The word somatic seems to be getting quite popular recently. You might have come across it in somatic therapy, somatic practice or even somatic yoga. Is there merit to this rising popularity? What exactly is this type of therapy and how can it help you? Let's look at it together.

The word soma stems from the Greek language and roughly translates to “of the body.” Thus, when it comes to therapy, the term somatic refers to how the body becomes the main focus and primary entry point for creating change and healing. 

This idea stands in contrast with more traditional psychotherapy approaches that dedicate most of their time to working with thoughts and emotions. For this reason, somatic therapies are sometimes called ‘bottom-up’ approaches as they start with the body rather than immediately from the mind. For example, somatic therapies approach the matter by having individuals become more aware of the felt sense, physical sensations, posture or gestures in a given situation. However, this does not mean that somatic therapy ends with the body and disregards everything else. The notion behind somatic therapy is that addressing the somatic level of experience would inevitably lead to changes in thoughts and emotions as well.

As put by www.health.harvard.edu, “This form of therapy cultivates an awareness of bodily sensations, and teaches people to feel safe in their bodies while exploring thoughts, emotions, and memories.”

You might ask whether it is really that necessary to start with the body—why can’t we skip to the thoughts right away? 

Indeed, by the time somatic therapy emerged, there had been hundreds of effective talk therapy methods in existence. However, their limitations—specifically in healing trauma—have recently become more apparent. More and more practitioners and researchers have expressed a theory where the implicit memory of the body and automatic reactions wired in the nervous system can’t be addressed by talking about them. 

Through evolution, the parts of the brain responsible for powerful survival responses—that play a role in trauma—are millions of years older than the cognitive brain. These parts of the brain do not operate based on narratives or rational thought. Instead, they communicate with us through bodily sensations. That is why working with sensations brings tangible results in trauma-healing work. 

For this reason, somatic therapy often attracts both, people who have never tried therapy and those who have done profound work using traditional psychotherapy such as psychoanalysis, cognitive-behavioural or existential therapy. At some point, they may begin to feel that certain ingrained patterns call for another approach and turn to the wisdom of their body. 

So, what are some outcomes that you might expect from somatic therapy? Here are some examples:

  • learning to understand your automatic reactions to triggering situations and creating new and more adaptive ways to respond
  • increasing your capacity for self-regulation and building a tool-box of self-regulation strategies 
  • restoring the sense of safety in the body and the nervous system
  • increasing the band-width of your nervous system to deal with life's challenges without getting overwhelmed
  • getting out of chronic survival mode and (re)learning to rest and relax 
  • (re)building and restoring your personal boundaries
  • increasing your ability to relate to others in harmonious way

While turning to somatic therapy, it's important to know that this field is relatively new and largely unregulated. Therefore it’s easy to call oneself a somatic practitioner and that’s fine if you are just looking to get a glimpse of it in a one-hour workshop. However, if you are looking to work on your past traumas, attachment wounds or deeply ingrained patterns, it’s probably a good idea to stick to well-established somatic therapies. Some of them are somatic experiencing, sensorimotor psychotherapy, EMDR and Gestalt. 

These approaches have been around for some time and have developed their own philosophies, clinical practice, and research. Plus their therapists go through a rigorous years-long training in order to earn the status of somatic practitioners. Working with one of them would therefore make sure that the things you want to address are approached with attention and care they deserve. 

As a relatively new approach, somatic therapy holds a new promise for people looking to heal from trauma and create new ways to respond to life’s challenges. It does so relying on the wisdom of the body with its innate ability to heal and restore itself leading to the sense of wholeness, safety and well-being on physical, emotional and cognitive levels of human experience.