I have written this article for anyone who is interested to know more about a Somatic approach to healing and well-being.
Especially, it is written for anyone who may be dealing with psychological distress or trauma.
I'd love to share what has been transformational in my own life, and how Somatic Therapy continues to help countless others through body-mind wisdom.
Somatics has taught me that we do not need to be at the mercy of stress, trauma and overwhelm, which can wreck havoc with our health, work and relationships. Instead, I fully believe that through embodied wisdom, we can be anchored, supported, and even empowered, in the face of life's challenges. That we can live lives that are authentic, creative, and inspired.
The writings to follow are in 3 sections:
1: My personal experience: overcoming stress and trauma through somatics
2: Neurobiology: current research into stress and the nervous system
3: Somatics: a Body-mind approach to healing and life transformation.
Please feel welcome to read all sections, or to dip into the section that appeals to you most.
May all beings be well, may all beings be at peace.
A personal story
Throughout my life, I often felt in the grip of strong stress and distress responses.
Much of the time I was functioning well enough in life; working and engaging socially. But certain situations would bring up very uncomfortable feelings, both physical and psychological. My heart would race, and I'd feel "on edge" as my nervous system went into high alert. I experienced what I now know to be called"dissociation"- disconnecting from my body as it felt too overwhelming to stay there.
Mr.Duffy lived a short distance from his body"
James Joyce, Dubliners.
My body was where I felt all the discomfort. So I'd distract myself from feeling my body, by numbing out, which only compounded the mind-body schism.
I felt that I had no control over these responses. Perhaps I wasn't even fully aware of them, let alone imagining that there could be a different way of life.
But in my later 20s I began to explore healing and spiritual modalities, including meditation, breathwork, Jungian psychotherapy, Yoga, and dance therapy. Though I gained valuable insights into my background growing up in the North of Ireland, the distress just kept re-cycling.
All this time, I had intuitively been drawn to body based approaches. When I began to explore Somatics in my 30's, I began to understand why. During a 4 year Somatics training, called "Origins", with Joan Davis, I began to contact not only my mental and emotional but also my body responses too- the physiological underpinnings of my distress.
Gradually, I developed an ability to stay in my body rather than want to escape it. Not only that, but I began to discover that my body could be my best ally in the face of distress; an anchor in the storms. I learned that movement and touch could transform my experience in ways that talking could not.
. I also learned hugely valuable teachings on "containment", the physical sense of holding, and the psychological skill of dealing with distress in bite size, digestible pieces. So that rather than risking overwhelm, I could access these stored feelings in a safe, measured way.
As I cultivated these skills within the therapy context, I could then take this in my life, allowing me to stay present and empowered in the face of life events, rather than feel at the mercy of them.
Neuroscience: stress and the nervous system.
The pioneering work of people such as Peter Levine Phd and Dr.Bessel Van der Kolk has transformed our understanding of stress and the nervous system. Peter Levine showed how we are human mammals with the same evolutionary responses as our fellow animals. With stress or perceived danger, our nervous systems respond with " fight/flight/freeze". Nature has intelligent ways of discharging the accompanying hormonal, neuromuscular, and emotional responses- the animal runs, or fights, or plays dead. If it survives, it then moves and shakes off the excess energy and goes about its way.
As humans, we also experience the very same responses but often without these natural modes of release. Stress and trauma therefore, gets stored in our systems and recycles in our nervous systems, which then get primed and patterned into responding to danger, even though it may not actually exist! This is a process called neuroception, whereby the nervous system and limbic brain registers and responds to our environment in a lighting quick way, much faster than the forebrain or thinking self.
Because these responses are stored in the more primal, pre-verbal centres of our brains and throughout the rest of our bodies, we must work with releasing it on those primal levels also- through movement, body sensations, and touch. Talking alone cannot reach or release these deeply embodied memories.
"Trauma ( and stress) is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system." Peter Levine.
Healing Stress, Trauma, and Overwhelm: A Somatic Approach.
Within Somatics, it starts and ends with " resourcing"- orienting to anything that provides a sense of calm, support, strength, and capability. This can be both inner and outer resources, for example, a place in nature that you love, a family member, the breath, or an object that you hold dear. As we connect with this resource, it provides a safe harbour for us to return to as we begin to explore the undercurrents of our lives, and can help bring balance to the nervous system, regulating any activation and avoiding overwhelm.
Grounding is a way to strengthen your sense of foundation on the earth, in the world, and in your body. In a culture that tends to be head centred, grounding practices can reconnect us to our body wisdom in safe and enjoyable ways. As we drop don through our feet and into the connection with the earth below, we can begin to open up to literally a whole world of physcial, psycholigcal and energetic support.
Grounding is also an embodied mindfulness practice, helping us to notice in clear and embodied ways, when we are present and when we are drifting away into past and future.
Grounding helps put you in the "here and now", which is where your strength is and how growth occurs.
Our bodies can be thought of as containers, for all of our organs, our bones, our fluids and muscles. It can also be thought of in psychological terms, as a container for all our experiences, thoughts feelings and senses. As we connect to our feeling of having a container, it can bring a sense of structure, holding, and control as to what enters our container. It can be hugely soothing to contact our container in times of overwhelm, to anchor into something solid and supportive. This can counter-act the nervous system responses of fight/ flight/freeze. The skeletal system is especially wonderful to explore our felt sense of container, as our bones are the most dense form in our bodies, with structures that are stronger than steel. Biofeedback can strengthen our connection to our container, through touch- squeezing, pressing, compressing our arms, legs, torso, skull, and through movement explorations to connect through motor-sensory feedback.
Very related to this sense of containment is the concept of boundaries. It can be very useful to develop our sense of boundaries through embodied explorations- skin as a boundary, inner contents of our bodies and external environment and how we manage this relationship between world and self. Our muscular system another strong ally in the cultivation of boundaries, helping us to develop the inner strength to discern what we allow in to our lives, and what we need to say "no" to and enact choice over.
Titration: a measured approach to resolving issues.
Titration is a term used in chemistry to describe adding an ingredient often one drop at a time. In therapy, this means that we slowly and mindfully experience a small piece of our stress or trauma, so that it"dissolves" and is integrated into the system. One of the strengths of Somatics in comparison to many therapies is that time and care is taken to anchor clients into their resources and their "felt sense" or body sensations, before this process begins. That way, there is enough stable ground for you to return to and re-traumatising does not happen.
Re-patterning Through Embodied Mindfulness
The body may store our traumas, but the senses are also the gateway to our pleasure and our presence. As we gently let go of old responses that may no longer serve us, there is more space to experience the wonder and awe of this life. There is more capacity to discover the intelligence of our own organism, and the healing capacity that is held within. We can drop overly mental ways of experiencing life, and literally come to our senses. This can bring feelings of well-being, peace, delight, and awe. The illusion of separation is replaced by a sense of the inter-connectedness of all life. In this sense, Somatics holds the potential to connect us to our essential nature; of love, deep peace, oneness and well-being.
"My belief is in the blood and flesh as being wiser than the intellect. The body-unconscious is where life bubbles up in us. It is how we know that we are alive, alive to the depths of our souls and in touch somewhere with the vivid reaches of the cosmos."
D. H. Lawrence