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   . process of somatic psychotherapy .

Somatic Psychology:

An Approach to Psychotherapy



Somatic psychotherapy integrates our increasing understanding of the relationship between mind, brain, and body and follows the lead and intelligence of the body. The theory and context for this work is based on the increasing evidence from research demonstrating that the nervous system is shaped and influenced by its environment. Indeed, environmental factors play a surprisingly important role in contributing to symptoms as well as origins of many chronic illnesses such as diabetes (both type 1 and type 2), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, lupus, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, and Alzheimer's, to name a few ... more

Symptoms often begin days, months or years following a particularly stressful event or period in our lives. According to our increasing understanding of nervous system physiology, these symptoms reflect an intelligent attempt by the organism to cope with overwhelming circumstances. In this context, symptoms represent an intelligent strategy for survival.

High blood pressure, elevated glucose (sugar) and fear, for example, are important and natural components of the fight/flight defense response. It is when this healthy mechanism gets disrupted or "truncated", such as when our natural impulse to fight or flee is thwarted (this can occur in a car accident, for example, where we cannot access these resources), that our innate ability to heal gets side-tracked. In time, symptoms often develop, at which point they reflect disruptions in nervous system regulation.

The nervous system is inherently capable of self-regulation: it adapts blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate, for example, to facilitate changes in activity, such as when we move from sitting to walking or running, to eating, digesting, and sleeping. When disrupted, this capacity for self-regulation is altered, and blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety may increase in exaggerated ways when we get excited or hungry, or when we attempt to go to sleep or to relax. This process, known as coupling, occurs because our perception of our environment has been skewed such that sleep or digestion is now falsely but intricately associated with threat.

Indeed, any factor involved with a past traumatic event may become a cue that fosters exaggerated emotional, cognitive, and physical reactions. These cues may be external (a certain color, a particlar time of day or year, a change in the weather, etc) as well as internal (an increase in heart rate with exercise may stimulate a fight/flight response, which is also associated with an increase in heart rate; certain body movements, feelings of tightness and other sensations, etc).

When our nervous systems are living in a state of survival, the attempt to relax, such as for digestion or sleep, can be perceived as a life-threat in which our brains unconsciously believe we could perish if we let down our guard. The nervous system's response is to make sure that we remain in high alert (or in other states of survival and defense). When we help our systems find more effective resources and coping strategies or experience a sense of safety, our brains relearn how to relax, our systems regain flexibility, coupling is reduced, and symptoms shift. This results in regaining the capacity to cope effectively with stress in that stressful events have less of an impact on our physiologies (as well as on our symptoms).

Somatic psychotherapy consists of two components:
First, body-oriented therapies often look like regular therapy, in which dialogue and conversation provide support, education and exploration to foster new skills for addressing life's challenges and stressors. In addition, individuals develop new perspectives for learning how to understand symptoms, identify triggers, and reduce exacerbations.

The second component involves the "somatic" part of therapy, which invites curiosity and mindfulness to explore the body's innate wisdom. This may involve finding a safe place in our bodies, in our memories, or in our imaginations and noticing what happens in feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations. It may consist of focusing on physical sensations that feel soothing, calming, or relaxing.

Incorporating the body, imagination, and natural impulses enables us to access the parts of our nervous systems that never got to complete their attempts to protect us during past stressful or traumatic events. With completion, our systems no longer perceive our current environments as threatening, the disrupted parts of ourselves become whole again, and our nervous systems come out of the past and into the present.

Somatic psychotherapy places a strong emphasis on resources, such as experiences that facilitate a sense of safety and self-empowerment, or that enable us to feel calm, soothed, or peaceful. This approach works with an individual to identify his or her own unique resources, which may consist of pleasurable images, memories, sounds and textures, or talking and telling the story of what happened.

The simple act of noticing physical sensations such as tigthness, warmth, or recalling a pleasant memory for example, actually invites the nervous system to relearn how to self-regulate in more effective ways.

When the body is a resource, the somatic process may involve paying attention to physical sensations that occur in our bodies as a result of pleasure or stress, emotions and thoughts, or tracking and observing how things change when we explore tiny titrated amounts of activation (stress), such as may be associated with past events.

The goal of this work is to enable a person with a history of trauma or past stressful event to move on with life and to stop reliving the past (the emotions, physiological states of high activation, the intrustion of stressful memories, etc). By looping back and forth between resources and tiny amounts of stress, pleasure and small doses of activation, the body regains its own natural ability to oscillate back and forth, digesting and integrating experiences and resolving the disruption. The goal is to place those events in the past where they belong so that one can return to living in the present.

The focus of somatic psychotherapy is aimed at helping our brains remember how to accurately assess our current environments and to know when there is and when there is not a threat. By recalibrating the capacity for accurate perception, our nervous systems regain the ability to feel safety, and thereby regain the ability for self-regulation. A healthy nervous system recovers rapidly following stress, and can rest and recover without the need to remain hypervigilant. This process, in turn, reduces the intensity and severity of symptoms, particularly those affected by stress.

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