Somatic Experiencing: How to Communicate With Your Body and Get Out of Your Head

Somatic Experiencing: How to Communicate With Your Body and Get Out of Your Head

by Andrea Pacini August 29, 2021

Did you know that sometimes the body can communicate much more clearly than the brain? The human brain is wired for survival which means that our thoughts tend to get stuck running repeatedly through the same neural pathways.

Once the brain identifies a pattern that is successful in keeping us alive, it sticks with it and creates shortcuts to help improve our chances of survival. These grooves or pathways become deeply entrenched within our gray matter and then convert to default programming. This is a very efficient system for survival. But given that the average human has about 60,000 thoughts a day, of these, 90% are recurring and of these recurring thoughts, 80% are negative – this is not so helpful for clear and innovative decision making, problem solving or general peacefulness.

Today, with endless doom scrolling and constant connection to tragedy, horror and disaster via technology, fear, anxiety and stress levels are at an all-time high. This enhanced and constant state of threat activates the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for survival and instincts during fear response, which then results in a flight, fight or freeze state. The brain’s top priority is survival so when the amygdala is activated, the frontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for reasoning and logic, all but shuts down so the brain can go all in on safety and survival.

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes just can’t get clarity when trying to make a brain-based decision? Maybe you feel like you're caught on the neverending hamster wheel of rumination and frustration? Many of us spend the majority of our days in a hypervigilant state of fear which means that the brain is physically incapable of developing a rational response.

Despite the impaired brain function, life goes on and decisions still need to be made but how can we do this when we spend most of our time in a flight, fight or freeze response?

Enter Somatic Therapy!

The brain is not the only genius in the human body – our organs, fascia and soft tissue have plenty of wisdom to impart to us if we’re open to listening. From the incredibly enlightening book, The Body Keeps the Score, “when our senses become muffled, we no longer feel alive…if you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations…you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings and yourself.”

So many of us are detached from our physical bodies, preferring to live in our heads. But if our brains aren’t functioning clearly, we won’t have much success with that model.

Scientific research has proven that our bodies hold data just as our brain does. So how do we communicate with our bodies? Start by paying attention to sensations. 

Creating Somatic Awareness

To cultivate familiarity with somatic exploration, you can begin with a body scan (‘soma’ is defined as body, as distinct from the soul, mind or psyche).

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair, on the couch or lay down on the floor or bed – whatever feels best for you in the moment.
  2. Close your eyes if that feels safe and appropriate.
  3. Take a few deep inhales and exhales and allow yourself to settle into your body. Does your inhale have a different temperature than your exhale? Is one cooler or warmer? What is the texture of your breath? Is it even and calm, tight or restricted, smooth and flowing or jagged and labored? Can you notice without judgment?
  4. Bring awareness to the places where your body is making contact with the earth, chair or bed. How does this feel? Is there pressure, tightness, tingling, a sense of security? Try to observe without labeling.
  5. Bring awareness to your head and notice any sensations you may be experiencing in this area. What do you feel? Maybe it’s a softening of the skull or relaxation of the tiny muscles around the eyes, maybe your jaw is tense and tight. Investigate these sensations without judgment.
  6. Continue the exploration and be open to what your body may be trying to communicate – you can start from the top and work your way down or just allow yourself to be led by identifying the strongest sensation. What’s the first sensation you notice? Where is it? What does it feel like? Stay with the exploration of this sensation for as long as feels right for you.
  7. Get curious and then try to identify the area with the most muted or least noticeable sensation – where is this? Maybe the tip of a fingernail or lobe of the ear? What do you notice about this place in your body? How is the sensation different here from the first location you identified? Can you experiment with transferring some of this more neutral energy to the activated area? How does this feel? Do you observe any changes?
  8. Having a pillow nearby can be a nice tool. Apply the pillow to the place where you feel the most charge and simply notice how and if this changes the sensation at all.
  9. Being present with these sensations can be pretty uncomfy at first, there’s no need to stir up old traumas with this exercise – be kind and patient with yourself and work well below your edge, not pushing any boundaries to begin with. I recommend setting a timer for 2 minutes to start as a gentle intro to this work. Like meditation, you can increase the time as you become comfortable with these check-ins.
  10. Allow yourself some time to integrate what you’ve experienced before re-entering your day. Take at least three deep, cleansing breaths and exhale fully for a bit longer than you think you can before getting back to whatever it is you have to do.

Get Curious with Descriptive Language

Once you’re comfortable with identifying sensations in your body, experiment with descriptive language.

  1. Find a comfortable seat on the floor, chair, couch or bed – wherever feels safe and comfortable for you.
  2. When you notice a charge, investigate a bit more deeply.
  3. Where in your body do you feel this charge?
  4. What does it feel like? (e.g. heavy, tingly, constriction, lightness, expansion, water, wind, fire, radiating, buzzing etc)
  5. Does it have a shape? (e.g. triangle, square, waves, circle, wings, heart, tree, sunrays, squiggly lines, blob etc)
  6. Does it have a color? (be as specific as possible – what shade of yellow, is it pastel or banana? Hot pink or bubblegum pink? Deep blue like the Pacific Ocean or turquoise like the Caribbean?)
  7. Does it have a temperature? (sometimes I give an exact temperature like 72 degrees, sometimes I notice intense heat or cold - try to tune in to see exactly what you can discern)
  8. Does it have a texture? (soft and fluffy like a puppy? Hard like a diamond? Smooth like marble? Rough like sandpaper?)
  9. What happens to the charge when you bring awareness to it? Does it move somewhere else? Does it get smaller or bigger, does the temperature change? Does the color change? Follow it wherever it goes with open-minded curiosity.

How to Use Somatic Experiencing in Decision Making

If you’re not making any progress intellectualizing an issue or decision, bring it into the body and see what happens!

  1. Call to mind the issue you’re dealing with or the decision you’re trying to make.
  2. Where is the initial charge of this in the body?
  3. Does it feel restrictive and constrictive or expansive and open?
  4. Repeat questions 4-9 in the above process, remaining curious about any information that wants to come through. Your bodily sensations will clearly communicate to you, the more comfortable we get with tuning into this language, the faster and more confidently we will be able to identify our own personal ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

Movement

Of course we can’t have somatic experiencing without bodily movement!

After connecting in with the body, can you sense how it wants to move? Does it want to stretch, sway slowly or gyrate wildly? Maybe you have the urge to shake out your hands like you would if they were wet, maybe you want to windshield wiper your ankles back and forth. Maybe your arms come overhead like a rainbow and arc back down to the floor. Maybe you want to twist and look over head each shoulder or slowly push away all that’s not meant for you. Stomping can be incredibly grounding and effective for transmuting anger and frustration. Can you take a bit of time today to give your body just two minutes of the movement it’s requesting?

Making time to consciously experience the body and listen to its messages can be life-changing. As someone who was previously pretty much entirely disconnected from my body for 30+ years, the revelation that I can communicate with it has been revolutionary for my healing and has opened up a world of knowledge and information I didn't even know was there.

This post just scratches the surface of somatic experiencing, but I hope that it provides a solid foundational template from which to start. I highly recommend checking out my somatic therapist Luis Mojica’s Instagram page, podcast and website for additional information regarding this beautiful work.

Have you experienced any kind of somatic therapy? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!




Andrea Pacini
Andrea Pacini

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