Somatic therapy: A path to nervous system regulation

Somatic therapy: A path to nervous system regulation
Somatic therapy emphasizes the connection between the mind and body. (Photo/Alex Green)

By Danielle Reynolds, LCSW

In the energetic world of modern psychology, where talk therapy dominates the setting, a quieter revolution has been stirring – one that speaks directly to the body’s wisdom in healing.

As a therapist navigating the complexities of anxiety, work stress, depression and grief with my clients, I found myself increasingly drawn to a holistic approach that honored not just the mind but also the body’s role in emotional well-being. This journey led me to somatic therapy, a profound methodology that has reshaped not just my practice but also my understanding of how we heal and thrive.

Somatic therapy is a form of mental health treatment that focuses on the body’s role in healing from stress and trauma. Unlike traditional talk therapies, somatic therapy emphasizes the connection between the mind and body, recognizing that traumatic experiences can become trapped in the body and manifest as physical symptoms or emotional distress. By addressing these issues through body-centered techniques, somatic therapy aims to promote healing and well-being.

Core concepts

Somatic therapy revolves around the idea that trauma can be embodied, meaning traumatic experiences can lead to physical changes in the body, manifesting as symptoms like tension, pain or a general sense of unease. By focusing on these physical manifestations, somatic therapy aims to process and release the trapped trauma.

A central tenet of somatic therapy is its emphasis on the intricate connection between the mind and body. It suggests that changes in physical sensations or movements can significantly impact one’s emotional state and vice versa. Self-regulation is another foundational concept in somatic therapy, referring to the ability to manage emotional and physical responses. Through techniques like breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation, somatic therapy helps individuals regulate their nervous systems, thereby reducing stress and anxiety.

Somatic therapy adopts a holistic approach to healing, viewing individuals as integrated beings encompassing mind, body and spirit. It seeks to address not only the symptoms but also the root causes of psychological issues, fostering long-term healing and overall well-being.

Who can benefit from somatic therapy?

Somatic therapy can benefit individuals experiencing conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated grief, depression, anxiety, trust and intimacy issues and self-esteem problems. It differs from traditional talk therapies by starting with the body as the gateway to healing, promoting awareness of bodily sensations and teaching individuals to feel safe in their bodies while exploring thoughts, emotions and memories.

Here are some somatic therapy techniques to try at home.

Focus on your breathing. Deep breathing can help regulate the nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation. You can start by taking slow, deep breaths to the count of four seconds in through the nose and then exhaling through the mouth for eight seconds.

Move your body. This can include dancing, body swaying, jumping in place or stretching. As you move, focus on how your body feels. You can do this with a body scan: starting at your toes and going all the way up to your face, one body part at a time.

Jaw and pelvic floor connection. The jaw and pelvis are physiologically connected and the alignment and relaxation of each deeply affects the other. When undergoing stress, we often clench our jaw, grind our teeth, tense up the muscles of the pelvic floor and abdomen and clench our buttocks. This tension can relate to suppressed anger, fear or other negative emotions. Try a sigh to get comfortable releasing tightness in the jaw and mouth. Notice a simple awareness and loss of the pelvic muscles when releasing the jaw.

Explore grounding and resourcing. Grounding and resourcing techniques are exercises designed to bring your focus to the present moment. They involve connecting deeply with your body and the earth. When you ground yourself, you pay attention to the sensations of your feet on the ground and the feeling of your body in physical space, which can create space from distressing feelings in almost any situation. You can try focusing on the sensation of your feet on the ground, the temperature of the air or the sounds in your environment.

Incorporating somatic therapy techniques into your daily routine can be a powerful way to enhance your overall wellbeing and self-awareness. By taking the time to connect with your body and mind, you can cultivate a deeper sense of presence and resilience in the face of life’s challenges.

The writer is a licensed clinical social worker and mental health therapist at Del Ray Psych & Wellness, who specializes in somatic-psychedelic therapy.