Somatic therapy is a way to connect the body to one’s mind and mental health. It combines mindfulness, body awareness, dance, movement, grounding techniques, and traditional talk therapy to help release tension held in the body that negatively affects physical and emotional well-being. It can be used to treat mental and emotional health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, grief, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A person’s feelings can directly impact their body and what they’re feeling within it. For example, I have a lot of students who struggle with chronic anxiety, which can present as tightness in the throat, a shaky voice, and feeling like the heart is about to pound out of the chest. So often our body is reminding us of something, even when our mind isn’t. The key with somatic therapy is to feel painful feelings but to do it in a way that feels safe and allows us to release those emotions. By leaning into these body sensations, a somatic therapist can help a client move toward healing from the inside out.
Somatic therapy helps regulate the nervous systems when we’re feeling activated or triggered. Below are some off the different tools I give my students to help them slow down, ground in the present moment, and emotionally regulate.
Something I do with all my students is called resourcing, or the practice of inviting the mind and body to tune into sensations of safety, calm, and goodness, however small they can be. At the beginning of a therapy session, I’ll ask a student to identify their resources. A student’s resources could be significant people and meaningful relationships in their life. They could be happy, positive memories that strengthen a sense of safety and security. They can also be visualizations of a secure space, real or imaginary, that expands feelings of peace and ease.
Envisioning a person, memory, or place that feels safe cultivates an internal sense of calm students can return to when their nervous systems are elevated.
Breathing exercises are foundational skills for students at Open Sky, and the three-fold breath is one of the first skills our students learn. The three-fold breath begins by exhaling all of the air out of the body. This is followed by slowly breathing in through the nose, down into the stomach, up into your chest, and then all the way up into the top of the head. Hold it there for a moment. Then, exhale everything through the mouth.
I also love to teach students the 4-7-8 breath because it helps calm the parasympathetic nervous system. The 4-7-8 breath begins by inhaling for four seconds through the nostrils, holding for seven seconds, and then exhaling out of the mouth for eight seconds. Taking in a shorter breath, holding it, and releasing more air out naturally lowers the nervous system response.
Physical movement can be a powerful way to release painful emotions we are storing in our bodies. I’ll encourage movement with my students in the field through an exercise we call Moving Across the Wilderness. I’ll begin by asking students to start moving, however feels good to them, whatever that looks like.
Students can feel silly and awkward and uncomfortable at first, and I’ll name that, but then I see them really get into it. Next, I’ll start to call out prompts: move across the wilderness as if you’re feeling good about yourself internally. Move across the wilderness as if you’re experiencing grief. Move across the wilderness as if you’ve just received the best news of your life.
I notice that students really drop into this practice after a couple of prompts. It takes some time, but eventually, students are able to identify how they hold themselves when they’re experiencing different emotions and what those emotions feel like within their bodies.
Another practice I’ll incorporate into my work with students is called mirroring. I’ll have two students stand or sit across from one another, and one student will embody a particular emotion. The other student will do exactly what they’re doing, reflecting back to them the emotions they’re seeing on their teammate’s face and how they’re holding their body.
Mirroring helps a student both feel seen as well as see what it looks like when they’re emoting a certain way. It encourages students to get in touch with how and where they’re holding their emotions and what that looks like.
Focusing on the senses
Engaging the senses is a technique I’ll use to help students calm their bodies and clear their minds. I’ll ask students to consider their five senses—sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste—and determine which sensation is most pronounced to them in the moment. Then, they’ll name five things they experience for that sense. They’ll then move to the next sense and name four things, move to the next sense and name three things, and so on.
I work with a lot of students who are very in their heads. They ruminate a lot and struggle with their thoughts. This exercise is a way for them to break out of their thoughts and tune into their bodies and what they’re experiencing in the present moment. I’ll also have students take note of the emotions they’re feeling prior to this practice and then to check in with themselves afterwards to see if that emotion has shifted or the intensity has decreased.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Another technique I will use —and this is something we all can do anywhere— is progressive muscle relaxation. This is the intentional practice of tensing and slowly relaxing all of the muscles in the body. For example, we might start with the feet. I’ll tell a student to tense all of the muscles in their feet and notice what that feels like. Then, I’ll ask them to completely relax all of those muscles and slowly work their way up their body.
Sometimes, I will also have students focus on a particularly emotion while doing this. For example, I’ll ask a student to tense all the sadness they’re feeling in their chest and then let it go, or to tense their throat, feel that anger that’s there, and then release it.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a way for us to both physically calm our bodies and take note of where we store our emotions.
I have some students who love all of the somatic skills and really enjoy doing them. I have other students who are more resistant to them because oftentimes, we don’t want to feel painful things. It’s through leaning into the discomfort, however, that we’re able to release distress. Therefore, I provide a lot of psychoeducation around these practices, and I don’t expect every student to connect with every exercise. It’s all about giving students a variety of tools and ample time to experiment with them.