While the term “somatic” may require an internet search, you‘re likely familiar with concepts like mindfulness, centering and meditation. Each of these supports increased focus, decreased stress and anxiety, and possible improvements in pain and other physical symptoms. In recent years, somatic practices have become common both in professional therapy and at-home exercise routines. And let’s not forget those TikTok videos.
Through the connection of mind and body, somatic practices focus on body awareness and reflection. By reflecting on the body’s sensations, purposeful, mindful movement is emphasized. This body-oriented therapy approach may even have an impact on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain and releasing bodily tension.
Psychology practitioners often agree that traumatic events are “stored” in the body, or more accurately, symptoms of trauma can manifest physically and can also be released. Although evidence is limited, certain forms of somatic therapy seem to have a promising future as part of the treatment for trauma.
What is a somatic exercise?
Various terms exist for this type of body-focused therapy including somatics, body psychotherapy and somatic psychotherapy. The word somatic means “of, relating to, or affecting the body.” Somatic psychotherapy places importance on awareness of the body’s senses and sensations in connection with emotions. Somatic Experiencing is a specific approach developed by therapist Peter Levine that focuses on the physiological aspects of trauma.
Instead of concentrating on the cognitive or emotional experience, somatic exercise emphasizes internal sensations. Participants bring awareness to:
- Interoception — Sense of the internal body such as hunger, rapid heartbeat or an itch.
- Exteroception — Sensations resulting from the external environment like the five senses.
- Proprioception — Movement in space that helps to coordinate movements without looking to receive information.
Different types of somatic exercises
Additional examples of somatic practices include:
- Grounding — This may involve placing bare feet or hands directly on the surface of the earth, or body awareness (sensing where parts of the body are, their movements and feelings).
- Breath work — This could include diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing. To practice, lie on your back with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Inhale slowly through the nose, keeping your chest as still as possible (the hand on your belly should be the one moving). Exhale slowly through pursed lips.
- Alexander Technique — This is an educational program that teaches participants how to move mindfully and release tension in the body.
- Mindfulness exercises — These could include body scan, walking and sitting meditations. In each of these practices, focus is placed on the breath and body.
Jennifer Lanners, M.S., L.P.C.C., a psychologist for Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, agrees there are benefits to such practices.
“Mindfulness is an evidence-based practice to improve chronic pain symptoms, emotional regulation, enhance healthy eating and mood symptoms,” she said. She noted that somatic practices can be used alongside more traditional treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or acceptance and commitment therapy. Doing so maintains a holistic approach.
For example, grounding may be helpful as a way to improve “present moment thinking and mindfulness,” said Lanners.
Somatic exercise for trauma, anxiety and pain
This type of therapeutic approach is being researched as a treatment for post-traumatic symptoms. The hope is it may have a positive impact on stimuli associated with trauma and somatic symptoms, which can be both physical and psychological.
Lanners says that the physiological response to anxiety or trauma can look like “labored breath, tightened muscles and activation of the sympathic autonomic nervous system.” This is the part of the nervous system that prepares the body during the fight-or-flight response.
This type of therapy is somewhat new, with the first small randomized controlled trial occurring in 2017. A small systematic review concluded that most studies found a beneficial correlation between this type of therapeutic approach and improving symptoms of PTSD. It is also being researched in relation to pain, as interoception may relax the nervous system and decrease tension, emotion or muscle contraction.
Is it OK to try somatic exercises I see on social media?
Somatic therapy exercises may be done with a trained therapist, though basic mind-body practices like yoga, meditation and grounding are most often reasonable to do independently. Many can be practiced anywhere by focusing on your senses, breathing method, and feelings without interpretation or judgement. This may be especially helpful for those who often feel mentally drained. Remember, this type of exercise is not for a number of reps or calories burned, but to improve physical and mental well-being, as well as connection with your body.
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