Somatic Psychotherapy – a new paradigm

Einstein and his therapist

Einstein and his therapist

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been the most dominant form of psychotherapy for the last 100 years deriving from Freud.  Recent advances in neuropsychology however have come to question the very foundations of this understanding of human psychology. Somatic psychology takes nearly the opposite approach of cognitive behavioral psychology and rewrites many of our basic assumptions on how we think human beings work at the most basic level.

Somatic psychotherapy is based primarily around a person’s relation to, and empathy with their own felt physical body. Cognitive behavioral therapy on the other hand is based around a person’s identification with their intellectual and subconscious mind and thoughts. It seeks to assist people by changing their thoughts and rationalizations, where as somatic psychotherapy seeks to change the underlying emotional patterns through physical sensation.

Core to this is a strong distinction between thoughts and feelings experienced in the mind/head and feelings experienced in the body.

Through the work of Allan Schore and many other researchers over the last 10+ years, it has been empirically shown that the somatic based approaches are considerably superior to cognitive behavioral approaches in terms of changing behaviors and promoting well-being. The problem is the vast majority of therapists and counselors are trained in the old-school cognitive approach and it will take time to retrain them all. Somatic psychotherapy based on neuropsychology is so new, most psychology departments at universities have no courses in it. Thus finding training can be a bit of a challenge.

Theories behind Somatic Therapy

Base childhood development

Most somatic based therapies start by addressing early childhood. Most of our social and nervous system development occurs prior to the age of two, as connections in the brain begin to be formed from the center moving to the periphery much like how a tree grows.

Brain Growth Emotions

At the very central base of our brain is the amygdala part of the limbic System. This is the center of emotions, and the part of the brain that develops first hence why early childhood is so critical to proper emotional development. Our social lives are governed chiefly by our emotions.  This is very important in that all information is passed through this region and it controls our most basic instincts. The brain forms emotional neural maps (or beliefs) and templates these off the primary caretaker usually the mother.

If the mother is emotionally distracted, absent, dismissive, depressed and not fully present, this will trigger survival fight/flight responses int he infant and these emotional responses will get laid down at a very early age in the brain and from the basis for later development. This creates emotional beliefs….or knee-jerk reactions that for the most part are beyond our conscious thought control, hence the failure of cognitive behavioral therapy to effectively work most of the time. It is these base emotional beliefs that govern our social and relational lives as adults.

The limbic system is responsible for basic life support such as breathing and is tied in tightly with our nervous system and physical sensations within the body. Becoming aware of the sensations in the body is the key to emotional awareness and the path to rewiring the brain at the most core level.

The region of the brain that controls our emotional responses also happens to be one of the most neuroplastic regions of the brain. This is to our supreme advantage in that with the right techniques it is possible to rewire unwanted negative emotional responses. This however requires developing our skill for being able to sense emotions within the body.

Attachment Theory

How we relate to our primary caretaker (usually mother) creates an emotional templating bond known as an attachment. There are four basic attachment styles and these form the basis for how we relate to people socially later on in life. A mal-adapted attachment style creates a negative feedback loop which then subsequently creates an emotional coping mechanism or complex. These complex’s form a set of emotional beliefs that cause repeated issues in terms of being able to empathize with other people in a healthy manner. Neediness, being clingy, being emotionally distant, stand offish, being stubborn, being socially unaware and attracted to abusive relationships are all results of poor attachment.

Attachment theory flowchart

The four attachment styles.

Attachment styles four

Gaining Emotional Mastery

To acquire emotional mastery requires first that you become aware of your emotions and the level of activation or intensity they have. You might say well isn’t everyone aware of their emotions? After all they are experiencing them….The question rather is how and also a matter of degree.

There is a high degree of variance in how people choose to experience emotions. It is possible to experience emotions almost exclusively in the head and completely disconnected from the body. However, the goal in being able to shape our emotions to our choosing is first to feel them viscerally in the body as physical sensations for that is the gateway for releasing the emotions and rewiring our brain.

Traumas of whatever type generate emotions that were to intense to deal with and the mind copes with this by dissociating from the body. When people have that blanked out up in the head look that is a sign of dissociation from the body. The goal is to slowly and progressively reconnect the mind to the body so it can process emotions the way they were intended through physical sensations. Animals do this naturally however humans have an ego that often gets in the way of this process.

Somatic Psychotherapy models have a basic process in common for how to properly work through emotions.

  1. Use your imagination to bring about a scenario in your mind that left you feeling emotionally uneasy
  2. Feel the negative emotion viscerally in the body and notice and temperature like sensations, tingling, tightness, contractions, pains, aches, stinging, creepiness, etc.
  3. Imagine a creative positive outcome to the negative scenario
  4. Feel how negative emotions transition to positive emotions based on a positive rather than negative outcome
  5. Take some time sense into and relax into the body and the positive emotions. Mentally notice how those emotions feel sensory wise.

Emotional Alchemy

Initially this process will go very slow. If a scenario brings up negative emotions that you feel are too powerful to deal with, try something easier for practice. With time the process becomes easier and can be applied to every single one of your emotions. This is how you gain emotional mastery. It is by working with your emotions rather than against them in a controlling manner. Emotions are fluid like water. The more intense an emotion the slower it needs to be worked through.

Further reading:

Major Somatic Psychotherpay Models/Methods & therapists: