What is Somatic Therapy? by Karina Margit Erdelyi
Think of it as a massage that helps heal your mind. Somatic therapist Sarah Seely explains how touch can unlock better mental health.
Work stress. Unexpressed anger. Heartbreak and loss.
The issues are in our tissues.
Not Kleenex, mind you. But the tissues that make up our internal bodies.
As a New York City-based massage therapist, Sarah Seely knows her way around that complex web. But while treating clients (including Hollywood actors like Val Kilmer), she noticed that the physical pain she soothed was, upon deeper inspection, closely linked to emotional events that had happened in her client’s lives. It was then that Sarah discovered the emerging field of somatic psychotherapy, which focuses on tuning in to what the body has to say, rather than whatever “logical” explanation the mind concocts. The word “somatic” is derived from the Greek word “soma” which means “living body”—in somatic therapy, the physical body is seen as a valuable guide—an ally on the road to mental health and healing… if we learn to listen, learn from it, and heed what it tells us. Now a somatic therapist, Sarah sat down with Psycom to talk about her work and how exactly somatic therapy can help heal our bodies and our minds.
So, what exactly is somatic therapy? Somatic therapy is about approaching someone through their body. Our bodies are like our ultimate ride or die—they’ve been here since birth. They’re there until our death; they know everything single thing that’s ever happened to us. Our bodies even remember in utero and gestation; they remember our birth. Our bodies record all of this. It’s really a way to address a person’s being by having a conversation with the body. When we are in our brains, our logic minds can get very confusing very quickly, and we try and make sense of things, and it can get very overwhelming. But I find that when we start to communicate to the body the information we get, it’s true in a way that clears the air in the room. It’s simple. The body can tap into what we sometimes call gut instinct.
What role does physical movement play in the work of a somatic therapist? Dr. Peter Levine, one of the originators in the field of somatic therapy, and author of the book Waking the Tiger, describes how after a hunt, female lions (who do all the hunting for the pride), wrestle around with each other extensively to help their bodies “complete” the stress response that comes from the hunt itself. When you have that much adrenaline in your system, your body has to process it. We don’t do enough of that in our society. When we get stressed, we tend to hold it in—and then we go to coffee or alcohol or social media or whatever it is that we use to check out a little bit. But that cortisol, that adrenaline, stays in our system and the only way to release it is through movement, just like the female lions do with wrestling.
You could look at the wrestling of the female lions as a form of somatic therapy. Things we used to do primitively to get away from a threat include running, climbing, jumping, swimming, shaking, dancing—all kinds of movement help to complete that stress response, to move it through. Otherwise, it gets stored somewhere.
What happens when we experience stress responses? Our nervous system doesn’t really know the difference between “it’s a bear who wants to eat me” or “I can’t pay my rent this month” or “this person needs a response from me.” It doesn’t know the difference necessarily and treats it all in the same way. You can have a significant stress response about things that are not central to our survival—for example, when a loud noise causes our heart to race, or we get an email that makes us break into a cold sweat—that’s not feeling safe even when there’s no significant danger or threat.
What does a somatic therapist do? We hold someone in regard, really listening to what a person has to say—looking at them, matching their tone of voice—it’s really about allowing someone to feel safe enough for exploration of their body. Once they’re in a place where they feel safe, then we usually do work sitting down or lying on a table. There’s a hands-on component—comprised of a little bit of touch and light movement. If you’re stuck in a “freeze” state, then you’re holding all of that in—you need to move. We want to go towards the resource—and movement is our resource. If you can’t turn your head right or left, you can’t say no, you can’t have a boundary. These little things resonate.
Where do you start with a client? By offering safety. Essentially—you feel safe, or you don’t feel safe—those are your two options. And when you’re not feeling safe, coming to a place where you can feel safe within, is the most important thing for healing. If we don’t feel safe in the world, we can’t engage with another person—be it a friend, family member, lover, or therapist. So, if you’re experiencing anxiety—or you’re stressed or depressed—any of these emotions that we discuss in a clinical setting, really what it comes down to is that physiologically, you don’t feel safe. My job, or at least the starting point of my job, is to help facilitate a place where you do feel safe so that we can successfully work together.
What does a somatic therapy session look like? Usually, we start by sitting and talking, and then eventually, we work our way over to the table and begin with really light touch. The first thing, I invite the person to check in with their body—just observe what they’re feeling, what they’re noticing in their bodies. Where is your body making contact with the table? Where is your body making contact with itself? What temperature do you feel right now? By asking these questions that we usually don’t ask of ourselves, people are often surprised by what they become aware of: “Oh my god, I have a headache,” or “I have this heaviness in my shoulder—what is that?” So now we get curious. By offering touch, it helps to heighten a person’s awareness, and by offering gentle movement, for example, I’ll slip a hand under a shoulder and support a shoulder blade and invite them to have an experience with what’s happening in that shoulder. And what I find is that human adults—we’re basically just children in adult suits—we all need the same exact things as children. Our bodies respond so well to things like support, warmth, softness—to have those things offered is so simple, but so profound. How often is it in someone’s life that they don’t feel supported or they don’t feel a lot of warmth from people, or that they don’t feel a sense of ease? If I can help allow their bodies to have that, it communicates to their body that it’s possible and that they can find it within themselves—this is where the huge transformations start to take place. Have you found differences in the way men and women respond? Men are a little slower to come to this kind of work, even just receiving massage. There’s still stigma leftover from society—the full range of male emotion is often not embraced. Every single male client that I have seen can pinpoint a time early on in his life when his father, older brother, coach, a teacher, even a woman sometimes has said “man up,” or “boys don’t cry,” or “oh, you got injured, walk it off.” Men (and boys) get taught very quickly that the only acceptable emotions that they have and are allowed to exhibit socially are strength, power, and anger. They’re allowed to be angry, but they’re not allowed to be upset. When you bottle that up, it creates a lot of pressure. When men finally show up at my practice, they are often crippled with anxiety. They’re exhausted. Their issues are encoded in their tissues. Honestly, I don’t even think of them as issues anymore, I think of them as injuries. How can somatic therapy help someone rebuild their sense of self-worth? Somatic therapy embodies someone into connecting to what is happening within them. It teaches you to listen to yourself. I think that this is why self-help doesn’t work. Because with self-help, it’s always someone else telling you what to do. That’s shame. You’re reading this self-help book because there is something wrong with you. It keeps pushing this impoverished mentality that you are not enough.
Why does somatic therapy resonate so much for you? Whatever we suppress gets expressed. If we have a lot of anger, and we suppress it, it’s going to seep out of us in our everyday life. There’s a lot of freedom in “releasing,” and somatic therapy can help access the places in the body where we are holding onto things and experiencing physical, psychic, and emotional discomfort or pain. I say on my website, to live fully, we must live fully embodied, which means aligning body, mind, heart, and soul. Somatic therapy requires present-moment awareness, situating you squarely in the here-and-now, and allows us to explore body tension, facial gestures, and other physical sensations through a combination of dialogue, movement, and touch. By connecting and listening to the messages carried in the body, I can help guide clients to choices that support moving through their lives with more ease and freedom.