Understanding Somatic Experience: Working With the Body to Heal the Mind

How Can Therapists Overcome Fears About the Body with Clients Who Struggle to Heal from Painful Somatic Experiences?

Understanding Somatic Experience: Working With the Body to Heal the Mind

Within the field of psychotherapy, trauma specialists have led the way in bringing a more direct focus on somatic experience into treatment. The pioneering work of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk and others has highlighted the way that people experience the long-range effects of trauma as much in their bodies as in their minds.

Indeed, it’s the very fact that both emotion and reasoning ability are held hostage by their body’s continuing physical reaction to trauma—long after the traumatic event happens—that makes healing so hard for trauma survivors, no matter how much cognitive “insight” they have into their suffering. As a result, many trauma therapists have tried to make mindful body awareness, breathing, relaxation, and grounding techniques as integral to the therapy as talk.

Most talk therapists, however, have a long way to go before becoming as body-wise as their colleagues in the trauma field. For generations, therapists have been taught that focusing too much attention on somatic experience would be too arousing, enticing, or frightening for clients. It might undermine the therapist’s neutrality and ruin the transference.

But it isn’t just a concern for the client that kept therapists from bringing the somatic experience into their therapeutic work. Most people are at least a little frightened of their bodies and the untoward feelings that well up from their depths—frightened of what happens beneath the skin, beneath the veneer of reason and civilized behavior.

So what does it take for a therapist to move past these various obstacles to bringing mind and body together in the treatment room?

For therapists who’ve spent entire careers firmly planted in their chairs, learning how to integrate some sort of somatic therapy into their work can be relatively simple. They can enrich their therapy by learning how to better read their own bodies and those of their clients while never budging from their seats.

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.