What “Somatic” Means and Why You’d Want to Know
Years ago, when I was a newly enrolled massage therapy student, I noticed the word somatic in a class titled “Psycho-Somatic Principles.” Like most people, I’d heard that psychosomatic meant an illness that was “all in your head.” But beyond that, I didn’t know much. And I had no idea then that my passion for bodywork would eventually lead me to a degree in somatic psychology.
This post begins a three-part exploration to help you understand what somatic is. That way you can know if a somatic approach to trauma healing is right for you.
- Part One: we’ll learn what the word “somatic” actually means and the elemental role it plays in the mind-body connection.
- Part Two: we’ll revisit the basic definition of trauma and highlight three specific ways it disrupts the mind-body connection.
- Part Three: I’ll show you the particular means by which somatic therapy brings the mind and body back into their proper relationship.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Mind-Body Connection
Let’s consider the word psychosomatic for a moment. The prefix psycho– comes from the Greek psykhē—the invisible animating principle that occupies and directs the physical body. This “animating principle” was originally understood as the life-giving, intangible essence of a human being. In other words, ancients Greeks used psykhē the way we might use the terms spirit or soul today. Our modern understanding of it has come to include mind or conscious awareness as well. Thus, the word psychological means anything relating to or originating from this part of who we are. The Greek word sōma, on the other hand, refers to the fleshy container that houses the psykhē. In short, it is the physical body.
Now we see how the word psychosomatic indicates the intimate relationship between the mind and body. Over time it came to represent theway an imbalance in the mind manifests in the body—essentially a physical ailment with psychological origins. In modern usage, however, the word acquired a negative connotation and so it’s not used as much anymore. These days, the shortened version “somatic” has replaced it. The field of somatic psychology concerns itself with anything related to the mind-body connection.
So what does somatics have to do with trauma healing? To explain that, let’s first examine the critical role the different systems of the mind-body play in your survival. This might feel like high school biology for a minute, but hang with me.
Your Mind-Body Works to Achieve Balance and Stability
The mind-body connection is sustained by the interweaving of complex physiological structures and networks. They work together around the clock to keep your internal systems stable and balanced. Homeostasis is the technical term that describes this state of equilibrium. If the balance in any system tips one way or another, your body will let you know. How? Sensory neurons create a sensation that tells you something’s wrong. Next, you get an urge to fix the problem. This urge signals motor neurons that some kind of action is needed.
For example, when you’ve used up all the calories from lunch, you feel hunger pangs that tell you it’s time to eat again. If you hold your breath for too long, a powerful need to breathe hits you. After a large Diet Coke, you feel the inevitable urge to visit the restroom. Or if a car swerves into your lane, you instantly react to avoid it.
In short, your mind-body provides the means of sensing danger and the actions to protect against it that ensure homeostasis. Why does this matter? It matters because homeostasis is the way your body achieves its number-one goal: survival.
But when you experience trauma, all of that changes.
Trauma Disrupts the Balance and Stability
If survival is threatened, trauma happens when the actions you take to protect yourself aren’t enough to keep you safe. With this in mind, my next post highlights the main defenses your mind-body has against threats to its survival. All of them involve a dramatic reduction in your ability to perceive and process sensation. Now that you know how essential that ability is, you can imagine the kind of internal chaos this creates.
Psykhē (-psycho) means spirit, mind, or conscious awareness. Sōma means the physical body. Psychosomatic (or somatic for short) refers to the mind-body connection.
Homeostasis is stability and balance in the systems of the mind-body. Homeostasis is maintained by the ability to feel something is wrong via sensation. The sensation is followed by an urge to take action that will fix the problem. Why? To ensure the mind-body’s number one goal: survival. Trauma happens when survival is threatened and the actions taken to protect yourself are not enough to keep you safe.