Somatic Psychotherapy and the Wisdom of the Body.

Photo by Žygimantas Dukauskas on Unsplash

“In our bodies, in this moment, there lives the seed impulses of the change and spiritual growth we seek, and to awaken them we must bring our awareness into the body, into the here and now.” Pat Ogden

Often, there is a sense that traditional talk therapy is just not working. In the past, you may have been in therapy and felt like you had talked about your problems to death, repeatedly telling the same old stories over and over, and not seeing any results from all the effort. You might even have questioned the efficacy of therapy or wondered why insight and understanding, from a cognitive perspective, around the origins of your long-standing issues have not yielded any significant resolution.

The answer to this lies in how trauma and the formation of our early core beliefs get encoded within the body. It is important to note that our culture has been slow to acknowledge that our bodies responses and adaptations to our early environment have far reaching consequences. Thanks to decades worth of research we now have on adverse childhood experiences, we are beginning to shift our thinking on this critical issue. We know from the research that early exposure to trauma and adversity can make us vulnerable and increase the risk to our mental, emotional and physical well-being.

This effect is dose dependent, meaning the more exposure we have to early trauma and adversity, the higher the chances are that we will experience negative outcomes on our health like hypertension, cancer, heart disease along with raising our risks on an array of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and addiction.

It is vital to understand how early childhood adversity and trauma can lead to “toxic” stress and how our bodies have evolved to respond to threat to ensure our survival. This process, when it is functioning optimally and appropriately is a very effective means of responding to any threats to our survival. All the natural world has evolved with systems in place to ensure survival of the species. But this process was only intended to be a short-term response to an acute and immediate threat. The brain makes necessary adaptations to cope with the continuous activation of the stress response system and when the threat becomes chronic, this life saving stress response becomes “toxic” and begins to negatively affect our health across the lifespan.

The power of incorporating a somatic and experiential approach in therapy lies in its ability to begin to integrate the mind and body using a wholistic approach that accesses the wisdom of the body in the healing process. I sometimes refer to this kind of work as the delicate process of soul retrieval. Over the course of our lives, particularly in early childhood, our system responds to trauma by holding the physiological and emotional imprint in the body, As a means of self-preservation, it can encapsulate and compartmentalize this in such a way as to not overwhelm the system until there is sufficient safety for healing to occur.

So, what does that mean and how do we create safety for the body to heal? Much of what fosters this process will sound counterintuitive to what we have leaned growing up in our culture. We must begin to cultivate a sense of curiosity to the present moment experience in our body. In our world we are inundated with messages to not feel and we are encouraged to check out and deny anything that feels messy and hard.

Many of those I have worked with utilizing a somatic approach state they have never experienced this kind of therapy before. There is an initial sense of the process feeling foreign and a bit uncomfortable as we learn to navigate the unfamiliar inner landscape of the body. But as we begin to offer our loving presence to our felt experience, something magical happens. Where we once felt detached or disconnected, seeking to avoid what feels frightening and overwhelming in the body, we now see a glimmer of hope for a new path toward wholeness.

Our bodies are the conduit to the things we all are all hardwired to seek- love, connection and belonging. There is no road back home to our deepest, most authentic selves that does not include reclaiming our lost relationship with our bodies. As we begin to listen to our inner experience(interoception), feel the sensations in the body, pay attention to the images and feelings as they arise without judgment, we are offered the long awaited information we have been seeking, shifting those long standing patterns and updating those old neural networks that have become outdated after having operated in isolation for so long. By connecting deeply to the body, we are able to gently bring these old patterns into the here and now and allow the encoded information to be updated and integrated in a way that facilitates healing and helping us to let go of what is no longer serving us.

Whenever I talk with someone who is new to this approach and unfamiliar in working with the body, I often compare it to the feeling of taking trip to another country. It can make you feel a little anxious initially, you do not speak the language, the landscape is strange and unrecognizable, we have entered unchartered territory. But if we are able to step out into the unknown, take the risk and lean into the edges of our uncomfortability, it is here that we find the new world that had been invisible to us from the vantage point of where we had just been. Breathtaking views and new experiences become available and open us up to a richer, sweeter more joyful life.

And on this journey, there is tremendous benefit in finding a therapist or guide to support the process. By helping to create a container of safety, they activate your social engagement system- this system is a fail-safe to help the body reduce stress and return to homeostasis. Our relationships help us to feel secure, even when we are facing challenging circumstances and feeling unsure of ourselves and the world around us.

So, if you are feeling called to do something a little different than traditional talk therapy and feel ready to dig a little deeper, access the tremendous resources embedded within your body and are curious to learn more about how the information being stored is impacting your life, then a somatic approach in psychotherapy may be just the right fit for you. Allowing the security of the therapeutic relationship to create a safe container to facilitate and support the deep work of integration and healing. It is here we learn to be in a loving relationship with the body, honoring the wisdom it holds, and knowing the incredible transformational capacity of the body to facilitate change and growth while encouraging us to live our best lives.

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