Why Somatic Psychotherapy
If you’ve tried talk therapy in the past and you felt that no matter how much you understand why you think, feel and behave the way you do, you still seem to get sucked in your old unhealthy patterns, you may be trying to think your way out of a wound that lies much deeper in your psyche than “what you think.”
If you’ve told yourself a thousand times that there is no reason to get upset or scared, and yet you always do, you may be trying to talk your way out of a wound that is too busy trying to survive than to care about what you have to say.
If you find yourself repeatedly fixated on anxiety, urgency, criticism or hopelessness, or if your body gets hijacked by intense bodily sensations or impulsive behaviors, when talk isn’t enough, somatic psychotherapy (or body-mind psychotherapy) can help.
Somatic psychotherapy divides human consciousness into two distinct categories: primary and secondary consciousness. Primary consciousness is non-cognitive. It does not conceive of time or think abstractly. It is embodied.
Primary and Secondary Consciousness
Primary consciousness consists of our body sensations, emotions, images, and non-verbal (implicit) memories. Somatic psychotherapy refers to these as our direct experiences. Direct experiences can be visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory (taste), tactile, proprioceptive, or energetic.
Secondary consciousness, on the other hand, is our egoic consciousness that is capable of reflection, constructing abstract meaning, cognition, and rationality. Somatic psychotherapy refers to this as our interpretive experience: the labels and stories we put on ourselves, each other, and the world.
Talk therapy works mainly with interpretive experience, focusing on changing our thoughts and compensatory behaviors. While talk therapy has its strengths (which are important), its shortcomings lie in the fact that the majority of the psychological wounds that we carry were not created by our cognitions. They were created from painful experiences that were first felt in our primary consciousness, and then interpreted into meaning by our secondary consciousness.
Somatic therapy, on the other hand, works with direct experience, weaving between primary and secondary consciousness, and focusing on change at the primary consciousness (subconscious) level. Additionally, somatic psychotherapy helps us bypass the cognitive defenses that slow down or even block the process of true psychological healing.
Top Down versus Bottom Up Processing
Somatic psychotherapy has another advantage in that it utilizes what is referred to as top-down and bottom-up processing. Top-down processing initiates at the cerebral cortex with our ego-consciousness and our intentional mental activities. It speaks to how the conscious mind influences the body. (This is where regular talk therapy is useful.) In contrast, bottom-up processing initiates at the somatic, visceral, or sensory level of the body-mind. It speaks to how the body influences our thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Somatic psychology thus gives us the perfect tool to blend both of these types of processing.
In reality, both bottom-up and top-down processes are happening simultaneously. The advantage that somatic psychotherapy has over talk therapy is that there are 10x the amount of neurons traveling up into the cortex then there are neurons traveling down from the cortex. Combined with how wounds are stored experientially, somatic psychotherapy not only gives us quicker and direct access to wounding, but it frees us from fighting against the flow of unconscious impulses that impede our conscious desires to behave and think differently.
The Use of Touch in Somatic Psychotherapy
Somatic psychotherapy can use touch as a valuable tool for increasing the ability to work with bottom-up processing. There are multiple modalities in the use of touch in somatic psychotherapy that allows clients to more quickly discover unconscious material, connect current struggles to past wounding, and develop the internal resources to make changes in their primary consciousness.
Somatic psychotherapy divides touch into three categories: regulation, mindfulness, and release.
Regulation work is focused on influencing the autonomic nervous system. This type of work is mainly used to work with stress, anxiety, and trauma. By connecting to parts of the body that are associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest branch of the brain versus the fight or flight part), the body-mind can be directed out of a habitually “overactive state” (typically associated with anxiety, hypervigilance, restlessness, and dissociative) and into a calm, peaceful, relaxed, or “regulated state.” In doing so, the body-mind “relearns” how to self-soothe and thus to maintain a more balanced physiological state.
Regulation work is particularly good for early attachment trauma. Often this level of trauma, due to the age that the wounding occurred, is devoid of explicit memories.
Touch lights up the nervous system and thus increases awareness. Have you ever had the experience of someone rubbing your shoulders causing you to realize how tense your muscles were without you even knowing it?
This same awakening of the nervous system can be used to deepen one’s connection to the psychological material held in the body, or the wounding at the primary consciousness level.
Thus, mindful touch allows people to “drop into” the direct experience of their wounding, allowing them to quickly access the core material and more effectively process the root of their suffering.
Releasing Chronic Psycho-emotional Tension Patterns
Our bodies take shape in a mutually influential dance with our mental experiences. You’ve probably seen videos talking about holding a superhero pose before an interview to convince your mind that you feel confident. Something similar happened when we were young. Our bodies shaped themselves around the joys, pains, and sorrows of our environment (mainly the relational and cultural dynamics of our environment). If the environmental stressors were chronic, our bodies took on the form of whatever coping patterns we had to survive at that age. The muscle patterns that were used to create this form, over time, became habitual, and to this day, can continue to exist outside our conscious awareness. These patterns then shape the way our conscious brain sees and feels about ourselves, others and the world.
Touch therapy can not only help increase the awareness of these patterns (as described above), it can also help the body release these patterns and to learn to form newer more resourced “adult” patterns to aid us in facing the challenges of our lives.
Somatic Psychotherapy and Sexuality
While one’s relationship to sexuality is a topic that can be explored and processed in somatic psychotherapy, sexual touch is never part of psychotherapy.
Additionally touch in somatic psychotherapy is always done with consent. Touch interventions are only used with the client’s understanding and consent.
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