What Is Somatic Therapy?
Many more people are seeking out talk therapy these days as the stigma around mental health keeps shifting. While this is an incredible step forward, talk therapy is often not enough, especially for those who have experienced trauma.
I found this to be the case for me when my mental health unexpectedly took a turn for the worse in 2021. Until then, I had been in traditional therapy for just under a year, and I had weekly hour-long sessions that were a valuable way to vent and feel heard. But when I started experiencing debilitating intrusive thoughts and rumination, I knew I needed more.
Internal Family Systems is a form of therapy that involves tuning into the body’s sensations to uncover (and heal) old sources of pain.
First, I was advised to seek out a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) known as exposure and response prevention (ERP), which is currently considered the “gold standard” for healing obsessive-compulsive disorder. ERP purposefully exposes the patient to their fears, coaching them not to resort to their compulsions but to sit with the anxiety instead. The goal is to teach the patient that they can handle their anxiety and don’t have to force it away with compulsive actions or thoughts.
Though ERP works for many people, I found it incredibly confusing and triggering. I was already in pain, and ERP felt like a lot more pain with no help or support. Because my compulsions were almost entirely in my head (e.g., rumination, searching for certainty), I learned to distrust every thought I had. It wasn’t until I found an internal family systems (IFS) practitioner that things finally started to improve in my mind.
“The goal of somatic therapy is to help individuals release emotional and physical trauma that is stored in the body.”–– Calandra Balfour
IFS is a form of therapy that involves tuning into the body’s sensations to uncover (and heal) old sources of pain. It “focuses on the connection between the body and the mind,” says Calandra Balfour, a UK-based somatic trauma-informed practitioner and wellness expert.
“[IFS] involves working with the body to address psychological issues,” Balfour explains. “The goal of somatic therapy is to help individuals release emotional and physical trauma that is stored in the body.”
IFS practitioners can be traditional therapists (PhDs, LMFTs, LCSWs), or they can be coaches who are certified through the IFS Institute. For example, I work with a coach trained in both IFS and Gentle Trauma Release.
Somatic, or body-based therapy, is a group of methods that “look at the connection of mind and body and use both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing,” as defined by Luke Sniewski, PhD, a New Zealand-based wellbeing coach, somatic therapist, and author of Somawise.
If we’ve lived through difficult experiences, we likely have some old “stuff” trapped in our bodies.
If we’ve lived through difficult experiences, we likely have some old “stuff” trapped in our bodies. For example, I’m still working through the aftermath of being bullied and body-shamed as a teenager, which shows up in my body as a racing heart or a lump in my throat. Before I started IFS, these sensations led to anxiety, panic, and racing thoughts. Now, when I intentionally tune into them, they almost invariably turn out to be linked to deep feelings of sadness, grief, and fear.
If you have a body, you already have all the tools you need to heal, but most of us are disconnected from our bodies in the modern world, and so we might need guidance to reconnect with our inner wisdom. In this way, somatic therapy “is an acknowledgment and respect for the wisdom that each and every one of our respective bodies has,” says Sniewski.
“When we do include the body in the healing process, we move towards a more complete and holistic healing experience.”
How Is Somatic Therapy Practiced?
My first IFS session was like nothing I’d ever experienced—almost like hypnosis. My therapist encouraged me to follow a sensation in my body and “have a conversation” with that part of me in my head. I don’t know how it works, but I was immediately reminded of a difficult childhood memory. The goal was to ask my younger self what they were experiencing and what they needed from me to feel better. In each session, we would connect with different parts of me and help them understand that they were safe now. The healing process is gentle and gradual, encouraging curiosity and self-compassion.
Somatic therapy isn’t just one thing—there are many ways for therapists to integrate the body into their practice to help clients improve their mental health.
That said, somatic therapy isn’t just one thing—there are many ways for therapists to integrate the body into their practice to help clients improve their mental health, though the general principles are the same.
“During somatic therapy, a therapist helps an individual become more aware of their bodily sensations and how they are connected to their emotional state,” says Balfour. “By focusing on these sensations, the individual can identify and release any emotional or physical trauma that may be affecting their mental health.”
While any practice that centers the link between mind and body can be considered somatic therapy, the formal practices developed by mental health professionals include Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Hakomi Method, Body-Mind Centering, Authentic Movement, Craniosacral Therapy, Myofascial Release Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Felt Sense Therapy, and EFT Tapping, according to Balfour.
For anyone eager to try these methods but confused about which one to choose, both experts stress that no method is strictly “better” than another and that the most important thing is to check in with yourself when trying one to see if it feels supportive to you. It’s okay to try a few methods before settling on one. The goal is to feel safe enough to heal.
How Can Somatic Therapy Help Us?
Simply put, somatic therapy is the “inner work” we hear so much about, Dr. Sniewski explains. “With talk therapy, you might turn on the light in a dark room. When you turn the light on, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is done because as soon as you turn on the light in a dark room, you see that there’s a big mess to clean up,” he says. “Somatic therapy is the process of cleaning up the mess after we see what it is that we’re working with.”
“Somatic therapy is the process of cleaning up the mess after we see what it is that we’re working with.”— Dr. Luke Sniewski
Patience is essential throughout this process because the journey to reconnect with our stored pain is often long and difficult. The work is well worth doing, though, allowing us to “access and release deep emotions and trauma that can be difficult to address through talking alone; increase self-awareness and understanding of our emotional experiences; improve our ability to manage stress and regulate our emotions; [and] help us feel more connected to our bodies and minds,” says Balfour.
For me, I experienced deep anxiety as a defense mechanism to avoid feeling emotions that I sensed would be too overwhelming—grief and terror specifically. In connecting with my inner child (well, my inner family, I guess) and with the sensations in my body, I am now better able to let myself safely feel those emotions. Most of the time, this just means crying a lot. Sometimes, it also means imagining what I would do if I could go back to a painful time in my life and act in a way that might bring me closure. For example, if I’m dealing with a memory of bullying, my therapist might have me physically act out answering with a great retort, or keeping my head high, which the younger version of myself couldn’t do in the moment. This helps your body complete the cycle of trauma, letting it release old pain that no longer serves you.
How Can We Reap the Benefits of Somatic Therapy?
While the most supportive way of integrating somatic therapy into our lives is to seek out a qualified practitioner, there are resources to help you reap some of the benefits safely without one.
“Anything that helps to improve the mental connection with the physical body can be beneficial, such as mindful movement practices, breathwork, mindfulness meditation, yoga, or body scanning,” says Balfour. “There are many short and simple somatic practices available on YouTube that can be easily accessed. While these practices may not replace the benefits of somatic therapy, they can still promote overall wellbeing and reduce stress.”
“The more connected we are to our bodily experience, the greater the benefits we experience.”–– Dr. Luke Sniewski
When engaging in these practices on your own, try to bring attention to the sensations in your body as much as you can. “What is more important is the degree to which we’re connected to our body during the yoga or dance practice,” Dr. Sniewski suggests. “The more connected we are to our bodily experience, the greater the benefits we experience.” Don’t forget to be gentle with yourself, though, and not to push yourself into discomfort.
If you’d like to learn more about somatic therapy, these books are wonderful places to start:
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
- Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine
- Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté
- Alchemy of the Heart by Michael Brown
- Somawise by Luke Sniewski, PhD
- Healing Trauma with Dr. Peter Levine documentary
- The Somatic Movement Summit podcast
Iris Goldsztajn (she/her) is a freelance writer and editor based in London, UK. Her work has featured in British Vogue, Marie Claire, Refinery29, SELF, Bustle and many more. Iris can typically be found on her way to a fitness class or with her nose in a good book.