Somatics is the practice of bringing the body into the counselling room. As Besel Van Der Kolk’s famous book is titled, “The Body Keeps the Score.” What he means by this is that the body holds all the trauma we experience, past and present. Traumatic events (big and small) become stored in the nervous system and the body’s way of holding itself. So, the theory goes, to release trauma, we must work at the level of the body.
Traditional talk therapy works with the mind; the left hemisphere of the brain does the processing, logically connecting dots, reframing, understanding things in context, working with forgiveness of self and others, perhaps. The challenge with this approach is that it works at the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t get to the driving force underneath – imagine disembodied talking heads. Trauma lives below the surface and often beyond memory, usually because trauma is something that happens “too much and too soon” for the psyche to process. And below the surface, trauma is often replayed in the nervous system as if it were happening in present time. As Van Der Kolk explains, trauma has no time stamp. Trauma stored in the body is trauma stored in the body – it is as though the trauma is happening now, running on a loop – not an isolated event that happened and was completed years ago. While talking can sometimes help us make sense of things in a coherent narrative, it doesn’t help us fully process the impacts of trauma or undo the bracing or patterning that trauma creates when it manifests physically in our bodies.
Somatics also works with nonverbal, often unconscious material. Imagine a client is sharing about the pain of a breakup while smiling. This shows a cognitive dissonance – the expression on the face does not match the emotion of loss and grief. By watching the body’s expressions, we can start to notice some deeper truths about what is happening for us. The smile may be a socially conditioned way of signaling that everything will be ok, no one needs to worry about my well-being, “I’m fine.” Or perhaps the smiling means that the relationship was really not serving the client and it is a relief to be out of it. Only by inquiring and looking into small details like facial expressions, gestures, postures and breath can we catch such nuances.
Once we are aware of how our body is expressing or holding our unconscious and our traumas, we can work at a deeper level to unpack, repattern and honor the wisdom of the body and the unconscious. Both provide strong signals as to what our psyche and nervous system need to heal. Working somatically and with the unconscious in counselling can help a client tune into the subtle language of these two facets of our experience and bring this awareness into their everyday lives to be more consonant with their deeper selves.