Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

Somatic Therapy

What is somatic therapy and why are we talking about it?

Great question! Let us break it down:

Somatic means: “relating to the body especially as distinct from the mind (Google).”

But you ask, isn’t therapy all about the mind? Many people believe therapy is only about talking and analyzing our thoughts and behaviours, figuring out how to understand or change them. This is true for some modalities of practice but for many others understanding our mental workings is only half the puzzle. When it comes to working with body image, self-trust, and trauma, the mind-body connection is KEY.

Yes, the body is separate from the mind, and our job is to help the two better communicate to understand both our internal and external experiences.

I use somatic therapy to help clients re-engage with their nervous system and to better understand themselves. The mind and body are connected. Bringing focus to our body’s reactions and the information it provides us truly allows us to understand our thought patterns, and responses, and manage our reactions; therefore, giving us the feeling of control.

When I collaborate with clients who are experiencing flashbacks and triggers that are impeding their day-to-day lives or are struggling with emotional dysregulation, I like to start with understanding our nervous systems and how we move from one system state to another. We call this approach a ‘bottom-up’ approach. Cognitive-based therapies are referred to as ‘top-down’ approaches because they focus on the thoughts that lead to actions and behaviours. Bottom-up is different because it focuses on our body’s responses that lead to emotions, thoughts, and actions, and works to tune into our nervous systems first.

Each day, we titrate (move back and forth) between the feeling of overall safety (ventral state), to fight and flight (sympathetic state), and in some cases, to freeze (dorsal state). When ‘typical’ people move through these states they do so unknowingly. Their nervous system can recognize a perceived threat, react, and return to a safety state in a brief period. This happens when we experience everyday stressors, conflicts, or simple irritants. Our systems activate, we notice, respond, and then move on with the day.

The struggle comes when our nervous systems cannot move from safety to fight/flight, and then back to safety smoothly and effectively; this is when the individual’s nervous system spends too much time in the freeze state without being able to move back to safety- this is often experienced as a full shutdown or dissociative state. Somatic repatterning focuses on the innate survival instincts all animals must survive. Our systems learn to determine what is safe vs. threatening by our environments, influenced by both our childhood experiences and how we move through the world daily. If we experience something that is perceived by our nervous system as threatening, we move to a sympathetic state. Still, when we cannot escape the perceived danger (discomfort), our nervous system codes that experience as dangerous, and we freeze. We tend to become frustrated when our systems mistake non-threatening stimuli as threats. This happens when our body ‘codes’ ambiguous experiences as dangerous due to past experiences, or triggers (often this is without our conscious awareness).

What triggers us one day may not trigger us another day, which is why I do not focus on specific triggers- my focus is on emotions and body (somatic) responses.

Techniques used in somatic therapy may include:

  • Bringing attention to your body’s sensations when feelings XYZ arise.
  • Working to attune to the message your body is trying to communicate.
  • Becoming familiar with the EMOTIONS attached to these responses.
  • Learning how to regulate your nervous system responses so triggers become less intense over time- coping tools, grounding, connection etc.

Somatic Therapy is utilized for many types of client struggles. I often use Somatic Therapy in trauma treatment and an integrative approach with IFS and emotion-focused therapy. The experience of getting to understand your implicit memory responses and the information your body holds throughout your life (body memories), can be empowering, and uncomfortable if clients have spent their lives avoiding discomfort. This is why somatic therapy can be a longer process and the therapist often utilizes titration throughout sessions – to guide the client in and out of their window of tolerance, to not cause a system shutdown, but to explore the discomfort productively.

Asking yourself to turn inward and assess what is happening in your body and nervous system can often feel daunting, vulnerable, and even threatening, at first.

That is why somatic therapy focuses on developing safety and connection, so you can regain trust in your experiences, and reactions, and make sense of your external and internal world. If we understand why we react in certain ways we can take control and meet ourselves with compassion instead of frustration.

Can you remember the last time you felt ‘triggered,’ or anxious, but did not know why? Did you notice your heart rate increase, muscles tensing, and thoughts racing? Did you feel like you were in control at that moment? Did you understand how to move through the experience without increased panic? If you are someone who has experienced trauma and wants to decrease trigger responses, have you built back the trust in yourself to do so? Do you know what your body is trying to communicate in those moments and how to address it?

These are all questions we explore in Somatic therapy. Often, it feels like a slow process as we get to know you, and you get to know your nervous system. But as you develop curiosity you engage in a new way of experiencing both your internal and external experiences.

Drop your shoulders from your ears.
Unclench your jaw.
Notice your breath and your heart rate.
Take a deep breath.
Slowly release.

You have now completed a somatic check-in or body scan.

Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP  #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

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