About Somatic Psychotherapy

What is trauma and what’s just stress?

Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk offers this short video about trauma.

Trauma can push our autonomic nervous system (ANS) to adapt in ways that are hard to live with. We can become easily triggered, or feel emotions that are connected to the past, not today. I use Somatic Interactional Psychotherapy (SIP) as a way to release patterns that are remembered in the body. ‘Somatic’ means a focus on the body, rather than the mind.

Why is a Somatic method of treating trauma needed?

Much of the processing of trauma is body-based and not cognitive, and yet western psychology has been expecting to treat trauma through the conscious mind.  SIP takes a different approach.  Your body needs to be allowed to express involuntary, autonomic responses in response to memories. Engaging the body’s autonomic process in this way produces an effective release of trauma.

The therapy is very slow, gentle and you remain in full control at all times.

How does Somatic Interactional Psychotherapy work?  

Many people with trauma find re-telling their story is triggering. The word ‘triggering’ indicates that their body is going into an activated process, in response to the memory. Let’s think about that. The person has been asked to remember something upsetting and their body, appropriately, starts to defend them automatically, using the autonomic nervous system. It might go into flight and fight (fear, anxiety, distractions), or dissociation (switched off feelings, zoning-out, can’t stay connected).

The body needs to process that activation. Instead, what the person is often taught to do is to contain it. They are taught to hold down the autonomic process, using distraction, or mind habits, or with activities such as yoga or sports. 

Ordinarily all of those tools; distractions, mind habits, yoga or sports, are healthy ways to focus the mood and body. For instance, sports can help the autonomic nervous system to be flexible – to become activated, and then relax again afterward. However, when we use them against the body – like stopping it from processing fear, then we are using those tools against our own body system.

SIP offers the body a way to offload the tensions it has built up, and to process them slowly, in an organic way. What we do is to sit quietly and allow the body to have time to process. It can take 15 – 20 minutes for this process to begin. The therapist will guide you in what to pay attention to. Somatic Psychotherapy is focussed on body feelings, which might be things like muscle tensions, or changes in breathing pattern. 

Is Somatic Therapy better than talk therapy?

Talk therapy is definitely helpful and a good therapist can help you a great deal, but talk therapy is not the only option any more. Theories that promote holding-down-the-body-with-the-mind are core to many Western psychology and psychotherapies. However, the therapies which teach that the mind can control the body have run into problems. They cannot help people when the symptoms are in the body, and cannot help when the causes might be from early childhood.

For example, dissociation has been regarded as an ‘extreme’ symptom, but biologically speaking dissociation is a natural part of the ANS process; it is a protective strategy that is activated under extreme stress. Dissociation does not prove someone is ‘extremely’ mentally unwell. Everyone dissociates at times in their life, the problem is when this happens too often, or when it’s triggered from past memories.

SIP is focussed on body feelings that are generated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), allowing the body to process what has happened and at the speed it wishes to go at. The therapist is trained to guide you through these processes as they happen, and to understand and integrate them afterwards which can lead to profound insights.