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What do you get if you cross a PT with a Counsellor? Somatic Exercise

  • July 10, 2024
  • 5 min read
What do you get if you cross a PT with a Counsellor? Somatic Exercise

One of the most Googled fitness trends of the year so far has been somatic exercise. Somatic training is a form of movement therapy that focuses the individual on their emotions as well as their internal physical sensations, such as muscle tension, posture, and movement patterns to improve overall body awareness. Emotion can often manifest physically, and we can probably all recall a time when we had tense muscles or an upset tummy due to stress, lost appetite during a break-up, or felt cold when shocked. It is now scientifically recognised that exercise and movement can dramatically improve mental health.

Therapists are finding that they can really help clients emotionally via physical mindful movement, getting the clients to identify where in the body the emotion is manifesting. For example, someone might be experiencing anxiety; they may notice their shoulders are tense, their stomach is in knots, and they have a headache. The therapist can use this information to focus the client on deep, relaxing breath work, whilst performing movements to stretch the shoulders, neck, back, and abdomen. This can release muscular tension, as well as slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure. The client’s mind will be focused on their body rather than the cause of their anxiety, allowing the brain a respite. This may even help solve a problem when the brain returns to the issue.

This is hugely beneficial in training people to be aware of their body’s internal signals, known as interoception. Affectionately known as our sixth sense, Interoception, is our ability to detect and interpret our bodily functions and signals. On a basic level, it is our ability to feel when we are hot or cold, hungry or full. A more challenging task would be to count your heartbeat without touching a pulse and just feeling the sensation of the blood pumping around the body. To some, this seems impossible, but to others, it can be completely natural. This sense plays a key role in homeostasis, the maintenance of regulating bodily functions to achieve a perfect balance.

In today’s busy society, people do not have time for body awareness or feeling when they might be sore or stiff, stressed, or angry. All these sensations occur so often that it’s easy for individuals to switch off to the fact they are occurring and therefore nothing gets fixed. Combine that with a food environment of highly palatable convenience foods that contain a multitude of ingredients that also play havoc with the body’s interoceptive skills, it’s no wonder this type of exercise is becoming increasingly popular.

Through somatic exercise training, individuals can learn to release muscular tension, improve posture, enhance movement efficiency, and address chronic pain or discomfort by re-educating the neuromuscular system. When recovering from an injury, the connections between the brain and the muscle can be impaired, and the signals between the two may be slowed or even prevented completely. If the muscles are not used for a while, this can also happen, causing weakened muscle fibres and muscle atrophy.

By focusing the mind and attention on the movement, neurons within the brain fire and send signals to the muscle fibres to contract, improving the strength of that contraction and therefore the quality of the movement. This can even happen when we visualise the exercise without performing it! Although this seems like the latest trend in the fitness world, yogis and weightlifters alike have been doing this for centuries. In fact, any good sports coach will tell you they train their clients to be aware of the mind-muscle connection, how their bodies are feeling, and to listen to their internal signals and regulate their emotions for optimal performance.

When visualisation is combined with their rehab exercise, individuals can experience an even greater reduction in chronic pain due to increased flexibility, mobility, balance, and strength. More so than just mindlessly going through the motions of rehab. It can also help people get to know how their bodies feel in different positions, and what can aggravate or alleviate their pain. Once they understand this, there is less fear around movement and exercise, leading to further improvements. The fear of pain itself can cause more pain on a neurological level, even long after a physical trauma has healed.

Somatic exercise has also shown promise in helping those with anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. Research is still in its infancy, so use somatic therapy in conjunction with standard PTSD treatments rather than as an alternative.

Practitioners of somatic training often use techniques such as guided movement sequences, body awareness exercises, breathing techniques, and hands-on manipulations to help clients develop a deeper connection with their bodies and improve overall physical functioning and well-being. It can be like having a personal trainer and counsellor all in one!

About Author

Natalie Shanahan

Natalie Shanahan has a BSc in Genetics and a MSc in Bioinformatics. She worked as a lecturer, teaching genetics and biochemistry, before moving to Australia to work for their first Bioinformatics company. Here she managed their marketing as well as working on their numerous educational resources. Natalie left her career in science to follow her passion and now works as a personal trainer and nutrition consultant, helping individuals and employees of large organisations better understand their health and wellbeing.

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