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Alcohol and Health

What Is Somatic Therapy?

January 10, 2024
19 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
January 10, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
January 10, 2024
19 min read

In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, MD writes: “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

If you've ever felt like emotions are just too intangible to understand or your stress is a puzzle you can't solve, this post’s for you. We're about to dive into the world of somatic therapy — our body's secret weapon against the stress and emotional turbulence of our fast-paced lives.

What Is Somatic Therapy?

Somatic therapy is a therapeutic approach centered around the theory that our body holds onto past traumas and stresses. Think of it as a body-centered therapy in which the focus is on its connection to the mind. While traditional talk therapy hones in on our thoughts, feelings, and memories, somatic therapy adds another layer by incorporating our physical sensations and stored patterns.

The History of Somatic Therapy

Now, before we further explore the intricacies of this powerful technique, let’s take a quick detour into the past. After all, to appreciate the present, we often need to understand its roots!

Somatic therapy, as a formalized method, began taking shape in the early 20th century. However, the concept that our body holds memories, emotions, and traumas can be traced back to ancient civilizations. Indigenous cultures worldwide have always recognized the profound connection between the mind, body, and spirit, using dance, touch, and rituals to heal emotional wounds.

Fast forward to the 1900s, and we find a few key figures laying the groundwork for modern somatic therapy:

  • Wilhelm Reich. This Austrian psychoanalyst believed that emotional blockages manifested as physical tension in the body. He named this phenomenon “character armor.”
  • Peter Levine. Recognized for his work on "somatic experiencing," Levine observed that wild animals would release trauma by physically shaking after a threatening situation. He suggested humans have a similar innate capacity to overcome traumatic experiences.
  • Alexander Lowen. Lowen developed a technique known as bioenergetic analysis, which combines psychoanalytic concepts with body-oriented interventions. He was most interested in understanding the relationship between the body and the personality.

As psychology and medicine evolved, so did the understanding and acceptance of body-centered therapies. The latter half of the 20th century saw a rise in holistic approaches to health and wellness. Somatic therapy became more recognized as professionals began to see undeniable results in trauma recovery, stress reduction, and emotional healing.

The Science Behind Somatic Therapy

Today, somatic therapy is a respected modality in the therapeutic world, with numerous techniques and offshoots that cater to diverse needs. And there’s science to back it up!

  • The brain-body highway. Our nervous system is an intricate biological communication system connecting the brain to every part of our body. Messages speed up and down its infrastructure, allowing us to feel sensations, process emotions, and react to our environment.
  • Limbic system: the emotional epicenter. Located deep within our brain, the limbic system plays a starring role when it comes to emotions. It's home to structures like the amygdala (our emotional reaction center) and the hippocampus (which deals with memory). 

    When we experience trauma or stress, the limbic system goes into overdrive, and sometimes it doesn't quite reset. The result? Our emotions and experiences can get lodged in our body, creating physical symptoms such as tension, pain, or postural changes. If not processed adequately, these reactions and memories can linger, causing physical manifestations such as persistent muscle tension or chronic pain.
  • The autonomic nervous system (ANS) and stress. The ANS, a significant part of our nervous system, has two main branches: the sympathetic (often known as the fight or flight system) and the parasympathetic (the rest and digest system). When we face stress or danger, our sympathetic system revs up, preparing our body to respond. The parasympathetic system helps calm things down afterward. Problems arise when stress or trauma keeps the sympathetic system continuously activated. Over time, this can lead to various health issues, from anxiety to digestive problems. 

Now, imagine if you could access and process the source of our stress just by tapping into the body's sensations. That’s what somatic therapy aims to do! Understanding how our body and brain connect can be a game-changer for our mental and emotional well-being.

Neuroplasticity: Rewiring the Brain To Heal the Body

Our brain is a marvel of adaptability. It can reshape and reorganize itself based on experiences, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. This means that even if traumas or habits have deeply ingrained themselves in our neural pathways, with the right tools — such as somatic therapy — we can create new, healthier patterns.

Recent research suggests that our body, not just our brain, holds onto memories of past experiences. This “body memory” can manifest in various ways, from muscle tension to postural changes. Somatic therapy taps into these physical echoes, helping us decode and address the trauma’s lingering imprints. It can also help rebalance the autonomic nervous system by aiding the body in processing and releasing stored stress.

Somatic therapy stands at the crossroads of neuroscience, psychology, and physical health. It's a testament to the incredible interconnectedness of our body and mind, offering tools to navigate and harmonize this intricate relationship. Science is continually uncovering new facets of this approach, expanding its profound potential as a holistic healing tool.

How Does It Work?

Somatic therapy isn't just about lying on a couch and discussing feelings. It's a dynamic, experiential, and physical journey into our inner world.

In a session, somatic therapists guide clients to focus on their internal experiences and sensations to help release pent-up emotions, leading to relief and enhanced understanding.

  • Tuning in. At its core, somatic therapy is about awareness. A session often begins with an invitation to truly tune in and connect with our bodies through deep, mindful breathing or sensing the weight of our body against the chair or floor. This foundational step establishes a connection to the present moment.
  • Discovering the language of the body. Our bodies communicate with us constantly, though we don't always listen. Somatic therapy specialists guide clients to pay attention to their body's cues, which could be anything from a rapid heartbeat during a stressful memory to the tension felt in the shoulders when discussing a traumatic event. These sensations are cues, the language that the body uses to express unresolved feelings or traumas.
  • Emotional expression through movement. One standout feature of somatic therapy is its emphasis on movement. Instead of suppressing or ignoring feelings, therapists encourage clients to physically express their emotions. This might involve spontaneous gestures, stretches, or even dance, allowing clients to "move through" their feelings — quite literally!
  • Guided exploration. Somatic therapists don't just observe; they actively guide clients through this physical and emotional journey, posing questions such as, "What do you feel when you raise your arm that way?" or "Can you describe the sensation in your back?" This dialogue-based approach helps clients articulate and process their experiences more deeply.
  • Releasing and relearning. Over time, our bodies can hold onto habits or tensions. For instance, someone who's been in a protective stance for years due to past trauma might have chronically tightened back muscles. Somatic therapy techniques help release these stored patterns. But it doesn't stop there! Once old patterns are identified and released, clients are introduced to healthier ways of being and moving in their bodies.
  • Integration. This therapy isn't just about recognizing and releasing — it's about integrating. The insights and breakthroughs from each session are woven into daily life, allowing for more profound self-awareness, healthier coping mechanisms, and a more harmonious mind-body connection.

Somatic therapy balances introspection and expression, listening and releasing. It offers a safe space for clients to embark on a journey of self-discovery, navigating the intricate pathways of their bodies to unlock emotional well-being and healing.

Somatic Therapy and the Alcohol Journey

The path of reducing or quitting alcohol can be rocky, with both physical and emotional challenges along the way. As many people can attest, the process often unravels layers of underlying emotions, traumas, or habits that might have contributed to or resulted from excessive alcohol consumption. Enter somatic therapy, an insightful companion that can offer unique tools for this transformative journey.

Alcohol doesn't just affect the mind: it leaves a tactile print on our bodies. From the liver processing the substance to the nervous system getting accustomed to its depressant effects, the body bears the brunt of our drinking habits. When we decide to cut back or quit, the body has to relearn how to function without alcohol, leading to various physical and emotional responses.

How does somatic therapy fit into this picture?

  • Addressing physical cravings. The body sometimes manifests alcohol cravings as physical sensations: a tension in the chest, a knot in the stomach, or an overall restlessness. Somatic techniques can help us recognize, process, and release these tensions, transforming them into tools for understanding and combating cravings.
  • Processing underlying traumas. For some people, alcohol might have been a refuge from painful memories or traumas. As we reduce or eliminate alcohol, these buried emotions can resurface. Somatic therapy helps us gently unearth and address these traumas, facilitating a more comprehensive healing process.
  • Restoring body trust. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a disconnect between the mind and body. Somatic therapy assists in re-establishing this lost trust, helping us tune into our body's signals, needs, and boundaries without the haze of alcohol.
  • Creating new patterns. Habits, including drinking, often have physical components or triggers. Maybe it's the hand motion of lifting a glass or the sensation of liquid trickling down our throat. By focusing on these physical patterns, somatic techniques can help us rewrite the narrative, offering healthier alternatives and responses.

For anyone on the alcohol journey — whether it's about moderation, a break, or quitting altogether — somatic therapy provides a fresh, body-centered perspective. By weaving together the threads of mind, body, and emotion, it allows for a holistic approach to recovery, one where every sensation becomes a stepping stone towards a healthier, more attuned self. As with any therapeutic approach, remember to consult with a professional to tailor the experience to your unique journey and needs. 

Steps To Experience the Power of Somatic Therapy

  • Grounding. Start by standing or sitting comfortably. Feel the weight of your body pressing into the floor or chair. This simple act can pull your focus away from racing thoughts and into the present.
  • Focused breathing. Inhale deeply for a count of 4, then exhale for a count of 4. As you breathe, notice any areas of tension and imagine them relaxing with each exhale.
  • Body scan. Begin at your toes and work your way up to your head. Pay attention to each part of your body, noting any sensations, tensions, or discomforts.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. Tense a group of muscles as you inhale, then release the tension as you exhale. Work your way through your whole body!
  • Self-hug. Wrap your arms around your torso, giving yourself a gentle squeeze. Feel the comfort and safety in this gesture.
  • Sensory engagement. Grab a textured item, like a soft blanket or cool stone. Focus on its texture, temperature, and other sensations as you hold or touch it.
  • Movement. Put on some music and move your body. Don’t think about dancing perfectly; just let your body respond to the music. Feel the freedom and joy in the movement.

These steps are just the tip of the iceberg! A certified therapist can guide you deeper into the world of somatic therapy, unlocking the secrets your body holds and paving the way for better mental health and well-being.

Building Bridges

The power of somatic therapy lies in its ability to bridge the gap between the mind and body. As you explore this practice, you'll discover a newfound appreciation for the intricate ways our bodies communicate, hold onto memories, and offer pathways for healing — whether that means leaving alcohol behind or finding solutions for any number of stressors, habits, or traumas. Now, who's ready to dive in? 

Summary FAQs

1. What exactly is somatic therapy?

Somatic therapy is a therapeutic approach that focuses on the connection between the mind and body. It believes that traumas and emotions can manifest physically in our bodies, leading to issues like tension or pain. Through various techniques, this therapy helps individuals recognize, process, and release these physical manifestations.

2. How does the history of somatic therapy contribute to its current practices?

The history of somatic therapy dates back to ancient civilizations and has evolved through the works of pioneers like Wilhelm Reich and Peter Levine. Over the centuries, its techniques have been refined and expanded upon, resulting in a rich tapestry of practices that cater to diverse needs.

3. I'm on a journey to reduce or quit alcohol. How can somatic therapy help?

Somatic therapy can be immensely helpful by addressing physical cravings, processing underlying traumas that might be tied to alcohol use, restoring trust between the mind and body, and helping create new, healthier patterns to replace the habit of drinking.

4. So, what's the science supporting somatic therapy?

The science revolves around our nervous system, which connects the brain to every part of our body. Somatic therapy dives into the limbic system (our emotional center), the autonomic nervous system's stress responses, the brain's adaptability (neuroplasticity), and the concept of body memory where our body holds onto past experiences.

5. How is a typical somatic therapy session structured?

Sessions typically involve tuning into one's body, understanding its language, expressing emotions through movement, guided exploration with the therapist, releasing old patterns, and integrating insights into daily life.

6. Is somatic therapy only for trauma?

While somatic therapy is potent for trauma recovery, it's not exclusive to it. The therapy can benefit anyone seeking a deeper connection with their body, wanting to process emotions or looking to adopt healthier physical and emotional patterns.

7. Does one need to be physically fit or flexible for somatic therapy?

Not at all! Somatic therapy isn't about athletic prowess but about tuning into and understanding your body. People of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities can benefit from it. It's more about internal awareness than external performance.

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