What is somatic healing? And who can it help?

Soma is Latin for body…Therefore Somatic Healing, are the techniques used to heal the body.

Somatics is a broad term, that focuses on body movement as a means to improve mental health. Its history dates back to physical education movements of the 19th century, and included many practices, including yoga. Among the most prominent schools of somatics is that created by Thomas Hanna, who, in the 1970s, introduced and named the concept of “Somatics.” He theorizes that for sufferers of chronic pain, a significant amount is a result of “sensory motor amnesia,” in which neurons in the brain have lost their ability to properly control muscle tissue. He believes that through education, mindfulness, and intentional movements akin to physical therapy, a patient can reinvigorate their mind-body pathways and relieve chronic pain. This created a big shift in our awareness of the mind and body connection in relation to healing chronic pain.

In the 1970s, Peter Levine developed a version of somatic therapy called “somatic experiencing,” which came, in part, out of Jungian therapy and his observation of animals. He posited that when humans experience trauma, they can become trapped in the “freeze” part of the fight, flight, or freeze response. His idea is that we remain frozen in many parts of life as a reaction to a traumatic experience. These frozen parts of ourselves accumulate energy as they should, but expend it in ways, that are counterproductive to a healthy life, such as through stress and anxiety. The goal of somatic experiencing is to redirect this energy in healthier directions.

Somatic Healing is designed to help people understand the mind and body connection through the energy of their emotions. This energy can either work in our favour or against us, depending on the emotions experienced. Today we are living in what I refer to as ‘bubbling stress society’, which has a serious effect on our nervous system. This mind-body connection, or the somatic connection, refers to the way your thoughts are connected to your feelings“Feelings” imply a physical sensation that is felt in the body. The way a person thinks impacts the way they feel, and vice versa. So, with this idea, when a person is experiencing negative thoughts, it will impact their mind and their body as well.

photo by energepic.com

Today we’re no longer running from tigers – our threats are much more insidious. It’s no longer ‘Arghhhhh this tiger is after me!!!!,’ but rather, ‘I’m running late for this meeting and it’s really an important one, and my boss is a real stickler for time, but this traffic just won’t budge and I need this deal because it means my mortgage payment won’t be late …’ and ‘why didn’t I leave on time… and so on. We engage in such inner dialogues, cognitive ‘self-chats,’ almost incessantly. Adding stress to the mix leads to a surge of stress hormones and neurotransmitters that combine to shift brain function into a downward trajectory.

The ancient stress response that our body and brain registers at the first perception of danger occurs across the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The amygdala which is the ‘be careful – your life may be in danger’ centre and the hippocampus, the ‘has this situation ever caused problems before? (memory) centre’ communicate with each other to try and figure out what danger the stress poses. Then the adrenals are called upon to supply a jolt of energy to muscles to facilitate a fight or flight.

However, the thing that stressed us, the stressor, no longer kills us or allows us to escape. In the modern stress scenario the stressful thoughts and feelings don’t stop, because we haven’t escaped. Our brain now steps into stage two of the modern stress response.

Modern stress can appear as a constant, from external and internal life and work stressors, which we perceive as our brains inability to switch off. In this way, instead of releasing the stress valve by removing the stressor (the tiger), the brain continues in ‘problem solving overdrive.’

photo by Vera Arsic

This situation provides our brain with time to imagine every possible outcome of the stressful experience in the form of a constant dialogue that now occurs between the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the hippocampus. This prevents the brain, and thus the stress response, from returning our physiology back to homeostasis.

The PFC (the brains CEO) has the ability to imagine and play out any outcome that it can conceive and does so with great specificity. In essence, it’s a time machine, which can transport you right back to where the challenge started, and then instantly, to the future where anything could happen.

The PFC asks the hippocampus, for example … ‘Do you remember when I had that accident and then Dave said that, and look at how terrible the outcome was … ’ or ‘ When I did that, you know what happened so maybe I should try this, or this, or this, instead …’ Backwards and forwards communication between these two brain regions go, leading to a lack of clear, concise thinking and an inability to solve the stressful situation or see it for what it actually is.

Clarity of thought and solution-oriented thinking are incapable of being initiated in this scenario. And all the while the body is still being exposed to stress hormones because the adrenals haven’t been advised that everything is fine because the brain doesn’t think things are fine. It’s living in the murky world of ‘past-and-future’ possible outcomes. You didn’t die and you didn’t escape.

Can it get worse? Unfortunately yes. After the stressful experience and response passes the brain has the potential to engage in rumination.

Rumination

Rumination is defined as ‘the engagement of negative and unwanted past-centered, repetitive thoughts.’

Rumination may thus lead to unhealthy post-stress thoughts and feelings during some experiences, which can prevent the optimal processing of the event, and leaves no opportunity to learn from the event and apply what was learned to similar, future scenarios.

photo by Leah Newhouse

Rumination stops the brain from accessing the wisdom that experience can provide and increases poor problem solving and inflexible thinking. We lose the ability to respond adaptively to stress. The ability to return to a calm state of mind, where stress-hormone production tapers off, is also hindered when rumination is excessive.

In addition, the brain, in its ability to respond adaptively to experience, can lay down neural pathways in relation to stressful experiences, which lead to habitual, negative responses to stress. We find it harder and harder to reach or maintain emotional equilibrium because we’re stuck in a negative stress response loop.

There is however a solution to this modern response to stress. And it’s ironic that this modern, neurological challenge can be solved using an ancient contemplative solution, the practice of meditation, breathe awareness, yoga, massage and mindfullness = Somatic Healing.

Somatic Healing techniques include deep breathe awareness and control, relaxation exercises, meditation, and bodywork that includes yoga and massage.

photo by Arina Krasnikova

Somatic healing emphasizes helping people develop resources within themselves to self-regulate their emotions or to move out of the fight/flight/freeze response and into a higher-functioning mode where they can think more clearly. Through developing awareness of the mind-body connection and using specific interventions, somatic therapy helps to release the tension,  frustration, and other emotions that remain in our bodies from these past negative experiences. The goal is to help free us to allow us to fully engage in our lives. This is particularly valuable for people dealing with chronic pain, exhaustion or adrenal fatigue (burnout).

photo by Elina Fairytale

Centering is a foundational practice in somatic healing in which we develop a calm home base in the body. It is achieved through building awareness of one’s muscles, breath, and mood. By slowing down one’s breathing, we can “feel” more of what’s going on around and inside them. Massage is also an important part of somatic healing.

photo by Anna Tarawevich

Ready to deepen your healing journey?
Starting in March we will be offering individual Somatic Healing Treatments to work with your tension, stress and chronic pain. This will enable me to work with people who are seriously committed to personal growth and living a healthier more vibrant life. We will also be running a Somatic Healing Summer Retreat in the South of France…dates announced soon. 

photo by Noelle Otto

Blog based on research by Dr Delia McCabe