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Somatic Therapy FAQ

What are the main characteristics of somatic therapy?

Somatic therapy is:​

  • Infused with mindfulness. This isn't necessarily because we teach structured mindfulness exercises (some somatic therapists do and some don't), but rather the entire therapy session is approached from a state of mindful curiosity about what's happening in the body in the present moment. 

  • Grounded in neurobiology. Somatic therapy reflects the understanding that traumatic experiences, attachment (relational) patterns, and social/cultural conditioning are wired into the nervous system through bodily-based procedural memory more so than cognitive narrative memory. 

  • Organic and non-manualized. While we love science, we also deeply respect the vast complexity of the natural phenomenon that science seeks to understand. Somatic therapists tend to view therapy as an intuitive process that unfolds organically for each person. We are trained in ways of holding space that trust the client's nervous system to tell us what it needs for healing and recovery. There is no predetermined formula. 

  • Trauma informed. We center client autonomy and choice, mutual collaboration, and building relational safety. Trauma already undermines people's sense of agency, and we try not to compound that with harmful power dynamics in the therapeutic relationship.

  • Depth oriented. Somatic therapy is not a quick fix or a prescriptive solution to hack your nervous system. We're interested in deep and lasting transformation for our clients. Even when we're working with tangible resources and takeaways, it's with a spirit of attunement and open exploration.

How is somatic therapy different from more traditional talk therapy?

Ironically, including the body in therapy is not inherently what sets somatic therapy apart. Many traditional talk therapists teach their clients breathing techniques to regulate anxiety or speculate with their clients about how their chronic pain might be a manifestation of their repressed anger. The distinguishing "active ingredient" is less about what we're doing and more about how we're doing it.

In traditional talk therapies, the "how" is a mostly cognitive or narrative way of approaching things. In cognitive behavioral therapies this often includes learning new skills and tools, doing therapeutic exercises, or finding solutions to current challenges. In psychodynamic therapies this can look more like talking through things and discovering insights into the root causes of present challenges.

While somatic therapy uses many of those same elements, therapeutic change is primarily driven by noticing present moment experiences (body sensations, emotions, thoughts) as they unfold naturally in the therapy hour. This means that we work "bottom-up" to directly access and rewire implicit patterns in the nervous system. Whether we're talking about the body, talking about things that happened in childhood, or doing a grounding exercise, somatic therapy is about being embodied while we do or talk about whatever we're doing or talking about.  

How is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy different from other types of somatic therapy, and does that matter?

Somatic therapy is a wide umbrella that includes Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, NeuroAffective Relational Model, Hakomi Method, and various other approaches. Most of them overlap quite a bit and share many similarities. I highly suggest focusing more on whether a therapist feels like a good fit for you as a person rather than the specific type of somatic therapy they were trained in.

That said, I am obviously partial to Sensorimotor Psychotherapy! What I feel really stands out about SP is that it works with the nervous system's stress responses (e.g. someone who is chronically reliving an anxious flight response rooted in past trauma) AND attachment patterns or emotional processes (e.g. someone who internalized low self-esteem due to unmet emotional needs growing up). I find it to be a refreshingly integrative and relationally-focused approach, which might be related to the fact that it was developed by a woman!

If I'm interested in somatic therapy, what should I look for in a potential therapist?

I always suggest asking a potential therapist about their experience and training background to determine if it fits what you're looking for. Is it important to you that your therapist has an in-depth specialization in somatic therapy? If so, then you're probably looking for someone who has completed lots of training (often 1-3 years plus additional consultation and continuing ed) through a reputable organization such as Somatic Experiencing International, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, Hakomi Institute, or NARM Training Institue. However, maybe that level of somatic training isn't very important to you! Maybe you would prefer a therapist who has dabbled in a few somatic therapy workshops but doesn't consider it their primary modality. A good therapist should be completely transparent about their level of training and willing to answer questions about it.

I believe the most important thing by far is that your therapist feels like a good match for you. A big part of that is simply personality and personal style—similar to how you might have a favorite music genre, but you won't necessarily love every musical artist in that genre. 

As with any therapy-related content you consume, the information above reflects all the biases of my perspective and is riddled with oversimplifications!

Click here to learn more about somatic therapy from the experts.

Somatic Therapy FAQ: FAQ
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