Whether you’re already familiar with somatic therapy or wondering what on earth it actually is, you’re in the right place! Today we’d like to introduce you to experienced somatic practitioner and counselor Rebekah Ballagh, best-selling author of self-help publications such as Note to Self; The Secrets of Calm and Be Your Best Self.
In this conversation, Rebekah explains how somatic therapy can help heal your gut, as well as physical symptoms resulting from stress and anxiety. You’ll also find an introductory daily somatic practice you can try for yourself.
Q. Many of our clients are unfamiliar with somatic therapy, could you explain what it is for someone who’s never heard of it before?
Many traditional therapies focus primarily on our minds. This is called a ‘top-down’ approach; where we might explore unhelpful thinking patterns, behaviors and limiting beliefs. There is absolutely a place for this work. Somatic therapy works from a ‘bottom-up’ approach; recruiting and using the body. This might include breath work, specific movement practices, polyvagal exercises, completing our stress responses and rewiring old trapped patterns and habits at the level of the body.
Somatic therapy is body-centered – and uses approaches at the level of the body to release tension and trauma from the body, to process emotions and to help us feel a greater capacity for stress in our lives. In my work I combine the two approaches; working with both our mind and our body. And it is so important to do so, given that our nervous systems’ threat responses (fight, flight, freeze and fawn) happen outside of our conscious choosing.
Q. How did you first get introduced to somatic therapy?
The first time I even brought any level of awareness to my body was when I was in therapy at age 19. My therapist asked me “are you aware of how you are breathing right now as you tell me this story?”. I looked at her blankly. She then said “what do you notice your shoulders are doing right now?” – it was the first time I had ever considered my body at all in relation to what I was going through. She noticed I was holding my breath, breathing high and shallow into my chest and tensing my shoulders up around my ears.
It wasn’t until some years later in my studies that I took a grounding & mindfulness 6-week training and began to work with my body and breath again and realized the impact of this work.
Somatics wasn’t something I was taught in my initial counseling training which is such a shame. I had to seek out all of this in post-graduate qualifications and courses after I finished.
Q. How can somatic therapy help with healing the gut and issues like IBS? Could you talk us through some experiences of clients you’ve dealt with?
When we are in a stress response a number of things happen at the level of our gut and digestion; our sympathetic nervous system turns on flight or fight – and in this place of stress and survival the body doesn’t need to be ‘wasting’ precious survival energy on digestion. So it redirects blood flow away from our digestive and reproductive organs and into our limbs ready to flee or fight. It makes our heart race, our breathing quicken, our vision narrow…
This is all meant to happen for a short amount of time until the danger passes and our bodies can return to a place of calm and regulation where these symptoms can come back online and get to working efficiently again. BUT, in our modern society, many many people live in a sympathetic nervous system dominant state. All. the. Time. This means we end up with inflammation (from all that cortisol and adrenaline being released) and our gut doesn’t function properly.
Somatic therapies aim to help us address our nervous system dysregulation (which is showing up as all of these physical complaints). And we must use the body to communicate with the nervous system. When we can retrain the nervous system out of reflexive unhelpful threat responses we can begin to heal the gut. We also want to look at our gut health from other angles – like our hormones, diet/nutrition etc.
Q. What are the most common physical symptoms that you see in clients who are dealing with stress and anxiety?
Muscle tension, chronic pain, IBS and gut issues, brain fog, fatigue, headaches, poor sleep, memory issues, teeth grinding, a feeling of a lump in the throat, chest tightness, unhealthy breathing patterns, irritability, dizziness, nausea, bloating… the list goes on!
Q. Could you talk us through an introductory daily somatic practice/exercise our readers could try?
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Know that it is NOT your fault if you feel like your nervous system and body are in these chronic threat responses and you’re struggling with symptoms. It’s also not all in your head. And, most importantly, it can be healed.
So many of us blame ourselves for our tendency to feel angry, to avoid things, to people please, to get stuck in controlling or perfectionism behaviors… These things are actually protective outputs from your nervous system. And when you go into these states of threat this is not done by your conscious choosing. These are old patterns that kept you safe in the past that have become stuck. You absolutely can heal from this – get curious, be compassionate and if it interests you, explore how you can begin to integrate somatic healing work into your life.
To take a somatic approach to healing your gut, make sure to connect with Rebekah on her Instagram where she shares lot of advice on getting started!
You’ll also find more in-depth somatic practice classes you can try on her YouTube Channel (such as this one!). Make sure to comment and let us know how you get on!