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Somatic Therapy: Using the Mind-Body Connection to Get Results
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A brilliant, 30-something architect named Frank went to see Minnesota psychologist Patrick Dougherty because he’d never been able to sustain a successful, lasting relationship. Charming and voluble, Frank talked nonstop about his work; his social life; his multiple affairs; his views on art, architecture, music, politics, and the general state of the world.
Several times during the first sessions, Dougherty asked Frank to slow down and focus on his breath. In response, Frank would groan melodramatically; roll his eyes; take a couple of loud, stagey mock-breaths; and then skip right back to his monologue. Finally, a bit exasperated himself, Dougherty insisted, “Frank! Can’t you just stop talking for a minute, relax, and breathe deeply?”
Frank stopped, shrugged, took one deep breath, and then screamed at Dougherty, “I don’t want to breathe! Don’t you get it? I don’t want to breathe because I hate my life!”
To pause, breathe deeply, and pay attention to how it felt was enough to make Frank feel at the core of his being the extent of his anguish and loneliness. Even such a presumably innocuous bit of somatic therapy can have surprising power and make people aware of hidden emotional pain that weeks of talk therapy might not uncover.
Getting Past Our Culture’s Ignorance of the Body
What Dougherty and thousands of other therapists have been discovering—or rediscovering—in the past few years, is that enlisting the body’s resources in psychotherapy, even in the gentlest, most decorous, and least intimidating way possible, can have a dramatic impact on the therapeutic experience.
In fact, many therapists are claiming that when approached skillfully and judiciously, somatic therapy, which is centered on the body, can be a way to bring forth and immediately engage deep emotional issues that might never fully surface in ordinary talk therapy.
In our image-obsessed, body-conscious society, we often don’t have a clue about what’s going on inside our bodies, how we really feel beneath the surface of our skin. Given our cultural climate, it’s hardly surprising that the body has always had a kind of shadow presence in therapy.
We’re aware of what we think and feel about the way our bodies look in a bathing suit, about our sexual inadequacies, about the nausea we get before a work deadline. But few therapists ever ask their clients to report directly on their somatic experience—“What do you feel in your body and where do you feel it?” —much less encourage them to express physically what they might be feeling.
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 veneer of reason and civilized behavior. According to Susan Aposhyan, author of Natural Intelligence: Body-Mind Integration and Human Development, therapists share our culture’s general phobia of the body. “Like everybody else, we therapists are afraid to attune ourselves to our own body sensations because we’re afraid of losing control of ourselves, that we’ll get too angry or become sexual.”
But this is changing, and this change was prompted in large part by developments in the headiest, most rarefied of scientific research domains. Brain science and the advent of imaging technology have made it clear just how “embodied” the mind is.
But what does it take for a therapist to move past the various obstacles to bringing mind and body together for somatic therapy?
Therapists who want to bring an element of somatic therapy to their work, but who aren’t inclined to retool themselves and their techniques completely, can enrich their therapy by learning how to better read their own bodies and those of their clients while never budging from their seats.
Somatic therapy can’t be remotely effective if therapists haven’t walked the walk themselves. Somatic therapy requires, perhaps even more than talk therapy, a high degree of therapeutic consciousness and caution to control what’s happening in the client.
A therapist listening to a client, particularly if the material is intense, can ground herself through mindful body awareness. These “body scans” on herself will not only ground her, but help her tune into the client. They also allow her to become more aware of transference and countertransference reactions while they’re still small clouds on the horizon, long before they have a chance to become violent thunderstorms.
If you want to learn more about somatic therapy and the techniques therapists are using to treat clients by working with the body, download this FREE special report.