a job they hated and suddenly the health problems they had been suffering from for years disappeared; people who left an unhappy marriage and suddenly that frozen shoulder or chronic lower back pain suddenly eased up. Very frequently, it is our body’s reaction to the situations we are in and the environment we’re living in on a daily basis (the people around us, the job we do, the crazy work ethic we have, our people pleasing or perfectionism, the toxic relationships we have with abusive parents, friends or partners who don’t respect our boundaries etc.) that trigger a state of nervous system dysregulation.
That dysregulated state of fight, flight, freeze or shutdown, when left untreated for long enough, eventually manifests itself in physical symptoms. You develop insomnia, severe anxiety, panic disorder, dissociation, you burn out and suffer exhaustion and collapse, you develop digestive problems, some form of chronic pain or an auto-immune disease. This is your body’s cry for help. And talk therapy alone, good diet alone, rest and recuperation alone, will not reprogramme your damaged nervous system and return you to a state of regulation.
How does Somatic Therapy support a dysregulated nervous system?
Somatic therapies aim to bring the body back to a state of calm and nervous system regulation where the body-mind becomes more able to process difficult memories and experiences in an integrated way whilst in a safe state, which we call being resourced. A somatic practitioner can help you find ways to resource and regulate your body naturally before beginning to titrate (very slowly and gradually introduce) the “outer edges” of the trauma that underlies your dysregulated state and how it is experienced in your body (sensation, emotion) before going slowly in to the deeper layers of your trauma. We do this so your system doesn’t become overwhelmed, because this can make your symptoms worse and perpetuates further dysregulation.
We gently help you address the trauma that caused your nervous system to shift into a dysregulated state by looking at, amongst other things, your attachment style. Often, adults who are living in a dysregulated state for prolonged periods can trace feelings of not being entirely safe back to insecure bonds that they experienced with primary care givers during childhood.
Attachment styles and how they can impact the nervous system
Secure attachment is when you feel safe and comfortable both giving and receiving love. It can contribute to a regulated nervous system. Insecure attachment is when you don’t feel so safe in this area and it can contribute to a dysregulated nervous system. Around half the population (at least 40%) have an insecure attachment style, which means they can experience fear, anxiety and avoidance – or clinginess, co-dependency and an intense need for constant reassurance – in the area of intimate relationships. These are, respectively, the insecure-avoidant attachment style (I don’t need anyone, I’m better on my own and I don’t want others to come too close because they’ll only let me down anyway), and the insecure-ambivalent attachment style (my partner will abandon me if I don’t make a constant effort to keep them close). Both involve some anxiety and fear, which are pretty dysregulating emotions.
We learn about relationships during our infancy and childhood, but relationships in adult life can also impact our attachment style. You can find out what your main attachment style is here by taking this free quiz:
Let’s use the insecure-avoidant style as an example of how insecure attachment can impact the nervous system and cause dysregulation, which then potentially leads to serious psychological and physical problems. If you have an insecure-avoidant attachment style, attachment wounding likely occurred in childhood when you needed consistent love and support from parents, but instead you experienced one or both of the following:
Perhaps a parent was emotionally absent and neglectful, so you learned not to have any emotional needs. As an adult this looks like: I don’t need anyone, I can do everything alone, relationships don’t give me anything and anyone that loves me is probably insane, I’m fine and other people have it much worse than me, etc. You minimise your own needs and refuse to feel your own feelings to such an extent that you become disconnected from your emotions, you dissociate and you lose the mind-body connection, resulting in nervous system dysregulation and the beginnings of chronic health problems.
Or, perhaps a parent was abusive, angry and unpredictable, so you learned to always work hard to please them in order to avoid conflict. Or you learned to freeze and shut yourself down to minimize the chances of them exploding on you. Or you became hyper-vigilant in life and you’re always in fight-or-flight mode because you are always on the lookout for threats. As an adult this looks like: I do everything that’s required of me, I keep myself “small”, I work until burnout, I don’t complain, I avoid eye contact, I don’t know how to relax, I’m “always on”, I can’t sleep properly, I struggle with high-functioning anxiety, panic disorder, perfectionism and over-working, I’m nervous when someone gets too close to me because I know intimacy and close relationships can bring threat, conflict and danger, etc.
To expand further on this second example, if you experienced something like this in childhood, it’s likely that your threat-alert system is always on, so your nervous system is always in a dysregulated state. The fight-flight response was only ever supposed to be switched on for brief periods – until we outrun that bear, or the battle with a neighbouring tribe is over. We were never supposed to stay in this state for weeks, months and years.
Keeping your nervous system in this state consumes a HUGE amount of the body’s energy. Imagine pressing the “sport” button in your modern car, which ups the ratios in the gearbox and sucks more fuel in to the carburettor for increased performance – not just because you’re about to overtake someone and you need that extra power for a moment – but because you’re in such a rush that you need that kind of power constantly in order to get from A to B on time. Think about what that would do to your fuel consumption, over time. Think about what constant fast, hard, aggressive driving does to the components of the car and the engine over time.
That’s what you’re doing to your body when you’re living in a chronically dysregulated state. Instead of being able to use fuel to support regular tasks like digestion, and regenerating and repairing any damage (as the body usually does when it is resting, sleeping etc.) your body is instead forced to direct all its power towards this adrenalin-fuelled state of hyper-vigilance and anxiety.
This can’t go on forever, so at some point the dissociation is going to kick in and the nervous system is going to shut down and go into the dorsal-vagal or “freeze” state in a final, desperate attempt to conserve some energy and minimize the constant threats in a different way – by essentially “playing dead”. And if that still doesn’t work – and the stressors still don’t go away, and rest and repair still aren’t materialising – then the system will collapse. And this is where autoimmune disorders, chronic pain or fatigue and major issues of the digestive system kick in as the body literally tells you, “NO MORE. I will NOT go on like this. It has to stop” (see Dr. Gabor Maté’s wonderful book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress).
This is an extreme example where I’m taking the whole process to the Nth degree. But it does happen. And it’s often when we hit these “rock bottom” moments, and we get physically sick, that we finally acknowledge that, “Hey, there might be a real problem here. It might go deeper than just my body. And I might need some help to get better.” And that is what I’m here for.
Moving towards secure attachment and nervous system regulation
In Somatic Therapy, we use various techniques and exercises to practice processing and then moving away from the insecure attachment (and the traumatic experiences connected with it) that likely contributed to the client’s current state of dysregulation – and moving towards developing a secure bond – first with yourself, and later with others.
We’ve all heard variations of the phrase “You have to love yourself before you can truly love another,” and this is a similar idea but based more on the concept of feeling SAFE with yourself, feeling safe within your own body; feeling calm and regulated, within yourself. This secure bond with self will help you learn to regulate your nervous system independently during times of stress. It will also teach you how to co-regulate with others because, if you can feel calm and safe with yourself, then you can feel calm and safe with others too. You can then learn to co-regulate with somebody else’s body through loving touch and intimacy – without mentally or emotionally detaching or distancing yourself from the experience, as you might have done in the past. Sounds good, right? (Or maybe a bit scary? Reiki is also a great way to experience safe and positive gentle touch if this is a particularly difficult area for you.)
Co-regulating with others is a hallmark of secure attachment, and children with nurturing, patient and loving parents (parents who knew how to regulate their own nervous system and be calm, supportive and present with their children) learn from the beginning that hugs, loving touch and emotional intimacy and vulnerability actually bring pleasure, reward and regulation. When a baby cries, it wants the embrace of a parent who regulates the baby’s nervous system by bringing it close to the parent’s own regulated nervous system. That’s how mammals work. But many of have a different experience and our biological default of secure attachment is disrupted by a dysregulated, neglectful, absent or abusive parent. We need to then learn, as adults, how to find our way back to secure attachment with others.
A somatic therapist will, for example, address trauma by taking you through exercises and visualisations where you are able to express the pent-up energy in your nervous system by being able to finally complete thwarted fight or flight responses from times in the past where you were not able to respond naturally to a threat and you had to instead shut yourself down, practice “people-pleasing” or dissociate. Releasing this energy and completing these natural responses and cycles helps calm the nervous system and shift it back into a regulated, ventral-vagal (or “rest and digest”) state because your body recognises that the threat has finally gone; it’s been addressed, the response has been completed, and tension can be released.
What different practices and approaches does Somatic Therapy include?
Practitioners of somatic therapy address what we see as a split in modern medicine between the body and the mind. Instead, we believe mind and body are intimately connected; that thought, emotion, and sensation are all interconnected and influence one another. There is little point in giving someone pain killers for physical pain that’s related to stress-induced tension. There is little point prescribing Xanax to someone whose issues stem from childhood trauma that they are carrying in their body, in their highly dysregulated nervous system, which is triggering panic attacks and intense anxiety. How will it help? It will merely mask and numb the symptoms whilst the cause is completely ignored. Likewise, how can talk therapy help someone to shift from a sympathetic nervous system state (fight or flight) to a ventral vagal state (safe and social) though merely talking? Surely, in many instances, talking about trauma without any physical support to process the potentially frightening and overwhelming feelings and sensations that arise with it could actually trigger the client into an even more anxious state.
What underlies all somatic therapies is the belief that the body can manifest mental unease – and can also help heal it. There are many different types of somatic therapy, but my training is in Somatic Experiencing, as developed by Dr Peter Levine in the 1970s, and specifically in the area of Somatic Attachment Therapy. Dr Peter Levine has actually been one of my teachers as part of the ongoing training I am completing with The Embody Lab, New York. The main instructors on the course are experienced practitioners such as Dr Levine, Dr Dan Siegel (author of the international bestseller The Developing Mind), Dr Scott Lyons, trauma therapy expert Dr Diane Poole Heller and many more highly respected practitioners and educators in this field.
Somatics in general is a broad term, encompassing many practices that focus on body movement as a means to improve mental health. It originates in physical education movements of the 19th century, and included many practices such as yoga, pilates, and judo. Thomas Hanna introduced and named the concept of “Somatics” in the 1970s. He theorizes that a significant amount of chronic pain is a result of “sensory motor amnesia,” in which neurons in the brain have lost their ability to properly control muscle tissue. He believes that through education, mindfulness, intentional movements similar to physical therapy, a patient can reinvigorate their mind-body pathways (i.e. neurological connections and the nervous system) and relieve chronic pain and conditions.
Also in the 70s, Peter Levine developed a version of somatic therapy called “somatic experiencing,” which came, in part, out of Jungian therapy (see also my Psychological Astrology page for further references to Jungian psychology – there are many connections between the disciplines I’m practising) and his observation of animals. He posited that when humans experience trauma, they can become trapped in the “freeze” part of the fight, flight, or freeze response. Levine’s idea is that we remain frozen in many parts of life as a reaction to an unprocessed traumatic experience (possibly the circumstances of our childhood, or ongoing stress and burnout – it doesn’t need to be one major and extreme, traumatic event).
These frozen parts of ourselves accumulate energy as they should, but expend it in ways that are counterproductive to a healthy life, such as through stress, anxiety, panic and strong dissociation. The goal of somatic experiencing is to redirect and release this energy in healthier directions. Somatic experiencing uses both bodywork and physical exercises along with talk therapy to achieve this goal. It also combines beautifully with Reiki – a practice which can further facilitate the release of trapped and frozen energy and balance a person’s energy field and chakras.
Further approaches to somatics include the Hakomi Method (also developed in the 1970s, by Ron Kurtz; it emphasizes the physical nature of how we live in our bodies, relies on deep and sustained mindfulness, and may not involve any bodywork, as the therapist will guide the patient’s attention to their bodies verbally) and Sensorimotor Therapy (created by Pat Ogden in the 1980’s and 90s, this approach to somatic therapy incorporates ideas from cognitive behavioural therapy and neuroscience).
Useful resources for further information:
A must watch! This great, 8 minute video clearly explains – in a really accessible way – the basics of how the nervous system works and how all kinds of trauma impact on our nervous system function and our ability to connect meaningfully with others (attachment theory).
When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, by Gabor Maté M.D. (2021)
Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the science of adult attachment can help you find – and keep – love, by Dr. Amir Levine & Rachel Heller (2022)
The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, Dr. Dan Siegel (2020)
The Power of Attachment: How To Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships, by Diane Poole Heller Ph.D. (2019)
Academic paper on polyvagal theory: The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system by STEPHEN W. PORGES, PhD
Websites & Articles
Independent articles about Somatic Therapy