There are so many different types of pain people struggle with daily — both the physical and the mental kinds. Lately more and more sufferers are turning to a unique type of treatment as a way of healing both — but it takes some deep introspection. So what exactly is somatic therapy and could it help you get some relief? Practitioners and medical professionals alike believe this mind-and-body method can yield surprisingly effective results — though there are some things to know before you book your first appointment.
That physical pain could be connected to emotional pain or trauma is not exactly a new concept. For example, in Eastern medicine, the examination of sources of stress, discomfort, and fear is a common practice in prognosis of physical ailments — in fact, research shows that it’s the oldest medical system to associate the two. While this idea dates back centuries, and is more widely accepted in other cultures, it’s definitely picked up some steam in recent years in places that traditionally prioritize Western Medicine. For example, the fact that books like Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score and Dr. John E. Sarno’s Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection are New York Times bestsellers shows a contemporary interest.
And there’s more modern research, too. For example, in 2017 the European Study of Psychotraumatology found that “psychological comorbidities such as anxiety and mood disorders are very common in chronic low back pain.” And a 2020 study from the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Technology showed that “social pain” (caused by personal interactions that bring about negative feelings) affects how your body perceives physical pain.
So how does somatic therapy fit into this philosophy? “Somatic therapy is a kind of therapy that specializes in tapping into the intelligence of the body,” says Ani Anderson, an Occupational Therapist and Craniosacral Therapist who frequently uses this practice with patients. “Soma means body, and so quite simply, somatic therapy addresses the body. The more interesting thing however is that in this case we are considering that the soma or body is intelligent, and so we would say that it (the body) has a ‘mind’.”
As the name might imply, somatic therapy isn’t quite traditional psychotherapy, and it’s not quite traditional physical therapy either — it’s somewhere in between the two. Wondering if this treatment could help whatever it is you’re struggling with emotionally or physically? Ahead, some experts on the topic share what to expect from a session, plus who is — and may not be — a good candidate for trying it.
What Is Somatic Therapy: It Connects The Brain And Body
As previously explained, somatic therapy involves a type of communication between your brain and body. But if you’re still not quite sure what that means, Dr. Brian Wind, psychologist, addition specialist, and Chief Clinical Officer of Journey Pure, offers some clarification. “The idea here is that a person's thoughts, emotions, and beliefs are linked to physical pains and ailments in the body, while physical aspects such as diet and exercise can likewise affect a person's thoughts and emotions,” he says.
In terms of how this can show up in a session, Dr. Pria Alpern, a NYC-based psychologist who specializes in trauma and EMDR therapy, says that you might start by responding to a series of questions that make your body sensations more tangible. “For example, the therapist may ask, ‘When you think about your anger, where are you noticing it in your body?’, ‘Does it have a size, a shape, a color, or a temperature?’,” she explains. “This approach, along with the therapist’s guidance, allows the individual to fully process traumatic memories on a body-based level.”
What Is Somatic Therapy: It May Require Very Little Touching
According to Dr. Wind, because the primary focus of a somatic therapy treatment is getting to the root of emotional pain, your session will probably involve some talking. As he explains, the releasing of trauma may also take the shape of breathing exercises, grounding, and titration. And despite its frequent use to treat physical forms of pain, you may not even be touched at all.
But as Anderson explains, it all depends on the type of practitioner you see. “If the practitioner you are going to see is a massage therapist who does somatic therapy, they will likely put their hands on you as if you are getting a massage,” she explains. “If they are an energy worker, the practitioner also will likely put hands on (or just off) the body as they work with your soma, however you will probably remain clothed. If your somatic therapist is a psychotherapist or social worker, they will not be putting hand on, put rather ask you questions about the body, or ask you to move your body to express your thoughts.” Such variety may allow you to find the practitioner that’s best suited for your needs and comfort level.
What Is Somatic Therapy: Those Who Have Experienced Trauma Could Benefit
As an addiction specialist, Dr. Wind has found that somatic therapy can be an option for those who haven’t found relief from other forms of therapy. “It can be suitable for people with trauma-related physical symptoms such as chronic pain, sleep issues, digestive problems, and other muscle tension that traditional treatments have not worked for,” he says. And Dr. Jaydeep Tripathy, an internal medicine doctor at Doctor Spring, co-signs on the idea that those suffering from depression, grief, addiction, and other emotional stressors could be good candidates. “It can be difficult to put words to traumatic experiences because the part of the brain associated with narrative memory is inhibited during a traumatic event,” he adds. “Somatic therapy helps facilitate integration of trauma by accessing the memory nonverbally, in the nervous system, and through body sensations.”
What Is Somatic Therapy: It Requires Serious Introspection
While Anderson is passionate about her practice, she’s quick to admit it’s not suitable for everyone, especially as it involves some deep reflection — work not everyone is ready to do. “The fact is that if you aren’t interested in someone ‘peeking’ into the issues that are lurking in your soma, you shouldn’t see a somatic practitioner,” she says. “As [The Body Keeps The Score] implies, your body stores information about your life (and your ancestry) and some of that you quite frankly might not want to get into looking at. It is like opening Pandora’s box.”
That said, if you’ve been in a traditional therapy setting, this aspect will likely be familiar territory. “Like a good psychotherapy session, you will be asked to revive traumatic memories or stressful scenarios,” Dr. Tripathy explains.
What Is Somatic Therapy: It’s Still Considered Pretty New
Despite the fact that the mind-body connection is a concept that dates back centuries, somatic therapy is still considered a fairly new practice — especially where formal research is concerned. “Research on the effectiveness of somatic therapy is still limited, although early research shows promise,” says Dr. Wind. “A study in 2017 on somatic therapy and PTSD showed that somatic therapy had some benefits, but the study had limitations. Hence, more research is required to establish its effectiveness.”