Somatic Therapy

Many of us – especially of collectivist cultural upbringings – carry a lot of stress in our bodies. We hold back. Bite our tongues. Shape-shift depending on context. On purpose and unconsciously.

Code-switching involves somatic habits. Of course, we tense our bodies to do so. Similarly, we change posture, tone of voice, language and more…

Somatic therapy is different from traditional talk-therapy. Often, psychotherapy focuses on talking about your difficulties emphasizing thoughts, feelings and behaviors. But, what about if you were raised in a family that didn’t talk about feelings? Perhaps you were told at a young age, “behave and don’t cry.” Similarly, expressing what you wanted wasn’t tolerated. Overall, you were told what to do, and no back-talk. Or else…

As a result, you had to learn to swallow your feelings and bury your needs. Contain all of it somehow. Shut down. Maybe check out. You may have become so good at denying your own feelings and needs that you don’t even know what they are.

Instead, you feel tension in your body, and inexplicable pain at times. You’re often anxious and stressed. Exhausted. Burnt out. Overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, you learned to accommodate others. Likewise, to appease, or submit, attempting to make others happy. Similarly, perhaps you are highly skilled at workarounds. These strategies certainly helped you survive your family of origin, and are particularly common among clients I work with.

However, such habits often lead to unsatisfying relationships and difficulties as an adult, especially navigating an individualistic society, like the US. You may feel that you’ve done everything ‘right.’ Despite following the rules, you feel unfulfilled. Maybe dissatisfied and wondering why. Regardless of your successes, and perhaps you also minimize those.

“The body does not lie. You cannot fake the sensation of true pleasure. You cannot trick your body into believing that you are safe. Your body knows what it feels, and it feels what it feels for a reason. The body does not easily bypass its feelings or reactions quite like the mind is sometimes capable of doing. The body is much harder to distract from or gaslight when it is feeling overwhelmed.”
—Jenny T. Wang, PhD, author of Permission To Come Home

Somatic therapy

How somatic therapy works:

With somatic therapy, your nonverbal narrative is as much of interest as what you share verbally. Somatic clues show up in flickers of expression. Gestures. Posture changes. Whether you’re completely still, or in truth, need to fidget! On the other hand, you may tend to drift off in a daze at times… I’ll notice how you wait to be prompted with questions, and when you lead the conversation. All of these can be explored, uncovering rich insights.

Have you ever had a whole conversation without even saying a word?

Often those who identify as BIPOC—as well as descendants of collectivist cultures—are inclined to rely more on nonverbal communications. Body language, gestures, facial expressions, vocal tone and so forth. Perhaps you already have a way of sensing others’ needs without them telling you. The way that you feel the room, and read it. How you understand things, even if they are left unspoken. Then, you may already have some proficiency with somatic vocabulary.

Furthermore, somatic therapy can help you become more conscious of such habits in yourself, as well as hone and refine your skills. You’ll learn to better utilize the information that your body is picking up from your environment, sort the past from the present and perhaps interpret cues in new ways. Slowly, you’ll begin to feel less overwhelmed.

Somatic therapy can teach you how to respond to your body’s signals. Ignoring your body’s alarm bells can be highly stressful.​

What’s different in somatic therapy is that you will likely be asked, “How do you notice the anxiety showing up in your body?” You might discover a tightness in your chest, or throat. Churning in your belly. Tension in your shoulders and neck. These are just a few examples of how your body manages your emotions and impulses.

You may be invited to stay with a tight area. It may be uncomfortable. Quick, move on! Distract. For example, you may be asked to place a hand on the tightness in your chest. Merely gentle contact. Support. To listen in. If you manage to stay with it, you may be pleasantly surprised. The tight places soften. They shift simply with a little attention and informed guidance. Your breathing opens up. You feel calmer. Sweet relief.

Using present-moment awareness, such patterns in your body can be attended to. Gentle attention invites the body’s habits to reset and transform from the inside-out. 

As described above, turning inwards can be especially healing for BIPOC and descendants of collectivist cultures, an antidote. To put others before oneself, beliefs such as “what will people think,” and day-to-day concerns about safety for many marginalized folk altogether rely on a habitual, external focus that places a high-stress demand on your physiology.

Therefore, re-centering and taking up residence in your body can be a homecoming. A way back to yourself. Connection is an innate safety-seeking function that of course we all have, both with yourself and others. Even with nature, and spiritual realms if you will. Moreover, all of us need a little of each. Finally, greater sense of safety allows the body to release, and relax. Balancing your nervous system.

Somatic therapy is a bottom-up process, relying on numerous communications from the body up to the brain.

We live in a society that privileges the brain and intellect. In fact, there are actually fewer (top-down) signals from the brain to the body. Therefore, why somatic therapy can be so effective. With awareness, the body gently unwinds. Relaxes. Finds easier ways.

Have you ever had a gut-feeling? Or, do you rely on your intuition? For the most part, you couldn’t justify or rationalize the logic of your decision, but ‘it just felt right.’ Then, you have touched a little of bottom-up knowing. Somatic therapy can help you to hone such inner knowing and offer you so much more…

Changes at the somatic level can shift habitual thought patterns, behaviors and responses to stress.

In effect, somatic therapy aims to offer you tools for resetting your nervous system. Most important, you can learn from your emotions and how they are trying to help you. Rather than being reactive, you will respond more skillfully. As a result you will gain discernment, and more often act wisely.

By and large, somatic therapy can even shift how you understand past events. Positive elements of experiences will resurface, while unpleasant aspects shift into the background. Surprisingly, you will gain new insights about yourself. Make new connections. Furthermore, you may find yourself sharing different stories… because you’ll reclaim your narrative from empowered and resilient perspectives.

Common concerns:

With physical symptoms, you will equally be encouraged to rule out any medical conditions. Often times, clients have already done so before contacting me for somatic therapy. Sometimes symptoms are inexplicable to medical professionals. Conversely, having the label of a medical diagnosis doesn’t necessarily help reduce discomfort.

Frequently, chronic stress is the culprit. 

You might already recognize how habits of avoidance are a coping strategy, not a solution. Instead, you remain anxious and stressed. However, you don’t yet know any other ways. In somatic therapy, you will become clearer about your needs. Learn to better assert yourself. Most important, setting boundaries will become easier… Therefore, you will feel safer, calmer and learn to relax more. These are all skills to help you better manage stress and life’s challenges.

Somatic therapy will introduce breathing patterns, invite movement and subtle posture changes, engage your imagination as well as all of your senses.

Somatic tools and practices will be developed in sessions, and then you’ll experiment with them day-to-day. In time, you will learn to connect with your body more. In turn, you may uncover hidden needs and impulses. By listening in deeply, you will discover alternatives. New options, perspectives and behaviors will come available. 

Various themes will require time and space for close examination. Eventually, you’ll feel happier from taking better care of yourself. In time, you will learn to trust the wisdom of living in heartfelt alignment, body and mind. 

In sum, somatic therapy leads to feeling more like an active agent in your life choices. Empowerment and greater vitality. Increased resilience. Freedom and excitement. Exuberant joy. Liberation.

“I know what it means to feel invisible. To be picked on, bullied, misunderstood, and dismissed. But when… called me out on my anger, it was clear that she saw me in a way that I wasn’t particularly interested in being seen. She helped me to realize that my anger could be a powerful force for good. She had called my rage eloquent. Clear. Expressive. To the point. In her estimation, it had made me a good teacher, and it had inspired her and other students.”
—Brittney Cooper, PhD, author of Eloquent Rage

A very brief history of Somatics

A soma is any individual embodiment of a process, which endures and adapts through time, and it remains a soma as long as it lives. The moment that it dies it ceases to be a soma and becomes a body. (1976)

—Thomas Hanna, PhD, Founder of Somatics

In English, the word body does not carry the same connotations as in some other languages. Borrowing from the Greek root soma meaning “the living body in its wholeness,” somatics came to be defined as the body as experienced from within.

Body and mind are an integrated experience.

There is a vast field of international practitioners who study, develop, educate, research and continue to evolve the field of somatics (US, Australia etc), and body-psychotherapies (Europe, Asia etc). Both historically and present-day, there continues to be much cross-pollination between bodyworkers, performing artists, movement educators, philosophers, psychologists and psychotherapists as well as many other influencers.

Though not a fully comprehensive list, here are some central pioneers in the US whose contributions to the field of somatics continue to promote healing today:

Many past innovators also studied and borrowed from dance/movement, ritual/spiritual practices and non-Western wisdom traditions. Likewise, many present-day practitioners have followed in their predecessors’ footsteps and often train in practices such as:

“Emotions, memories, values, outside demands, internal expectations, environmental conditions and social norms almost always have a perceptible bodily dimension. For example, integrity might be experienced as warmth in the heart or lengthening of the spine; internalized social norms might manifest as immobilized muscles or a lump in the gut. Encouraging learners to ask themselves where these features of the experience live in their bodies can give voice to hidden dimensions and suggest new pathways for change.”

—Rae Johnson, PhD, RSMT, Embodied Social Justice


Scroll to Top