“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” – Lao Tzu
I was recently given the honor of serving as the Topic Expert Contributor of Somatic Psychotherapy at GoodTherapy.org. Each month I’ll be contributing some new content on the subject and will share those articles here as well. Enjoy!!
What I find that many first time somatic therapy clients what to know is, what actually happens during a real session? How is Somatic Psychotherapy different from other forms of therapy? There is often a concern that because we include the body in our work, that somehow this will make things uncomfortable, or a little too out there. Therefore, I have included here a brief transcript from a recent session. I feel serves to provide a road map of sorts for a very typical somatic psychotherapy session. Keep in mind that for every somatic therapist out there, there is a unique way to do this work. No two sessions will be the same. But there are some key elements that I highlight in this session that are typical.
John is a 53 year old marketing executive. He originally came to me with complaints of depression, an increasing reliance on alcohol to feel “good,” and a life long sense of “not being good enough.” At the time of this session, John and I have been working together for about four months.
John enters the room and for the first five minutes or so we engage in chit chat, checking in with each other, exchanging pleasantries, that sort of stuff. John starts to talk about a situation at work that has left him feeling angry and nervous. He had given a presentation and felt he had done a pretty good job. In the break room just following the presentation, John’s boss approached him and asked if he was feeling alright today. A little confused, John indicated he was fine and asked why. His boss noted that John’s presentation seemed “off” and was “less polished” than usual.
While John is telling me this story, I’m both listening to the words, to the content, but I am also carefully listening to his body. I note that his breathing has increased and is coming more from his chest. His face is flushed, the muscles in his jaw are clenching, his right hand has formed a fist, and his feet are moving back and forth.
C: John, I’m curious as you tell me this story what you are noticing happening internally.
J: I’m pissed! I mean what kind of comment is that? What a jerk! (his fist comes down hard on the couch)
C: Yeah, you are pissed! Do you notice how your hand is now a fist?
J: Yeah! And my jaw is really tight.
C: Ah. Yes, it is tight. Just allow yourself to stay with all of that. Notice your breathing, allow your body to speak a little here.
This moment is an important one in any somatic session. We are moving out of talking about things, away from the content and from story telling, to mindfulness and present moment awareness. John has done this before with me, but for several sessions we worked together to help him develop this capacity to notice himself, without any judgment or need to change anything. John becomes curious about what his body is doing, and without losing the story, is able to gather important information about how the story is impacting him, not just in his thoughts, but physically and holistically as well.
J: Wow. I can’t believe how tight I am! My whole arm is tightening up.
C: Stay with that, notice what your arm wants to do.
J: It wants to pound on something! (he starts to make pounding movements with his arm. John pounds his fist a couple of times, then a long pause as he continues to be mindful.)
C: What’s happening now?
J: I feel sad too.
C: Ah, just stay with it and notice. (long pause). See if there is something familiar about this, or if there are any images, or memories.
J: (after a very long pause) Yeah. This is familiar. I’m having a memory of my dad. I’m like… seven or eight… and he is angry at me for something. Oh my God! I haven’t thought about this for years. He was angry that I didn’t catch the football. I was playing football and they passed the ball to me, and I dropped it. (John starts to cry, takes his time).
C: What is happening now in your body?
J: I’m sad, and angry. You know, that wasn’t fair! I was only a kid. (tears and anger) I didn’t do anything wrong! He had no right to be angry at me like that, did he?
C: No, he didn’t John. He really didn’t. That must have been very painful for you.
J: Yeah, it was, it is. (long pause)
C: What do you notice now?
J: My arm is relaxing. I’m thinking about Jim at the office and what he said to me. I think he was sort of like my dad in that moment.
C: Ah, yeah. Jim became your dad?
J: Yeah, and I just automatically reacted to it.
C: Makes sense. Your body wanted to protect you from that shame again, hunh?
J: Yeah. But Jim was actually being nice. He was more concerned about me than judging me. You know?
C: Yeah. Sounds like Jim really cares about you.
J: Yeah, he does. (starts to cry some)
This one short segment of John’s session outlines a very important and typical process in somatic work. We often start with whatever is happening for the person that day, something form work, from their family life, a dream, anything. We move from story telling into mindfulness and pay attention to the body, allowing it to unfold and move. From this place, new information becomes available to the client and they often make discoveries about how they function in the world. There is often a deep sense of appreciation and acceptance. As the body is allowed to move, energy that has been blocked or held for some reason, is able to move through, and we often experience relief and resolution.
This pattern can repeat several times during a session, and can include simple awareness of the body, movement, sound, reenactment, and touch.
So, in some ways, somatic work is very simple. We aren’t trying to figure out complex problems necessarily, or think our way through an issue. The problem is presented and then we create an environment in which the body can speak. All of the answers and resolutions to our problems are held within the body, we just have to be quiet enough to listen and follow.
Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy, somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic. There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.