Q: I’m trained as a talk therapist but keep hearing about all these new somatic approaches being used today. What are some simple somatic tools I can integrate into my work?
A: The idea that the mind and body are inextricably intertwined is widely accepted in our field, but many therapists remain so focused on understanding the thoughts and feelings in clients’ minds that they forget about the pivotal information to be gleaned by paying more attention to clients’ bodies. The three-step somatic process below can be used with just about any therapeutic approach, and it will help you directly access the important information that lives within clients’ immediate physical experience.
Step 1: Connect emotions to a felt body sense. The first step in making therapy more embodied is to shift attention from a top-down verbal analysis to a bottom-up focus on physical experience. If clients have already spoken about an emotion or a difficult state of mind they’re struggling with, you can say, “Take a moment and sense into your body where that feeling lives and how it feels at this point. To tune into your body more closely, you may find it helpful to close your eyes. Take as much time as you need. You can even ask into your body, ‘Where does my fear (or whatever emotion your client is presenting) live, and how does it feel within me?’ You don’t even need to find words to describe what you’re feeling: just feel what you’re feeling. Sense into your body, starting at your head and then moving down through your torso, including your muscles and even your heart, lungs, and guts. When you’re ready, share with me what you’ve discovered, whatever sensations you feel.”
Intense emotional states will most often be felt deeper in the body, particularly in the organs of the body. Phrases like “My gut reaction is to tell him to get lost” or “I felt heartbroken when I heard the news” or “I couldn’t stomach those lies she was telling me” point to the location of our emotions deep inside the body. If a client hasn’t named any particular emotion and is caught in unproductively reporting an event or story, you can say, “As you share this experience with me that you’d like to work with in this session, can you identify the feeling you felt when this event actually happened in your life? Take as much time as you need to go inside, closing your eyes, to sense either what emotion now, or what emotion then, was present as all this happened. When you’re ready, share what you’ve discovered, what sensations you feel in your body.”
You may hear clients say things like, “I feel this twisting feeling in my gut,” or “It feels like my heart is a big heavy rock,” or “I feel like my gut area is empty, like there’s a big hole there.” People have a bottom-up way of processing emotional information, which originates largely in our visceral body (our guts, heart, and lungs) and percolates upward into the brainstem, limbic brain, and finally our cortical brain, where we find words for what we feel. But before our left hemisphere can accurately find the words to describe or name what we feel, we actually need a moment to hang out in the right hemisphere and feel what we feel.
Clients may feel a type of pain that’s actually old pain—pain that’s never been acknowledged before—so even as you try to meet your clients with support, you may feel that they’re unable to take your support in. That’s because this old pain has never known real support, protection, and safety. You’re now working with a client’s younger self. If you sense this is the territory you’ve reached, you can say something as simple as “I understand that this might be an old pain that hasn’t known support before, so it may not trust that there could be compassion for this pain. That’s OK. I’m still here offering a connection, offering support to what your body is feeling and saying.”
Step 2: Honor and support the body-centered emotion. It’s important at this point for the therapist to help clients acknowledge the body’s truth. We all know the importance of saying “I hear you” when our clients share something difficult or painful. The same quality of empathic listening needs to occur as your client shares the direct experience of feeling emotion in the body. You can say, “I hear that your gut is twisted,” or “I hear your heart is like a big heavy rock,” or “I hear your gut is empty and there’s a big hole there.” Our words—and, more importantly, the compassion and respect that underlie these words—are key to supporting clients in this second step.
To bring support to body-centered emotions, you can have clients evoke a compassionate figure by saying, “As you continue to feel heaviness in your chest, can you imagine someone being with you as you feel what you feel? This someone can be a person, alive or dead, that would have understanding and compassion for you here, just as you are. It could even be a character in a movie or a novel that has touched you with compassion. It could be a pet or a place in nature where you felt safe and nurtured.”
When you empathically hear what a client’s body is saying and the client knows you’re right there meeting this body experience and having compassion for the difficulty behind it, the pain often begins to transform. It may sometimes deepen into an emotional release, in which held tears and choked-back sobs emerge, or the emotional distress naturally finds some peace.
Step 3: Listen to what pain or wound is being held in the body. At this point, the armor or guarding that occurs around the painful emotion will have started to melt, so the body is ready to speak its truth, to reveal the pain or wound that needs support and healing. To invite the body to speak, there are two key questions to ask:
1. What’s the message contained within the felt sense of the embodied emotion?
2. What else does the emotional body need?
When we ask a client’s heavy heart what its message is, why it’s here, we may get a response like, “The message is I’m deeply sad, and I’m here because I feel betrayed.” Or when we ask a client’s twisted gut what its message is, it may say, “I’m really frightened, and I’m here because my husband blows up in anger at times.”
These may be messages that a client has already reported to you, but the key difference with this approach is that you’ve helped the emotion be felt within the body, in the here and now, with you as a therapist who’s present as the client touches the pain. Just as you offered an “I hear you” when the body spoke in step 1, you can offer another “I hear you” here. Nonverbal acknowledgments, such as a nod of the head, a soft smile, or compassionate eyes can speak louder than words when they emerge from your heart.
At this point, once the body has spoken its truth, there can be a sense of completion with the process. Your clients will feel deeply heard and reconnected to themselves. However, you can pursue one more step if you’d like. This step helps regulate whatever remaining distress may be present as your clients uncover what their emotional body needs and then envision this need actually being met. This step involves saying something like “Now that you’ve heard the message from your body, ask it what it needs. Maybe it’s safety, love, understanding. Check in and see.”
Often messages—like “I need protection” or “I need to be held” or “I need love”—will emerge, at which point you want to help your clients visualize this need being met right now. You might say something like “Imagine that need being satisfied right now. Bring to mind a person, whether alive or passed away, real or imagined. Whoever or whatever it is, what’s important is that you receive a response that feels as if it answers your need. Maybe they hold you, or say something like ‘I care about you.’ Maybe it’s your golden retriever who nestles up with you and just loves you. Having heard the message from your body just a moment ago and having felt the body-sense of this emotion, notice how it now feels to have your need be satisfied. Notice if your body experience shifts, changes, transforms.”
The key is that your clients feel what it’s like in their body to receive what they need. This may take a real commitment to visualize something that could feel foreign at first as they work on an old trauma that was triggered by a current life situation.
If this is the case, I’ll often say something like “This place of fear that deeply needs safety and protection may not know that it’s really available, since it wasn’t back then, so have the adult part of you come forward to give the child part of you the safety it needs. Who do you know that can be with it now?”
A deep sense of relief, satisfaction, or well-being will often emerge here, since your clients have gained a new wisdom about what they need in life. They’re now empowered with the knowledge of what they need, as well as the body sense of how good it feels to receive it. In this way, you can provide clients with a new way of breaking old habits and stuck patterns, as well as a new means of communicating with the wisdom of their bodies.
Ultimately, through this process, the felt sense of the emotion can be acknowledged and supported in expressing itself in a bottom-up way that clients’ cognitive minds can hear.
Daniel Leven, MPC, RSMT, is founder and director of the Leven Institute for Expressive Movement and a faculty member at the Hartford Family Institute’s professional training program in In-Depth Body Psychotherapy.