As someone who has dealt with anxiety for decades, I've tried almost everything to help, including therapy. What I found, though, was that merely talking via traditional talk therapy only helped to a certain extent. I learned practices that incorporate the body are more helpful. This is known as somatic therapy, a holistic mind-body approach that engages the body in therapeutic practices. Ahead, learn more about somatic therapy, who it can help, and somatic exercises you can practice on your own.
What is Somatic Therapy?
Somatic therapy, also known as body-centered psychotherapy, is "a therapeutic approach that involves working with the body in relation to the mind," trauma-trained somatic practitioner and coach Nathasya Octaviane Martinez, DipHyp, CHt says. "It is about connecting with the internal experience of the body, such as our sensations, emotions, cognitions, feelings, and movements."
According to somatic psychotherapist Laura Shook Guzman, LMFT, traditional talk therapy focuses on expressing thoughts and emotions. In contrast, somatic therapy also brings in the body and its sensations to provide additional information. "There is so much stored in the body," Guzman says. "It's another way to our unconscious mind. There's so much wisdom in the body. If we can tap into that, you're getting so much more information."
There's so much wisdom in the body. If we can tap into that, you're getting so much more information.
A somatic psychotherapist will observe the body as much as they listen. Guzman says the therapist will watch for shifts in body posture, facial expression, and breath patterns and bring these behaviors to your attention. This helps increase your awareness of what your body is experiencing. Guzman describes somatic therapy as a more compassionate approach to therapy because if the body doesn't understand or feel safe, it's difficult to shift thoughts or behaviors.
Somatic Therapy and Trauma
Somatic therapy also supports the processing of traumatic experiences and working through difficult life events. "When body awareness is not included in trauma processing, you inhibit your ability to work with your innate healing capacities," licensed clinical psychologist Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D. says. However, the individual must be ready to connect with their bodies, and body awareness must be engaged at a pace they can tolerate, which is why it's important to work with a professional who can guide you. "Some people find this process to be a bit overwhelming, so we tailor the process and slow it down to meet the needs of the individual," Dr. Schwartz says.
When body awareness is not included in trauma processing, you inhibit your ability to work with your innate healing capacities.
That said, somatic therapy is not just helpful for dealing with trauma. According to Guzman, everyone can benefit from somatic therapy, especially those who have tried talk therapy and didn’t benefit from it or those looking to feel more connected to your body. "We experience life through our body responses, and when we are out of touch with our bodies, we are ultimately out of touch with life," Martinez says. "Somatic therapy can help an individual increase their self-awareness, trust, and reconnect with their bodies, as well as build resilience or capacity to handle stressful situations."
Somatic Practices and Rituals
Somatic therapy is done with the support of a professional. Still, there are somatic practices we can incorporate into our daily lives on our own to help regulate the nervous system, such as breathwork, yoga, movement, and gentle stretching. Below, find five somatic practices and rituals that experts recommend trying. Martinez notes this type of work is delicate, so if you’re dealing with overwhelming sensations or have a history of trauma, practicing with a professional at first is advised.
Practicing slow, conscious breathing is a simple way to dip your toes into somatic practices, which can help calm the nervous system when you're feeling stressed or anxious. Dr. Schwartz recommends inhaling for four counts and exhaling for six or eight counts to facilitate a relaxation response.
Engage Your Five Senses
Grounding fully into the present moment is a powerful somatic practice that experts recommend. One way to do this is through your senses. Guzman suggests noticing what you're hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. "When we use the awareness of our senses, then we come into the present moment," Guzman says. "Use the body as the doorway because that's the quickest way to get there."
Make Small Body Changes
"Somatic therapy is all about awareness," Dr. Schwartz says. "Primarily, this involves increasing your awareness of these habitual patterns of tension in your body." Once you develop body awareness, Dr. Schwartz recommends starting to experiment with small body changes such as the way you're breathing, your posture, eye contact, or body movement. She adds that exaggerating the old pattern can often help release tension in the body. For instance, if you have tension in your jaw, you could scrunch your face tightly and then open your jaw wide with a yawn.
Converse With Your Body
To help cultivate a deeper relationship with your body, Dr. Schwartz advises having a conversation with your body. Pay attention to the current sensations you're feeling. Then, Dr. Schwartz says, respond to that sensation with breath or a certain movement. Next, check in with your body and pay attention to feedback in the form of emotions, changes in sensation, or an overall sense of ease.
Pay Attention to Body Sensations
Sometimes it can be challenging to identify how our body feels in the first place because we don't have a language for it, Guzman says. We tend to speak the language of emotions, such as feeling angry, sad, or frustrated. Guzman suggests asking, "How does your body communicate those emotions to you?" to connect with your body. For instance, frustration may show up as tightness in the chest, holding your breath, or a pit in your stomach. This practice helps you familiarize yourself with body sensations and become more aware of them.