Somatic Therapy Exercises and Techniques

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: Feb 07, 2024

Have you ever been startled by something like a loud noise, something falling near you, or someone jumping out to scare you, but after that initial jolt you break down laughing, get a body shiver after you realize you’re safe, or feel a small burst of energy?

That’s your body’s nervous system discharging a moment of stress. 

The somatic approach focuses on enabling the body to re-negotiate past events at a physical level, facilitating relief from intrusive images, thoughts, tension, panic, unhealthy relationships, and feelings of sadness or despair. By recognizing that past experiences can become trapped within the body, somatic work aims to unlock healing by addressing these manifestations on a somatic level.

In other words, somatic means relating to the body, so somatic therapy is all about the mind-body connection.

Cognitive approaches to therapy (talk therapy), like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), where you focus on your thinking processes and how you’re feeling emotionally while aiming to resolve those issues verbally. Somatic therapists incorporate the body as an important part of our overall mental health picture. 

Search for therapists and counsellors in Canada who specialize in somatic therapy on First Session.

How stress affects us physically

When trauma or stress stay “locked” in our bodies, it not only affects us emotionally and psychologically with symptoms related to depression and anxiety, but it can also turn into physical problems like stomach issues or even chronic back pain. 

This is because our human response to stress is automatic and activates to keep us safe—fight or flight. However, when the “danger” mode is activated in us for long periods of time and we don’t get that discharge moment, our nervous system stays charged up and we remain in a state of distress, even if we’re not wholly consciously aware of it. 

There are physical repercussions of this kind of stress—high blood pressure and blood sugar can impact our immune system, long-term muscle tension can have a physical ripple effect, and short or rapid breathing can impact our respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Somatic therapy involves becoming aware of when our bodies are telling us we’re stressed or triggered, like with muscle tension, stomach aches, headaches, shallow breathing, throat tightness, or numbness. Somatic therapy also involves learning how to calm or discharge that stress, tension and trauma. These techniques can include breathing exercises, dance, mindfulness and other body movement techniques. 

Somatic therapy techniques are body-focused to help us calm our nervous systems that have been overloaded by stress. 

Types of somatic therapy

One of the most common approaches to somatic therapy is Somatic Experiencing (SE). This was developed over the last 50+ years by Dr. Peter Levine, who holds doctorates in both medical biophysics and psychology. As the name would suggest, SE involves talking to a therapist about stressors or past traumas while being guided to pay closer attention to the physical sensations that pop up while discussing those experiences. 

A lot of the focus of Dr. Levine’s work is focused on those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and is largely based on our fight or flight (or freeze) responses to real or perceived danger. He says our traumatic experiences lead our nervous system to malfunction, which can keep us from processing our experiences. Fight or flight causes reactions like muscle tension, heart racing, rapid breathing reactions, while freeze (a last resort response) often keeps all of the fear energy stuck within us with no outlet to release.

With an SE approach, we can release these felt experiences of trauma to then heal the emotional ones. 

Other somatic therapy approaches include:

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: This therapy uses physical bi-lateral actions (eg. following a therapist’s pen or finger side-to-side) while recalling traumatic experiences to create new brain connections to those memories. Change happens at a neurological level—new connections help us desensitize the difficult older emotions so we re-process the memory.

  • The Hakomi Method: This approach combines mindfulness therapy and somatic therapy. Mindfulness therapies are about being present in the moment, without judgement. Hakomi might include examining mannerisms and habits (twirling hair, biting lip, facial expression, posture) as clues about our unconscious beliefs about ourselves.

  • Sensorimotor psychotherapy (SP): SP combines principles of psychotherapies (like attachment theory), neuroscience, Hakomi method techniques, and body therapies. It often involves three phases: establishing safety and stabilization including becoming aware of how thoughts and emotions are connected to body sensations (and exploring those triggers), exploring and processing those in small pieces to learn empowerment in healing, then integrating this new stronger sense of self into daily life.

  • Neurosomatic therapy: This approach is much more aligned to physical releases, and often involves massage work, posture imbalances and other physical exercises.

Somatic therapy concepts

Regardless of the approach or method, somatic therapy will be guided by some core techniques that help us understand how our body sensations are reacting to stress, and to work through that process. 

These techniques include:

  • Boundary development: In the context of somatic therapy, this is about learning how to be responsive to our own needs and learning how to feel protected, safe and strong while we cope with distress and trauma. Understanding where our boundaries are can help us cope in the future with stressors or situations that may before have been emotionally and physically challenging. 
  • Breathing: It may sound simple, but learning when we’re holding breath or breathing shallow can be a turning point to understanding how and when we need to take a beat and help our bodies through a stressful moment. This could also be incorporated into a broader technique of self-regulation: being mindful of our bodies and aware of physical sensations when we are experiencing big emotions. Deep breathing is also used to calm ourselves in moments of distress. 
  • Grounding: Our nervous systems kick into overdrive when we perceive danger. It’s important to bring ourselves out of that mode, especially when there is no real danger present. Grounding is about settling back into the present moment by splashing cold water on your face, doing controlled breathing, tensing and relaxing different parts of your body, or even just making your body move in a different way (stand from sitting, stretching, jumping).
  • Resourcing: Turns out, “go to your happy place” can have real psychological benefits. Resourcing is about identifying the tools in your toolbox to utilize when needed—memories of times you were strong, in a safe space, or with trusted people. You catalogue the good body feelings and physical sensations associated with those memories. These become your anchors when you need to regulate from stress. 
  • Titration and pendulation: Titration is a word taken from chemistry in which one solution is slowly added to another until a desired reaction is achieved. Pendulation is like the swinging of a hanging object side-to-side. These techniques work together in somatic therapy. During titration, you will slow down to pay attention to sensations in the body in increments while talking through experiences. This helps you get through a response to trauma without being overwhelmed. Pendulation requires the transition from resourcing to titration—stressful to calm sensations. This can help you find a rhythm of dealing with current and future stressors. 

Choosing a somatic therapist

You may know you want to take a more body-focused approach to your mental health, and you can search for therapists who specialize in somatic and body awareness therapy directly on First Session. You may also incorporate somatic or body-inspired techniques into other therapy approaches, especially mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises. 

Somatic therapies do have a history of controversy, especially earlier in the 20th century as the method was in development. As the therapeutic approach became more defined, the evidence around somatic therapy continued to grow, including this major 2015 analysis of various body-centric therapies and research papers showing somatic therapy to be effective.

Somatic therapies may involve some form of physical contact with a therapist if you’re going to your sessions in person. This may not work for everyone, especially if physical distress and trauma is part of the reason you’re seeking therapy. A trauma-informed or trauma-trained therapist will understand these nuances. You can always ask for more information before starting somatic therapies, including the therapist or counsellor’s experience and training applying this method.

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.