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Why is somatic work so important in counselling and therapy?

At the root of anxiety and depression often lies unresolved trauma. While “talking” therapy has many benefits, it is my experience, both on my own journey and in my private practice as a counsellor and psychotherapist, that the healing of past trauma comes through embodiment.

Fear and anxiety, a sense of worthlessness and shame, as well as feeling sad or hopeless are all ways that the body tells us something is not right.  We tend to think of these experiences as the problem and wish they would just go away. But they are really the symptoms that something disturbing or distressing has happened.  Some relational, psychological or physical trauma is being held in the body. If the events were pre-verbal, no amount of talking will heal them.  Moreover, talking about memories of events such as rape, car accidents, war, etc. can actually cause more trauma to the body and make healing less likely.

Somatic psychotherapy approaches (eg. Somatic Experiencing, Somatic Transformation, Hakomi and Sensorimotor  Psychotherapy) draw from research in the neurosciences that links the body‘s biological and physiological functioning with psychology.  Without the wisdom of the body as it relates to our trauma, to our relationships and to the stresses of our daily life, counselling can be “dry”.  When talking and left-brain analysis is the primary or only modality for therapy, clients sometimes get stuck in the mind and do not experience the vitality and contentment true healing offers.

One example of how the body can hold pre-verbal memories occurred recently during a somatic session with a client who originally came into therapy for anxiety and depression.  Held within the safety of our therapeutic relationship, he was able to follow the sensations in his body.

After some initial work, he found he was having difficulty breathing.  He felt like his throat was closing.  He experienced a sense of panic and distress.

Through the gentle process of Somatic Transformation we were able to release from his body the tension that had been encoded and stored from a tracheotomy he’d had as a young child of 18 months. He knew on an intellectual level that he’d had a life threatening situation.  After all, the scar on his throat had been there for as long as he could remember. But he had never processed through his body the terror of not being able to breathe, of being rushed to the hospital, of having his throat cut for a breathing tube.

After this session the client experienced revitalization and a new sense of well-being.  Much of his anxiety – which was actually terror from the experience – was lifted.

Trauma is healed in small bites.  It took more than a few sessions before the client mentioned above was ready and able to process this particular experience.

An essential catalyst for healing is the co-created relationship that exists between the therapist and the client.  It can be almost impossible to resolve trauma by oneself.  It is the therapeutic relationship that repairs and resolves past relational wounds.  So it is good to be patient with somatic work.  It is not a magic bullet!

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