Somatic psychotherapy, a holistic therapeutic approach, incorporates a person’s mind, body, spirit, and emotions in the healing process. Proponents of this type of therapy believe a person’s thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs can have an impact on physical functioning, while physical factors such as diet, exercise, and posture may positively or negatively affect a person’s mental and emotional state. Thus, those seeking treatment for any number of mental health concerns may incorporate somatic therapy into treatment to be beneficial.
A modality grounded in the mind-body connection, somatic psychotherapy is the largest branch of somatic psychology. Contemporary practitioners of somatic therapy believe that viewing the mind and body as one entity is essential to the therapeutic process. This mind/body entity will move toward healing and growth of its own accord, given the right environment, and interpersonal interactions, when conducted in a safe and respectful manner, can positively impact and help regulate the mind/body.
According to somatic therapy theory, the sensations associated with past trauma may become trapped within the body and reflected in facial expressions, posture, muscular pain, or other forms of body language. Talk therapy can help address this trauma, but depending on the needs of the person in treatment, therapeutic body techniques can supplement more conventional approaches (such as talking therapy) to provide holistic healing.
Somatic psychotherapy (also known as body psychotherapy or body-oriented psychotherapy) differs from body therapy. While body psychotherapy may often result in increased self-awareness, the resolution of psychological concerns and positive changes in behavior, body therapy does not seek to resolve deep-rooted mental health issues or provide psychological insights. On the contrary, body therapy typically involves the use of therapeutic massage, non-therapeutic massages, and cosmetic skin treatments to reduce stress and increase long-term health.
How Does Somatic Psychotherapy Work?
While traditional talk therapies are often able to effectively address many mental and emotional health challenges, somatic psychotherapists believe some people may be able to quickly address deep emotional issues not revealed through talk therapy, simply by paying attention to the communication of the body. Because past trauma or other psychological concerns may potentially have a negative effect on a person’s autonomic nervous system, people experiencing emotional and psychological issues may also be affected by physical concerns such as sexual dysfunction, hormonal issues, digestive issues, or tension in specific parts of the body such as the head, neck, shoulders, or stomach.
Practitioners of somatic psychotherapy can help individuals both become more aware of these bodily sensations and learn to use therapeutic techniques to release any tension the body is holding. Techniques often used in therapy include breathing exercise and sensation awareness, physical exercises such as dance or other movements, voice work, massage, and grounding exercises. During the session, the person in treatment may be encouraged to reflect on patterns of behavior and identify any impact these patterns may have on any new emotions, experiences, or concerns that come up in therapy.
How Can Somatic Psychotherapy Help?
Somatic therapy may help people experience greater self-awareness and connection to others. Participants may find themselves able to better sense their own bodies, reduce stress, and explore emotional and physical concerns.
Somatic psychotherapy can help individuals address a range of issues. Some may choose to seek somatic therapy as part of their approach to treatment in order to improve emotional regulation, address relationship concerns, decrease symptoms of anxiety or depression, and increase self-confidence. Scientific evidence supporting this treatment is limited, but early research suggests somatic therapies may also be helpful when included in the treatment of issues such as borderline personality.
“The bug” diagram in integrative body psychotherapy