WHAT IS SOMATIC PSYCHOTHERAPY?
By Chinedu Uzorue
Somatic psychotherapy is a body-centered therapeutic treatment for dealing with psychological traumas. Somatic psychotherapy is a branch of somatic psychology which studies the relationship between the body and the mind in relation to past experiences.
Somatic psychotherapy was developed during the 20th century, based on the works of German psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich – who immigrated to the United States during the Nazi invasion of Austria
Proponents of somatic psychology hold it that since the body and the mind are both connected, you can affect your mind through your body and affect the body through the mind.
Somatic psychotherapy is a psychotherapy approach that is based on the theory that instability of the ANS (autonomous nervous system) is the root cause of trauma symptoms.
The method is a holistic approach, incorporating the individual’s spirit, mind, and body as well as the emotions. The underlying theory has it that a person’s emotions, attitudes, thoughts and beliefs affect the physical functioning of the person, while factors such as the person’s posture, diet and exercise can influence the mental and emotional states of the person – whether negatively or positively.
It is known that our experiences in life affect our mind, whether knowingly or unconsciously. There are troubling events in our lives that can cause psychological traumas. The effects of these past traumas may include physical symptoms like pain and digestive issues or other symptoms like anxiety, anger, depression, and so on. If the trauma is not properly handled it may lead to more agony for the person.
Somatic psychotherapy may be used as a partial treatment for improving emotional regulation, reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and for improving the self-confidence of traumatized individuals.
It is important to note that somatic psychotherapy also called body psychotherapy or body-oriented psychotherapy is quite distinct from body therapy. While body therapy does not go deep into the psychology structure of the individual and involves the use of massage to relieve the person of stress and to improve their health, somatic psychotherapy goes deeper as it gives psychological insights about the person. Somatic psychotherapy often results in increased self awareness and positive behavioral changes in the life of the individual.
It involves the use of the body in psychotherapy and counseling that focuses on the relationship between the mind and the body in healing, and growth of the mind and body. The objective of somatic psychotherapy is to identify and release physical tension which may remain in the body after a traumatic experience.
This approach is perfect when the traditional talk-based psychotherapy is ineffective, as it restructures the present and past negative experiences of the person; giving hope and confidence to the individual. Somatic psychotherapy incorporates the use of techniques such as breathing exercise, dance, voice work and so on to encourage the patient to observe behavioral patterns and see how the patterns may affect their new experiences or emotions.
There are two major techniques of somatic psychotherapy: titration method and pendulated method.
The titration method involves the use of a resource state – a place of safety – and the therapist guiding the patient through his/her traumatic memories, while also asking the patient to observe and identify any change in behavior.
However, the pendulated method of somatic psychotherapy involves movement between homeostasis and instability states. Here, the patient is being transitioned from homeostasis to a state where the physical symptoms of the trauma are present; and then the patient is guided in returning to the stable state. A distinct feature of the pendulated method is the fact that “discharge” occurs in this method. A discharge in this context refers to stored or accumulated stress by the nervous system. Examples of discharge are twitching, nausea etc.
The benefits of somatic psychotherapy include helping patients having borderline personality disorder, helping patients with traumatic experiences to cope and recover from the aftermath of such events, helping people become more self-aware and to develop better relationships with others; it also helps in improving the individual’s sense of identity, reduce stress and can be used as a partial approach for treating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
With all the positive results and popularity of the somatic psychotherapy approach to dealing with trauma, its use is still not widely adopted due to concerns raised by opposition. For instance, the issue of touch in psychotherapy is still debated in somatic psychotherapy. Patients who are “sensitive” to touch as a result of their past experiences – for example, sexually abused patients – may find it hard to undergo somatic psychotherapy as it would mean they have to be touched on their bodies. For others, who might have a phobia of the body, the use of touch during therapy might become frightening.
The ultimate result is that it makes the ANS to return back to homeostasis. Where traditional psychotherapy methods are ineffective, somatic psychotherapy can be a good alternative.