Somatic Exercises to Improve Your Mental Health
Somatics is a body-oriented approach that’s used to better understand pain, discomfort, and imbalances. Learn more about somatic exercises and techniques to improve your mental health.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
July 23, 2023
Table of Contents
What are somatic exercises?
Somatics describes a body-oriented approach that’s used to better understand pain, discomfort, and imbalances in the body. The idea of somatics was first introduced in the 1970s by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., who described the practice as movement and relaxation techniques to help people increase bodily awareness. From there, Peter Levine, Ph.D., created a type of therapy called “somatic experiencing” to help people manage trauma and stress-related disorders.
Somatic therapy, also called somatic experiencing therapy, uses mind-body techniques to address the physical and psychological symptoms of mental health conditions. Somatic therapy is commonly used to treat trauma, but can also be used to support people suffering from anxiety, depression, grief, anger, trust issues, and intimacy issues.
Practicing somatic exercises offers a range of mental and physical health benefits. To start, somatic exercises aren’t physically demanding, so they’re suitable for people of all ages, abilities, and fitness levels. And they don’t require equipment, so they can be done anytime, anywhere.
Other benefits of somatic exercises include:
- Pain relief
- Stress relief
- Increased emotional awareness
- Better posture and alignment
- Better balance
Somatic exercise techniques
While talk therapy addresses thoughts and emotions and exposure therapy helps people confront their fears, somatic therapy focuses on physical sensations. Somatic therapists use a variety of techniques to help people release stress, trauma, tension, and negative emotions from the body.
Below are a few examples of somatic techniques.
Grounding exercises help people connect to the present moment. They’re an effective coping technique for people experiencing flashbacks, anxiety, or other trauma-related symptoms. Here are a few simple grounding techniques:
- Move your body. The key here is to move your body in a way that feels comfortable and natural for you. This might mean stretching, dancing, or even jumping up and down. As you move, think about how each part of your body feels — starting with your toes and working your way up to your head.
- Run water over your hands. As you do this, focus on how the temperature feels on your fingertips, palms, and the backs of your hands. Start with cold water and then switch to warm water after a minute or two. Reflect on how the sensations change when you switch from cool to warm water.
- Take a walk. This can be a walk around the block or even a walk around your house. The key is to focus on your steps. Think about the rhythm of your footsteps and how it feels to place one foot in front of the other.
Body scans raise awareness about what’s happening with our bodies and where we may be carrying tension or pain. Find a comfortable position (this can be sitting, standing, or lying down) and think about how each part of your body feels. Start with your feet and work your way up, taking as long as you need.
Somatic therapy involves understanding your body, including how to regulate your breathing. Breathwork focuses on bringing sensory awareness to the throat, diaphragm, jaw, and shoulders as you breathe in and to the belly and chest as you exhale.
Here is a simple breathwork awareness exercise to try at home:
Find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes, and follow your body’s movements as you breathe. You might notice that you feel this breath in your nostrils, chest, or stomach. Take note of how it feels to experience the movement of breath in your body.
Our bodies hold tension in different ways — both physically and psychologically. Working with a somatic therapist is an opportunity to understand how stress and negative emotions can influence our posture. In the meantime, here are a few questions to help you reflect on your posture.
- Are you sitting quietly and in a natural position?
- Is your weight even from side to side?
- Is your head held high, or does it slump?
- Are you slouching or sitting up straight?
Types of somatic exercise
Somatic therapy uses different types of movement to help people increase bodily awareness, release trauma, and manage their mental health symptoms. Somatic exercises can include breathwork, mindfulness, dance, and other body movement techniques, as outlined above. Below are a few examples of different kinds of somatic exercise.
Somatic experiencing was designed to help release trauma that’s “trapped” in the body. During therapy, you’ll work with your therapist to safely release pent-up energy to overcome your triggers. This typically involves learning how to recognize bodily sensations, access your inner strength and resilience, and revisit trauma. The end goal is to learn breathing and relaxation techniques to help process and release the trauma.
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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR uses eye movement techniques, such as back-and-forth movements, to help process triggering emotional memories. This type of therapy is especially helpful if your anxiety is linked to trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you’re looking for somatic exercises to relax and release, yoga might be a good fit for you. There are many types of yoga, but most styles incorporate a variety of physical postures, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques to help improve overall well-being. Some of the most common types of yoga today include hatha, kundalini, and Vinyasa.
Dance and movement therapy, also known as DMT, is based on the idea that movement is our first language. The theory suggests that the mind, body, and spirit are all connected and that movement can help people to process and understand their emotions.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy integrates talk therapy, mindfulness, and movements to help people heal from trauma and other harmful attachment patterns formed in early childhood. With sensorimotor psychotherapy, people will learn how posture, breathing, and muscle tension are connected to their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. For example, muscle tension or shallow breathing can be examples of our bodies telling us that we’re stressed or triggered.
Explore somatic exercise with Charlie Health
If you’re interested in somatic therapy or any other form of mental health treatment, you can connect with a Charlie Health mental health professional to start or continue your healing journey. Charlie Health therapists are trained specifically to customize care to your unique trauma, emotions, and pain points and can help you make the most of somatic exercises.
Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is designed to help people manage their mental health struggles using a multi-pronged approach to care—including somatic experiences. We believe that by better understanding your mind-body connection, you’ll be better prepared to identify how to improve your mental wellness.
Charlie Health is committed to creating an unparalleled, multi-pronged approach to care for teens and their families. If you think that you might benefit from an individualized mental health treatment plan, fill out this form to learn more.