Practicing somatic or body awareness

Somatic awareness refers to the practice of cultivating a deeper understanding and connection with your body, sensations, and physical experiences. As a therapist, I believe that developing somatic awareness can be a powerful tool for self-exploration, healing, and personal growth. Throughout this post, we will delve into the significance of somatic awareness, its benefits, and practical strategies to incorporate it into your life.

At times, we tend to disconnect from our bodies, viewing them as mere vessels to carry us through life. One example of this shows up in many breathing exercises: our bodies will breath on their own, and this automatic breathing in, breathing out is essential to normal functioning as a person. Then, we can switch from “auto” to “manual,” and slow down our breathing, create a rhythm for our breathing based on a preset structure (4-4-4-4, box breathing, square breathing, 5-7 breathing, and so on). Anyone who has done yoga, swimming, gone for a run, or held their breath has this ability. To do so for the purpose of body awareness can be the start of a robust practice. We tend towards in-the-mind, or simple doing-a-thing (picture yourself at work) and tend towards ignoring our bodies. However, our bodies hold incredible wisdom and play an integral role in shaping our emotional and mental states. Somatic awareness involves developing an attentive and curious relationship with our bodies, allowing us to better understand and respond to our inner experiences.

The mind and body are inextricably linked, continuously influencing each other. Depending on one’s spiritual, religious, and cultural backgrounds, this may seem obvious. In fact, some reject the dual view of mind and body altogether. For the purposes of this post, we will assume the following: Emotions, thoughts, that which we experience as our “internal life” are fundamentally physical phenomenon. Emotions, thoughts, and beliefs can and do manifest as physical sensations, and vice versa. By paying attention to bodily sensations, we gain insight into our emotional landscape. For example, noticing tension in our shoulders during a stressful situation can indicate underlying anxiety or a need for self-care. Tension in the head can signal any number of other things — worry, anxiety, an arrival at a cognitive-energy deficit, fatigue, and so on. Clenched jaw, tightness in the chest, “butterflies,” racing heart, these are all signals from the body that are “in conversation” with all the rest of our parts.

What are the benefits of developing somatic awareness?

  1. Emotional Regulation: Developing somatic awareness enables us to recognize and regulate our emotions more effectively. It’s in the “noticing” of our emotions that we can attend to them (what does this emotion need? what’s the goal of this emotion), manage and respond to them in an effective way (I am hurt, I’m noticing some strong protective reflexes in my body), and engage with others in a way that is congruent with our sensed experience and our interpersonal needs (I feel hurt by what my partner said, and my body is reacting; I need space). By tuning into physical sensations associated with various emotions, we can learn to identify, understand, and respond to them in healthier ways.
  2. Stress Reduction: Stress often manifests in the body as muscular tension, shallow breathing, or increased heart rate. This can be discovered in a ‘going from work to home’ transition ritual — therapy can lend itself to developing a practice, and in the example of the transition home, one’s body may need to receive an internal or external “signal” that it’s time to go into “I’m at home” mode. There are no customers coming, no problems to solve, I don’t have to answer the phone, all of that is waiting for me at work in about 12 hours. Somatic awareness allows us to identify and alleviate these physical stress responses through relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and other somatic practices.
  3. Healing Trauma: Traumatic experiences can leave imprints on our bodies, leading to physical and emotional symptoms. Somatic awareness offers an avenue for healing trauma by gently exploring and releasing stored sensations and emotions associated with past traumatic events. For people who have survived trauma, or who are experiencing trauma ongoing, the nervous system in one’s body is working to maintain safety, equilibrium, self-preservation. This can feel like a fight-or-flight reaction at the Farmer’s Market, a lashing-out or a freezing and shutting-down when in a seemingly minor conflict with one’s partner. Somatic awareness can give a ‘why’ to the underlying physical responses in one’s body, and this awareness can illuminate the path towards healing.
  4. Body-Mind Integration: Cultivating somatic awareness encourages the integration of body and mind, promoting a sense of wholeness and harmony. This integration fosters self-acceptance, self-compassion, and an enhanced sense of well-being. For those who have survived trauma, and this can be true as well for those managing anxiety, depression, and other symptoms, the “me vs me” dynamic can be incredibly challenging. Befriending one’s anxiety or trauma reactions can parallel the process of learning to love one’s self, one’s body, one’s mind. “My mind is doing a thing” can be a simple cognitive method to neutralize (instead of resist / reinforce) a protective (and sometimes over-protective) mental process. Similarly, “my body is doing a thing” can be a way to give some space — in the noticing, we can be curious, compassionate, and adjust our responses to our internal process as needed. “My body is acting like there’s a tiger in the room,” can lead to frustration, and it can lead to “Oh, my body has done a great job protecting me, and I can relax (in my noticing) so that my body can relax, too.”

Developing this somatic awareness and engaging with one’s body can be, like with much of therapy, “easier said than done.” To internalize the self-love and self-compassion to one’s body and mind takes time for those who weren’t modeled this, weren’t socialized to effectively show love to themselves. Building that safety within one’s self to notice and attend to bodily sensations can even be experienced as scary, terrifying — for those in recovery for substance use, giving the body more attention and reacting to its whims can bring up memories of relapse. There are many reasons some will avoid ‘noticing’ their body, tuning into their body, engaging with their body with love.

Can it be done? Yes! It’s a wonderful process, when a therapist can cultivate the safety in the office, bringing that into a client’s intrapersonal experience. When a client can take this home, the somatic, bodily safety becomes part of a robust practice of health, healing, and safety. As we say, safety is the healing and healing is the safety. Somatic awareness is all about bringing the safety (and healing) into one’s body, so that the process of therapeutic healing is more than cognitive or intellectual, it’s a whole-self experience.

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