Why somatic therapy?
OK, I’ll say it outright. I’ll even trumpet it to the heavens (or at least into the interwebs):
I am delighted and proud to be a somatic therapist.
I am thrilled to be at the crest of this benevolent and very useful wave that’s slowly rising, gaining momentum as it sweeps over the healing professions. I love having the tools to provide a more holistic approach to my clients, helping them learn to work with their minds, bodies and, it often seems, their souls.
“So yeah,” you might say, “Somatic psychology. Mind-body therapy. What is all this, anyway? We’ve been sitting on couches and talking for about a hundred years now; and that’s worked pretty well. But now you want to interrupt my story. You want me to stop talking and pay attention to my ‘felt sense’, my ‘movement impulses’. Why do I care what my leg is doing? And those sensations in my stomach–I’d really rather just forget about them, anyway, ’cause they’re not comfortable. What is going on here?”
I’ll give you a hint:
It’s not “just in your head.”
If you were to stick your neck into an MRI tube, I would bet that the imaging would show thousands, maybe millions of connections between your head and your body. Veins, arteries, fascia, muscles, bones, nerves, an esophagus and windpipe…
(Look, Ma, it’s all connected!)
OK, OK, you say. But that’s just anatomical. There’s a big functional division between the brain and the body. The body is just the walking-around package; we really exist in the control center, the brain. Right?
Well, no. Not really. Consider the following points:
* Your digestive tract contains plenty of neurons and neurotransmitters, yes, the same kinds that are in your skull. This is known as the enteric nervous system or enteric brain. I’ve heard it said that volume-wise, it’s about the same size as a cat’s brain. Sooo….your gut is processing more than just food! No wonder people have always talked about getting gut feelings about things, as in “I knew in my gut he was cheating on me,” etc.
* There is a very big and important nerve that travels from your brainstem, winding its way through your body and down to your abdominal cavity. It’s called the vagus nerve, and there is cutting-edge research about its involvement in depression and all kinds of mood states. It seems there’s truth to the popular saying about someone who’s depressed having “a heavy heart.”
And here’s the thing: Over 80% of the vagus nerve is afferent. In anatomical terms, that means the nerve impulses are traveling from the body to the brain. So, your brain isn’t just telling your body what to do! Your body is doing a lot of talking to your brain. In fact, the lower, more primitive portion of this nerve is strongly implicated in the freeze response, which actually shuts down the higher thinking functions of the brain. Here are some articles from the website of Dr. Stephen Porges, the primary researcher developing the connection between the vagus nerve and mood and social functioning.
* It’s well-known that young children develop their brains through the use of their bodies: by touching, tasting, smelling, running around, falling down, learning to use their hands, their limbs, to solve problems; by interacting with something (or someone) and then watching to see what happens. Infants start this process by making faces at other people and then reacting to what the other people do. Why would all this stop in adulthood?
* I haven’t bothered to do a particularly thorough search for this post, but over the years, I have read about many studies demonstrating the positive effects of physical exercise in alleviating depression. Just Google it–a lot of results come up. This is backed up by my clinical experience. So if the mind and body were so separate, how could running around or doing an aerobics class, help cure the blues? And why do so many report such joy in movement?
* There is some speculation that Descartes was fulfilling a religious agenda with his famous theory of mind-body dualism: that is, by declaring that body was separate from mind/soul, ” irreligious people will be forced to believe in the prospect of an afterlife.” I’ve also heard that his proposed dualism made it politically easier for early anatomical scientists to dissect bodies, since corpses were no longer in the purview of the church. In any case, the belief isn’t global; Eastern philosophy and medicinal practice doesn’t support mind-body dualism.
Does this mean the brain isn’t important? No! Not at all. But solely working with cognition may not be sufficient for the treatment of trauma and mood disorders. Drs. Larry Heller and Aline LaPierre, in their new book, Healing Developmental Trauma, propose that nervous system dysregulation travels in loops between brain and body. So, we need to address both top-down (cognitive) and bottom-up (somatic) processing. That is, deal with both the thoughts and with the body.
For me, the bottom line is that by working with mind and body, I get to help my clients move towards becoming truly alive. Somatic therapists (among many other people) have discovered that you can’t really be alive, in the deepest sense of the word, if you’re not fully inhabiting your body. People usually become alienated from their bodies because they have experienced physical and/or emotional pain. (I recall someone in my Somatic Experiencing class saying on the first day, “I’m really a loft person. I live from the eyebrows up!” She didn’t “go downstairs” much, preferring to stay in the realm of her thoughts.)
The good news is, humans are very resilient, and retain mechanisms to heal. A somatic therapist doesn’t “heal you”. He or she helps you learn to reclaim your birthright in discovering and activating your body’s own homeostatic (balance) mechanisms. Many people happily discover the sheer joy of being in their bodies, of being truly alive. Now, this may take quite some time and a lot of work, to approach this joyful state of being. And therapy, like the rest of life, has no guarantees.
But you don’t get anywhere if you don’t even try, right?