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Somatic Coaching: What Is It and Does It Work?

If you’re scouring the internet looking for something to help you deal with challenges in your life, you’ve likely come across some form of somatic coaching or body-movement therapy. Perhaps you’re here because you’ve tried various other approaches or are still looking for answers that other types of treatment haven’t helped you find.

Somatic coaching has been around for ages, but unlike traditional psychotherapies and psychological approaches, it focuses on what you’re experiencing within your body as a means of processing stress or trauma.

Like many, you may be skeptical about this somewhat off-kilter practice. But if you learn more about it, you may find it makes sense. 

At the very least, you can learn some interesting and empowering things about how you process your life experiences by reading about somatic coaching. 

What Is Somatic Coaching?

The word ‘somatic’ comes from a Greek word, ‘soma,’ which means the physical body. Somatic coaching hinges on the belief that emotions and experiences affect our physical being and that what we feel and go through can be felt and experienced within our bodies. Somatic coaching seeks to make you aware of how your body experiences emotions.

Here’s an example to make it a little clearer. Say you’re in the middle of your work day, and suddenly your stomach drops. That ‘sinking feeling’ you get that tells you you’ve forgotten something or that something isn’t quite right is what prompts your brain to action.

This is one of the core thoughts behind somatic coaching: sometimes, our bodies pick up on things our brain hasn’t been able to process just yet. 

Sometimes, experiences that have touched us profoundly or left us feeling particularly emotional linger in our physical bodies. And perhaps we can teach our bodies and brains to be more closely linked.

The belief is that through somatic coaching, we can tap into our internal experiences and align them with our external experiences, improving our mental well-being, health, and mindset. 

It’s not just about enhancing positive emotions or learning to read what our body is telling us, but there’s also the potential that stored trauma and negative emotions can be released, processed, or dealt with in a way that can help us to live happier, healthier, more balanced lives.

A woman clutches her chest and stomach, performing a meditation
What is somatic coaching?

Where Does Somatic Coaching Come From?

There are many movements in history that emphasize the importance of somatics or the focus on internal physical perception. 

One of the most important is the work done by American movement therapist Thomas Hanna, who is responsible for the term’ somatics.’ His input into the field of somatics has been foundational in healthcare, movement arts, and body-centered psychotherapy.

Somatic coaching has become an alternative practice founded on the ideas of people like Hanna, with somatic experiencing practices teaching people to monitor their internal sensations to understand their experience holistically. 

The basic premise of somatic coaching is that by focusing on the body, and how emotions show up in the body, we can actually help ourselves heal from trauma.

Somatic Coaching vs. Somatic Experiencing Therapy

Coaching and therapy are two different concepts. In this context, it’s important to distinguish between them. 

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-oriented trauma therapy, sometimes also known as Somatic Experiencing Therapy, that seeks to help heal trauma using specific techniques.

Somatic coaching leans heavily into somatic experiencing, and in a way, they go hand in hand. However, somatic coaching is a more awareness-focused practice that teaches recognition of emotions in the body, while SE seeks to use that recognition to resolve symptoms of trauma.

The Difference Between Somatic Coaching and Talk Therapy

The core difference between somatic approaches and more traditional talk-based therapies is that the latter tends to take a top-down approach to trauma and healing. This means you’re using what you already know to make sense of something you don’t know – for example, using your knowledge of your trauma to try and reason through it. 

On the other hand, somatic coaching uses a bottom-up approach. This is where you take what you’re feeling – sensory data from your body – and processing it to learn something you didn’t know.

The Science Behind Somatic Coaching

There isn’t an overflow of scientific evidence for how somatic coaching works (or whether it’s effective), but there is sound logic and reasoning behind it. 

When we face trauma or stress, our body’s natural defense mechanisms initiate, with either fight, flight, or freeze as the responses. 

All of these states activate the release of stress hormones in the brain and your body, causing a physiological response: think about a time you have been terrified, anxious, or feared for your life. Your heart started beating wildly, you may have had sweaty palms, a dry mouth, and feelings of breathlessness. 

We also know that emotional stress causes cortisol levels to spike, suppressing your immune response and helping your body function in an “emergency only” mode. The long-term effects of high cortisol levels have been linked to severe issues like high blood sugar and problematic blood pressure levels.

These physical responses may seem to pass when the perceived threat diminishes, but the after-effects remain in your body – sort of like muscle memory. 

If, like me, something happens that reminds you of a particularly traumatic happening, your body defaults into that stress-response mode, even if you’re not actually in danger anymore. 

It’s these physical cues and experiences that somatic coaching seeks to identify and deal with. The belief is that resolving how your body treats these experiences will help you deal more effectively with trauma. This means that mindfulness and body awareness are front and center.

A woman sits with eyes closed and hands crossed over her chest in a somatic coaching session
Does somatic coaching work?

How The Body Stores Emotional and Traumatic Experiences

Not only does our body physically react to stress in the moment, but it stores our emotional distress, too. This is evident in our daily life when we feel a moment of breathlessness thinking about a terrifying situation, a knot in our stomach forming when we relive anxieties, or even a flash of euphoria when thinking about a tense situation we triumphed over.

Many people who have experienced intense, long-term stress (think abusive relationships or life-threatening experiences) have reported gastric issues. 

Research shows clear evidence that exposure to such stress has been linked to gastrointestinal disorders like IBS, ulcers, and reflux disorders. This underscores how deeply our physical bodies are linked to our emotions and psyche.

What Are the Benefits of Somatic Therapy?

Here are some ways that somatic therapy or coaching could benefit you:

  • Reduces physical and emotional discomfort
  • Helps you to process painful and traumatic experiences in a safe and tangible way
  • Aligning your internal and external experiences reduces stress
  • Improvements in sleep, physical health and well-being
  • Improvements in emotional and psychological well-being
  • Confidence, self-image, and self-worth may improve
  • Improves the effectiveness of other therapeutic interventions for mental health conditions
  • Helps to create a foundation for dealing with future stress more effectively by decreasing the intensity of responses to triggers

Who Can Benefit From Somatic Coaching?

The numerous benefits mentioned above may seem too good to be true, and while somatic coaching appears to be a cure-all, it’s essential to understand that it also has its limitations. 

Somatic coaching isn’t a guaranteed fix, as with any therapy, and there are some scenarios where it may not be effective at all. 

First, let’s look at the ideal somatic coaching client. Those who can benefit from somatic training are people who are already mindful or willing to learn to be in tune with their bodies. These are some of the issues that somatic coaching seeks to alleviate:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or struggles with stress in general
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Stress-related digestive issues
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Substance abuse
  • Chronic pain and panic attacks
  • People struggling to deal with grief
  • Trust and intimacy issues
  • Self-esteem and confidence issues

On the other hand, people with severe trauma who are showing extreme responses, such as self-harm and suicide ideation, may be further triggered by confrontation with their physical reactions to stress. Because somatic coaching involves getting in tune with how your body perceives stress, the sudden manifestation of those terrifying responses can be very dangerous.

It’s also crucial to understand that no approach to therapy and healing should summarily replace any medications or current treatment plans you may be on. You should always speak with your current healthcare practitioner before trying a new type of therapy. 

What Happens In a Somatic Coaching Session?

If you’re wondering what to expect in a somatic coaching session, this overview of what happens may set you at ease. 

The facilitator’s focus is firstly to help you become aware of how your body experiences certain feelings. This is usually done through body awareness exercises that teach you to recognize tension spots in your body.

This is followed by helping you to conjure calming thoughts and guide your body into a relaxed state. 

Suppose your coaching session has an aim on dealing with trauma. In that case, you’ll need to be ready to face the traumatic experience because part of the session will be to guide you through the memory of the event while taking note of the physical sensations that accompany it – and dealing with them in real life. 

Here are some of the techniques that may be used in your somatic coaching session:

Body Awareness and Mindfulness

This is an essential step, as none of the other steps can proceed if you can’t get in tune with your physical experiences. This means picking up on areas in your body that feel uncomfortable, tense, or out of kilter, for example, as well as identifying the sensations you’re feeling specifically. 

For example, identifying tightness in your chest, a heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach, muscle tension in your arms or legs, or breathing changes. This training teaches you to recognize changes in things like your breathing. 

Here’s an example of somatic breath work:

Grounding

The term grounding refers to bringing yourself out of a stress response, or rather, out of panic mode. Being able to settle back into reality is an important technique, especially when you are navigating painful traumas. This can be done by running cold water over your hands or face, controlling your breathing, or moving from sitting to walking about.

Resourcing

Like the name ‘resourcing’ implies, this technique is about recognizing the tools you have available for dealing with your emotions. In somatic terms, this looks like identifying memories of a time when you felt strong, protected, and safe, taking stock of how your body feels and anchoring those pleasant physical sensations when you need to regulate your stress response.

Titration and Pendulation

The first of these concepts involves slowly identifying (painful) experiences in your body while you process and talk through a traumatic event. By taking it on in bite-size chunks, you avoid being overwhelmed. It goes hand-in-hand with pendulation, which teaches you to move yourself from those challenging scenarios to a calm, relaxed state and return to the traumatic event when you are ready. 

Somatic Therapy Approaches

There are a few different ways of achieving the above, and thus, there are different approaches to somatic coaching. Here are some of the most common somatic coaching approaches:

EMDR

Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses bilateral eye movements while talking through traumatic experiences to stimulate the formation of new connections in the brain, effectively rebuilding more positive connections to those memories. This is done by following the facilitator’s finger from side to side with your eyes while you process the traumatic event.

The Hakomi Method

Based on a mindfulness approach combined with somatic coaching, the Hakomi method looks at specific habits, mannerisms, and gestures that you may have picked up over time to process emotions or subconscious beliefs about yourself. For example, are you biting your fingernails because you’re anxious, twirling your hair around your finger to self-soothe, or biting your lip to stop yourself from speaking?

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP)

This approach combines neuroscientific theory, the Hakomi method, and somatic coaching in a three-phase approach. In stage one, you establish safety and stability and become aware of how your thoughts and feelings link to what your body is feeling. 

Secondly, you explore and process those sensations and triggers in bite-size chunks to heal from them. Lastly, you integrate your new, aware, stabilized self into your daily life.

Neurosomatic Therapy

Focusing on the need to release your body’s pent-up or stored-up sensations, this approach is more aligned with massage work, posture balancing, and physical exercises like breathing and moving your body. This approach benefits children who aren’t yet able to reason or make the connection between body and emotion. 

Does Somatic Therapy Work? Case Study 

There isn’t much empirical evidence that backs up in black and white that somatic therapy works, but in some randomized controlled studies completed in 2017, researchers analyzed the effects of somatic experiencing on people with PTSD. The results indicated a significant improvement in symptoms reported.

It’s also worth looking at some case studies. In one such study, someone struggling with chronic autoimmune disorders in adulthood participated in Somatic Experiencing sessions. They have a history of emotional and physical neglect in early childhood. SE sessions that focused on grounding, stabilization, and developing boundaries helped them process anger and frustration. 

In further sessions, somatic resources are harnessed to regulate their stress responses. It is reported that this client has been able to work towards the healing and repairing of attachment wounding, especially concerning abandonment and its impact on their adult life.


You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a qualified therapist who gets you, try BetterHelp. Get 10% off your first month when you click the link below.

How To Get Started With Somatic Coaching

If somatic coaching sounds like something you could benefit from, here are some tips on getting started:

  • Do your research and find a practitioner with positive reviews and a traceable professional profile related to the therapeutic field
  • Focus on practitioners with accreditation to a professional medical association
  • Ask questions about their methods and approach, and pay attention to how they respond to your concerns
  • Consider browsing through professionally-compiled websites, such as this one, where you know the practitioners are trained in the appropriate methods. 

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