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June 14, 2023

What is somatic therapy? Advocates believe it explores connections between mental health and physical symptoms

It is popular on TikTok, where videos have racked up millions of views and demonstrate techniques that purportedly can help with issues like sadness and creative blocks

Mental Health Therapy
somatic therapy SHVETS production/Pexels

Somatic principles are more popular than ever thanks in part to social media. The practice — sometimes called somatic therapy, somatic experiencing or simply somatics — emphasizes the mind-body connection.

Traditionally, seeking help with your mental health means hours of talking and thinking — about your childhood, your romantic life, work and how it all makes you feel. But practitioners of somatic therapy invite patients to get out of their heads and into their bodies, through an holistic approach that emphasizes the connection between the mental and physical.

Somatic therapy, as Psychology Today describes it, is "a form of body-centered therapy that looks at the connection of mind and body and uses both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing." As patients process their feelings, therapists might invite them to notice physical sensations, like tension in their shoulders, dry throats, irregular breathing or general heat or sweat. Through exercises, somatic therapists offer ways to work through those physical symptoms, which practitioners would argue are manifestations of trauma or other difficult feelings.

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The concept is not new, but its popularity is. Somatic therapy has received increased attention, in part, thanks to TikTok, where #somatictherapy currently has 112.9 million views. Videos on the social media platform typically demonstrate quick techniques informed by somatic principles.

In one clip with over 7 million views, user @rhythmicmetamorphosis recommends grounding shakes for feelings of sadness and hip swirls for creative blocks or shame spirals.

@rhythmicmetamorphosis #somaticpractitioner #somatichealing #somaticmovement #healingtraumawithlove #somaticdance #nervoussystemregulation #raverforlife #edmraver #edmcommunity ♬ Aqui las Colombianas

Dr. Peter Levine is often credited with developing and popularizing somatic therapy — or, as he calls it, somatic experiencing. In the 1970s he observed the fight, flight or freeze responses of animals as they were stalked by predators. Levine noticed that the animals tended to shake or twitch after surviving these stressful experiences, which he theorized helped them relax and return to normalcy. 

"In somatic work, we're really prioritizing, in a bottom up way, how the body communicates and what it might be communicating," Mariana Pardes, a Philly-based somatics practitioner, said. "And so first and foremost, (we're) just learning its language. Sensation, physical sensation, movement of energy, bodily posture and gestures, imagery."

Pardes will ask clients to describe a tingling in their arm, a smell or the texture of a surface in great detail, encouraging greater curiosity and awareness of even slight physical reactions. With their permission, she might also touch the tops of their feet or backs of their heads in specific sequences to heighten awareness of sensations they're discussing. It's all a means of "turning on the antenna," as Pardes put it, so clients can better appreciate how they're actually feeling and make informed decisions with that knowledge.

In a 2021 review of multiple studies on somatic therapy, researchers concluded that the effectiveness of somatic experiencing was "promising" but required further examination. Psychologists previously found it was helpful in treating tsunami survivors in India and Thailand.

@quirky_black_therapist Gentle ways to help regulate your nervous. This is for my chronically illest, frozen folks, or you just want to get some feel goods real quick. Note: This is not a replacement for therapy. As you are a wonderful beautiful complex being ✨ #nervoussystemregulation #somatichealing #healingtrauma #somatictherapy #polyvagaltheory #traumaresponse #fightflightfreeze #anxietyrelief #somaticrelease #somatiktok #therapytok #blacktherapistoftiktok ♬ vlog, chill out, calm daily life(1370843)

Some of the core principles of somatic therapy have been popularized by traditional psychologists-turned-authors, like Levine, Nicole LePera ("How to Do the Work") and Bessel van der Kolk ("The Body Keeps the Score"). But other somatics practitioners, like Pardes, do not have a psychology degree or traditional clinical background. They instead attend the many training programs that have sprung up, including Levine's own Somatic Experiencing International or, locally, the Somatic Therapy Center in Huntingdon Valley. 

The lack of a centralized accreditation system — as well as Levine's comments about speaking to a long-dead Albert Einstein — have cast some skepticism on the practice. But as Americans continue to struggle with loneliness, and young people in particular experience a "mental health crisis," some see somatic therapy as a lifeline.

"I was a client first," Pardes said. "I had been in talk therapy long enough to really know the general themes of what I struggled with ... (but) I couldn't do the thing that I now understand you can't do, which is talk yourself out of really ingrained patterns of injury, of wounding, of trauma. So participating as a client in somatic work, it was really just very profound and powerful in my own system."

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