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Somatic practices: Tools for mental wellness

Words by Carlie Barlow, health & wellbeing expert

Somatic practices have gained traction in recent years as a way to improve mental health. These mind-body techniques focus on increasing awareness of physical sensations and their connection to emotions and thoughts.

Soma comes from a Greek word for ‘body’, so somatic means ‘of the body’.

While they’re not a sole solution to emotional issues, somatic practices can be a powerful addition to your toolkit if you’re taking a holistic approach to mental wellbeing.

What are the benefits of somatic practices?

The core belief of somatic therapy is that the mind and body are intimately linked. Traumatic experiences or chronic stress can manifest as physical tension or pain. Somatic practices help us reconnect with these bodily signals, understand their emotional underpinnings, and release pent-up energy.

Practitioners say that this process can lead to a reduction in anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Initial scientific research into evidence of the results of somatic exercise is promising but still very much in its early stages.

What is an example of a somatic practice?

There’s a diverse range of somatic practices. Here are a few examples:

  • Grounding exercises. These practices help anchor you in the present moment. Examples include focusing on your breath, feeling your feet on the ground, or naming five things you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.
  • Body scans. In a body scan, you systematically pay attention to different body parts, noticing any sensations of tension, relaxation, or discomfort. This heightened awareness can help identify areas holding stress and emotional baggage.
  • Breathwork. Focusing on and regulating your breath is a cornerstone of many somatic practices. Slow, deep breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and calming the fight-or-flight response.

What is a somatic exercise?

Somatic practices extend beyond the realm of therapy. Somatic exercises are becoming increasingly popular, too – indeed, the term ‘somatic exercise’ was one of Google’s biggest trending search terms last year. Yoga, tai chi and dance can all enhance body awareness and promote emotional wellbeing. Even something as simple as taking a mindful walk in nature can be a form of somatic exercise.

How do I get started with somatic practices?

While there’s research to support the potential benefits of somatic practices for mental health, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations. They may not be suitable for everyone, particularly those struggling with severe mental health conditions. In such cases, professional therapy that combines somatic techniques with traditional talk therapy might be a more effective approach.

Here are some things to consider if you’re interested in exploring somatic practices:

  • Start with gentle techniques: Don’t push yourself too hard, especially if you’re new to somatic practices. Begin with simple exercises that focus on breathwork or gentle body scans.
  • Find a qualified practitioner: If you’re seeking a more structured personal approach, consider working with a therapist trained in somatic therapy.
  • Listen to your body: Somatic practices are about building self-awareness. Pay attention to how your body responds to different exercises and find what works best for you.

By fostering a deeper connection between mind and body, somatic practices can help us manage stress, process emotions, and cultivate a sense of inner peace. However, it’s crucial to remember that they are one piece of the puzzle. A combination of self-care practices, healthy lifestyle choices and professional support, when needed, might be the most effective approach for optimal mental health.

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