What is somatic awareness and why is it important?

These days in therapy you’ll hear the term Somatic Experiencing, which is a specific modality that focuses on somatic approaches, and you’ll hear the term somatic awareness.

Somatic is in reference to the body and how sensations are showing up in the body. Sensations in the body are basically information and messages that are really critical for us to tune into. Also, our emotions are experienced somatically. The word emotion comes from a Latin root and has that word motion in it. So, there was this knowing in ancient times that our emotions are meant to move through us.

The physical sensation of emotions, the somatic experience of emotions, especially those distressing emotions like anger and sadness are very uncomfortable physically, and because of that we don’t want to experience them. So, we have different ways of avoiding experiencing them through distracting ourselves or offloading onto other people, or engaging in addictive behaviors to avoid feeling the discomfort of distressing emotions.

One of my earlier experiences of for myself personally, of really letting anger to move through me happened with my older son. He must have been about eight at the time. I was trying to support my kids in doing some weightlifting classes, and we in this class we had to hold a squat for one minute. I could not believe the burning that my legs experienced holding that squat for one minute, it was like nothing I had ever experienced, it was so intense! Paralleled along with this day of the exercise class I was really being intentional about letting myself feel the anger I was experiencing that was being triggered by my son. I had been incredibly frustrated with him, he and I were butting heads a lot, and my approach when I was getting angry was not skillful, it was just like making things worse. We were in in this pattern together that was really not helping him and definitely not helping me either.

I don’t remember exactly what it was that triggered my anger that day, but we were having a conversation and I decided to like let myself just feel the emotion of anger. I didn’t have to choose to go speechless, I just was speechless because it was so uncomfortable. It literally felt like the burning that I had felt that earlier that day in my thighs was in my chest and my neck mostly, but it was also just a pervasive sort of burning throughout my body, and it wasn’t like I was just waiting to like offload onto him. I was just like feeling it and breathing, not really able to respond and semi-listening to him. The anger did move through me, it moved through me, it really peaked and got very intense, and then I became more receptive to listening to him and hearing him and being able to reflect back to him where he was coming from.

Things had been building up to that point and we needed that shift in order to change our dynamic. It wasn’t like it completely changed our dynamic permanently, but it was a huge point of reference for me: that I can actually allow myself to feel intense feelings like anger and sadness. Anger is really hard because it moves so fast. It’s like fire, and so it’s the emotion that leads to distortion more often than others.

This is an example of how somatic awareness can create the space to do things differently.
What’s really important when we are exploring somatic awareness is to get into the sensation of what we are feeling, and to be aware of the thoughts that come up, but to not buy into the storyline of the thoughts, to not get carried away in the river of thoughts, because that will bring us out of that somatic awareness.

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