One of the most common questions I receive from people curious about somatic psychology is, “What does somatic mean?” The word somatic is associated with the lived experience of the body (soma) and how sensations relate to various processes, including how we experience thoughts and feelings.
When prompted, we are usually able to name and sense something in the body. These sensations may include: density, texture, temperature, shape, or even a flavor or scent. By noticing sensations in the body – often provoked by emotional response patterns – we become better-able to explore the innate body wisdom directly correlated with self-healing and nervous system regulation.
We can harness the phenomenon of sensory awareness to ground ourselves during moments of tension and reactivity, regulate the nervous system, and to learn from and heal long-held pain. The therapeutic nature of this heart-centered process also supports us to compassionately address unmet needs and understand their origins.
3-Step Somatic Self-Care Practice
I developed a simple and effective three-step practice that supports nervous system regulation and healing by integrating sensory (somatic) awareness with self-inquiry. The intention of this practice is to support you to develop insight and regulate your nervous system by noticing emotional distress, naming sensations, and exploring the needs therein.
The next time you feel a strong emotion or sensation that you would like to explore, give yourself at least ten minutes to complete this practice and see what arises.
Step 1 (3-5 minutes)
Find a comfortable seated position and take a few deep breaths.
- Are you currently feeling an emotion?
Example: Sadness, joy, anger, anxiety, etc.
If yes, continue to Step 1A. If you do not currently feel a notable emotion, skip to Step 1B.
- As you feel the emotion, what is the level of distress you feel associated with it?
Use a scale of 0-10 to measure your distress level, with zero being “no distress at all” and ten being “the highest level of distress you can imagine.”
Mentally note or write down your distress level number.
- What sensation is most noticeable in your body?
- Where is the sensation located?
If you sense multiple areas, choose the area that feels the most activated.
- Take a few slow, deep breaths into your area.
- How would you describe the sensation?
Try to describe its weight, texture, density, shape, color, flavor, fragrance, etc.
Now put those two things together (location and sensation).
Examples: tightness in the chest, buzzing in the head, churning in the stomach, heaviness or lightness in the legs and feet, etc.
- If you felt an emotion in Step 1A, explore how that emotion may be associated to the sensations you are noticing.
Try not to over-think this and rather “sense” the connection between your emotional state and the sensations in your body.
- As you continue exploring the sensations in your body for a few minutes, do you notice your original distress level (0-10) staying the same, reducing, or increasing?
Step 2 (3+ minutes)
- Does anything feel familiar about this sensation and its accompanying emotion?
- When was the last time you sensed this in your body?
In other words, is there a certain kind of situation or relational dynamic (external or internal), that led to you to experiencing this kind of sensation?
- If other individuals were involved, what was your relationship and/or dynamic with them?
Reflect on the above questions for a few minutes and do your best to be compassionate with yourself. Also feel free to jot down any noticeable themes or patterns you notice between what you are currently feeling and what you have felt in the past.
Step 3 (3+ minutes)
Continue to observe the sensations as they arise and reflect on the parts that feel familiar. You are developing a deeper understanding of your body-mind and how sensations play an intrinsic role in your life.
- From here, ask yourself: “What do I need or desire right now?” Do you have a need or desire connected to the sensations you observed in Step 1 and 2?
This is usually an emotionally-focused, non-material need, often associated with the younger parts of the self, or any part that has an un-met need (unconditional love, presence, attention, etc.).
Tune in to the need or desire hidden within the feeling or sensation. For example, tense shoulders are often connected to anger or frustration, which may arise when we do not feel heard or understood. Heaviness in the heart may be connected to sadness that emerges when we desire love and acceptance.
Examples of Needs & Desires:
“I desire deeper connection (with others)”
“I need to be heard”
“I desire affection”
“I need to feel safe”
Take a few more deep breaths. Once you have established the deeper need or desire associated with your body-wisdom, feel free to reflect and journal about it for a few more minutes. You may also choose to share your reflections with a trusted friend, therapist, coach, or loved one.
If you tuned into an emotion during Step 1, check in with your current distress level (0-10). If it has not reduced, feel free to move through the steps again, or resource yourself with four minutes of box breathing.
- Breathe in through the nose while counting to four. Continue inhaling for the entire 4 seconds. The breath should be slow and steady.
- Hold the breath in the lungs for another count of four.
- Exhale through the mouth while counting to four. As with the inhale, the exhale should be slow and steady.
- Continue repeating this pattern for 4 minutes.
Somatically-informed practices such as this 3-Step process may support nervous system regulation, healing, and personal growth. If you are unfamiliar with this kind of practice, it may seem a little confusing at first. Be compassionate to yourself and know that everything you are experiencing is part of elucidating innate body wisdom and self-understanding.
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