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5 Powerful Somatic Exercises To Reduce Cortisol Levels

If you’ve been on TikTok or Instagram lately, you’ve probably come across a somatic exercise tutorial. This trending workout is all about tapping into the mind-body connection to promote healing and release old trauma.

(If you’re at all interested in how the body stores trauma, I highly recommend reading the book “It Didn’t Start With You.”)

An emerging use-case of somatic exercise and healing is to reduce cortisol levels.

Known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is crucial for managing stress responses. However, prolonged high cortisol levels can lead to a host of health issues like anxiety, depression, and various physical conditions.

Somatic exercises involve using the body to aid in the healing process, focusing on movements and techniques to release built-up tension and stress.

The premise is that stress and trauma are not just mental or emotional experiences but are also stored physically within the body’s tissues.

By practicing somatic exercises, the theory goes, you can potentially lower your cortisol levels, enhancing both mental and physical well-being. And while not widely studied yet, there is some evidence that this actually works.

One small study on cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy found that after 8 weeks of somatic exercises like yoga and meditation, their salivary cortisol levels decreased significantly

This approach to stress management and cortisol reduction is gaining popularity due to its effectiveness and the active role it allows individuals to take in their own healing process. But how exactly do somatic exercises help reduce cortisol, and how can you incorporate them into your daily routine?

What is Somatic Therapy?

Somatic therapy is a body-centric approach to healing trauma and emotional pain.

Rather than focusing on the mental toll of trauma, somatic therapy helps release stored negative energy and helps individuals understand the link between physical and mental anxiety.

Although the idea of connecting the mental and physical body has been around for centuries, the idea of doing so scientifically dates back to Wilheim Reich’s book “Character Analysis,” which was published in 1933. 

A woman sits and breathes deeply
somatic exercises to reduce cortisol

How Does Somatic Therapy Work?

The primary premise of somatic therapy is to help patients identify and explore the connection between mental trauma and physical responses.

For example, someone may get tense at a specific time of year or based on a specific trigger, but they can’t understand why. 

The goal is to engage both the mental and physical parts of the body by combining physical therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). By merging the two, patients can better understand why they feel a specific way and how they can address the unresolved trauma

That said, somatic therapy is a body-first approach. This means it focuses on where trauma responses are stored and how to release them via physical therapy. 

How Does Somatic Exercise Reduce Cortisol?

Somatic exercises reduce cortisol levels by focusing on physical movements and techniques that promote relaxation and stress relief.

These exercises help to release tension stored in the body, which in turn can lower cortisol production. Here are some key ways somatic exercises achieve this:

  • Promoting Deep Breathing:
    Techniques like diaphragmatic breathing increase oxygen flow and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps counteract the “fight or flight” response driven by cortisol.
  • Enhancing Body Awareness:
    Somatic exercises often involve mindful movements and grounding techniques that increase body awareness. This heightened awareness can help you recognize and release physical tension, reducing your body’s overall stress response.
  • Stimulating the Vagus Nerve:
    Exercises such as the Voo Breath specifically target the vagus nerve, which plays a critical role in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Activating this nerve can decrease cortisol levels and promote a state of calm.
  • Releasing Muscle Tension:
    Practices like progressive muscle relaxation help individuals systematically tense and release different muscle groups, reducing physical stress and the associated cortisol production.
  • Encouraging Physical Activity:
    Movement-based somatic exercises, like grounding and walking meditation, increase physical activity, which is known to reduce cortisol levels by enhancing mood and promoting overall well-being.

If any of that sounds encouraging you, let’s explore exactly how you can do these exercises and start experiencing the benefits.

Related: How To Calm Down Quickly When You’re Stressed

Man doing a hip opening exercise

5 Simple Somatic Exercises To Reduct Cortisol Levels

If you think somatic therapy sounds appealing, why not give it a go?

While the best results come from a trained practitioner, there are so many exercises you can do at home.

Ideally, you can sample one or more of these somatic healing techniques to see if they produce any results. From there, you can determine how to seek professional assistance to dive even deeper. 

Also, keep in mind that these exercises are not a substitute for professional somatic therapy. While they can help you feel better, it’s imperative to utilize a structured therapy process to ensure long-term healing, especially if you’re dealing with deep, complex trauma in addition to heightened stress levels. 

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

How to Do It

Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Place one hand on the top of your stomach and the other on your chest. Breathe in through your nose and see which hand moves the most. If it’s your chest, you’re taking shallow breaths. On the next breath, fill your stomach with air as you breathe in. Try not to move the chest at all. 

Repeat as necessary until you feel calm and focused. 

Why it Works

Breathing is something we all take for granted, but when you control your breathing, you can center your body and mind. This is one of the simplest and most effective somatic healing techniques because it grounds you. It’s helpful for anxiety or nervousness and can be a great lead-in to other somatic exercises. 

2. Grounding Your Weight

How to Do It

This exercise is a bit more time-consuming and involves multiple steps. However, once you do the full set of exercises, you can pick and choose which methods work best for you and focus on those in the future. 

For this exercise, it’s best to be barefoot because you’ll feel more connected to the ground. If possible, try to do this outside in the grass, as that connection to nature can help you feel much better. 

There are several phases to this exercise. First, you’ll hop in place, taking deep breaths and letting your arms jiggle freely as you bounce. Steadily increase the intensity until you’re practically jumping off the ground. After a little while, stand in place and mentally feel each part of your body. 

After the second step, you’ll start bouncing on the balls of your feet. However, each bounce is slow and deliberate, not fast like before. Drop your weight onto your heels with each bounce. Finally, do a slow walk forward and back, and then lift each leg and drop it quickly a few times. 

Why It Works

Grounding is an essential part of somatic healing therapy as it helps you understand where your weight lies and where trauma may be stored. This practice can also help you recover from anxiety or panic attacks as it makes you more conscious of your physical self. 

3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

How to Do It

This exercise is straightforward, but it can have a lasting impact when done consistently over time. Simply start at one part of the body (i.e., your hands or toes). Clench those muscles as hard as you can for five seconds, and release. Focus your mind on the sensation of releasing and how it makes you feel. Doing this each time helps you recognize when you’re holding onto tension and how good it feels to release it. 

Repeat these steps for every set of muscles in your body, including the arms, stomach, chest, legs, and feet. 

Why It Works

This exercise essentially trains your brain to recognize tension and release it. The goal is to learn how tension manifests in different parts of the body, so you can focus on relieving that tension whenever it occurs. Doing this exercise several times per week can aid with stress, anxiety, and even your sleep pattern

4. Somatic Walking Meditation

How to Do It

This exercise is simply walking and identifying how each part of your body feels as you walk. This particular technique is designed to help with dizziness, but it can also help with grounding or establishing the connections between your mind and body. 

As with the grounding exercise above, try to do this outside with bare feet if possible. Otherwise, you can walk back and forth inside your home. 

Start by standing in place and recognizing how your feet feel. Imagine them growing roots into the ground, holding you in place. Then, start walking slowly, paying attention to how your body moves and where any pressure or tension originates. Continue walking for about 10 minutes. 

Why It Works

Walking is another practice we take for granted, so focusing on how you walk helps you recognize the mind/body connection. Plus, if you experience dizziness regularly, this exercise allows you to identify those symptoms in a safe environment. This way, you can recondition your brain to feel calmer and more relaxed when a bout of dizziness occurs. 

A man does a walking meditation on a yoga mat
somatic healing exercises – walking meditation

5. The Voo Breath

How to Do It

This exercise is all about stimulating the vagus nerve, which is much easier than you might expect. Simply sit in a quiet, comfortable position, and take several deep (diaphragmatic) breaths. After a few times, say the word “Voo,” making sure to extend the vowel noise for as long as possible. 

You’ll notice that the Voo sound creates vibrations in your head and neck. Repeat this process a few times for maximum effect. 

Why It Works

The vagus nerve is the main nerve of your parasympathetic system, and it helps control and regulate various bodily functions. Stimulating this nerve can counteract a “fight or flight” response and help you calm down. This exercise is best done if you’re feeling anxious or tense

And that’s all there is to it!

The great thing about somatic exercises is that they allow us to approach our bodies and trauma holistically. It’s not just our minds that need some TLC, but our bodies as well. Somatic therapy, with its emphasis on the physical manifestations of emotional pain, serves as a bridge between the psychological and the physiological.

Luckily, more people are adopting the idea that mind and body are intricately linked. It’s an important step toward more holistic healing modalities, and I’m 100% here for it!

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