The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that approximately 3.6% of adults living in the United States were living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder within the past year. Additionally, the NIMH reported that the prevalence of PTSD was noticeably higher for women (5.2%) compared to men (1.8%). Trauma is an individualized experience that can result from a range of experiences including violence, assault, natural disasters, learning of a loved one being assaulted, and repeated exposure to life-threatening experiences. Keep reading to learn 10 Somatic Therapy exercises and activities you can do with your clients in therapy.
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One thing that we know as mental health professionals is that not every client we work with will have the same clinical gains from certain counseling approaches. There are a number of factors that impact this including the severity of their mental health concerns, the presence of co-occurring disorders, their engagement in therapy, and previous counseling experiences. The effectiveness of therapy sessions is something that should continuously be evaluated to ensure that clients are receiving the care that they need so that they can improve their quality of life.
Somatic Therapies are known for embracing the connection of our mind, body, and spirit. These approaches use this mindset to promote wellness and healing. There are a number of somatic therapies that can be used, including Somatic Experiencing Therapy.
Somatic Experiencing Therapy was developed in response to an awareness that other therapeutic approaches, including Cognitive Therapies and Exposure Therapies, were not addressing all of the symptoms that clients who are living with trauma experience (Kuhfuß, M., Maldei, T., Hetmanek, A., & Baumann, N., 2021). This left some individuals with a continued level of distress from their PTSD.
Clinicians who utilize Somatic Experiencing Therapy believe that the symptoms associated with PTSD are the result of a constant overreaction of a client’s stress system that resulted from their traumatic experience (Kuhfuß, M., Maldei, T., Hetmanek, A., & Baumann, N., 2021). This overreaction causes clients to have persistent dysregulation of their nervous system causing their increased stress reaction (Kuhfuß, M., Maldei, T., Hetmanek, A., & Baumann, N., 2021).
The main goal of Somatic Experiencing therapy is to modify the client’s trauma-related stress response by using a bottom-up processing method which draws the client’s focus to their internal sensations compared to their thoughts and emotions (Kuhfuß, M., Maldei, T., Hetmanek, A., & Baumann, N., 2021).
Mental Health Concerns That Can Benefit from Somatic Therapy
Though Somatic Experiencing Therapy was initially developed for clients who were living with post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health professionals have been working to find other mental health concerns that can benefit from this form of therapy.
Research has found that in addition to PTSD, Somatic Therapy can be effective for individuals who are living with anxiety and depressive disorders (Kuhfuß, M., Maldei, T., Hetmanek, A., & Baumann, N., 2021).
Somatic Therapy Activities
Somatic Therapy activities can be used during therapy sessions to introduce new concepts, strategies, and skills. Additionally, Somatic Therapy exercises provide clients with an opportunity to practice utilizing the skills and strategies they learn with the safety formed within the therapeutic relationship. Practicing new skills allows clients to feel confident in their ability to apply said skills to their life outside of therapy.
Examples of Somatic Therapy Exercises that can be used include:
- TherapyByPro offers a Four Element Tool Worksheet that uses the four natural elements (earth, air, water, and fire) as concepts that can be used to explore and process clients’ emotions and physical sensations. Clients will be asked to use their five senses to notice the world around them in addition to focusing on their breath. This worksheet can be an effective tool in therapy sessions to provide education about grounding and breathing strategies that can be used to manage distress, as well as act as a reminder of what was learned in the session at a later time. Allow for time in later sessions to follow up about your client’s ability to re-engage in these activities outside of the session and explore the effect that it had on their physical sensations and emotions.
- A simple Somatic Therapy exercise that you can use in session is helping your client find ways to move their body that are comfortable. This will be different for each individual and based on their mobility. As an example, your client can practice stretching, then engage in a body scan to notice how their movement changed how their body feels in that moment. Once your client has insight into the movements that feel good for them, encourage them to begin practicing these movements regularly.
- Many clients who are struggling with mental health concerns find themselves on “auto-pilot”. Meaning that they are often unaware of their emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations because they are focused on doing what they need to do, and going where they need to go. A helpful Somatic Therapy exercise is helping our clients learn how to check in with their bodies so they can recognize the signs of when they are being triggered. As a new skill, clients can benefit from having a worksheet, like the 6-Step Somatic Therapy Worksheet provided by TherapyByPro, as a resource outside of the session. The steps included are notice, safety, pinpoint, replay, tune-in, and healing hands. Allow for time to follow up regarding your client’s ability to use these steps in their day-to-day life.
- Breathing exercises are another Somatic Therapy activity that can help clients recognize their mind-body connection. While in session, walk your client through a breathing exercise where they are controlling the time devoted to their inhale and exhale. After a few breaths, explore any changes that your client experienced within their body. To enhance breathing exercises, clients can attach a word that they identify as positive to their inhale. Encourage your client to utilize breathing exercises outside of the session and process their experience doing so.
- The Somatic Therapy Movement Worksheet provided by TherapyByPro can be used to help clients understand how their body responds to movements. This includes exploring how their movement impacts their mood, their ability to notice discomfort and tension within their body, how they feel when they’re moving, and what movements help their body feel good. Developing an understanding of how our client’s movement affects them allows them to better understand their mind-body connection. Additionally, this can be used to explore changes that they can make to their daily movements that can promote overall health and wellness.
- Meditation can be a beneficial skill for clients who are living with an array of mental health concerns. Spend time introducing your client to the concept of meditation, and the commonly used forms of meditation. Allow for time to practice a few forms of meditation in session, and process your client’s experience. You can then talk to your client about what forms of meditation they can try using at home, and encourage them to bring their experience into your next session.
- When we are working with clients to become more aware of their mind-body connection, some clients may need to spend time learning and practicing the use of descriptive language. With Somatic Therapies, it is important that we are able to communicate exactly how we are feeling, and where within our bodies we feel sensations. TherapyByPro’s Descriptive Language Worksheet can be used as a tool to help clients practice using descriptive language in sessions.
- For clients who are learning how to describe their emotions and physical sensations, another tool that can be useful is drawing. Asking your client to draw how they feel can provide them with a different outlet to describe their experience, as well as provide you with a different perspective on their feelings. You can then ask the client to describe their drawing and share what led to them drawing their work as they did. This can also be used to introduce new skills for communicating how they are feeling emotionally and within their body.
- While therapy sessions can often focus on exploring a client’s difficulties and challenges, it can also be beneficial to explore positive experiences. Recalling a Kindness Worksheet can be used to explore a client’s experience when someone was kind to them. More specifically, exploring how their body felt after their experience with kindness. Your client will be asked to use descriptive language to describe the event, as well as how they feel after thinking about this experience.
- By using the Feeling Like Yourself Worksheet available at TherapyByPro, you can help your client explore a recent moment when they felt most like themselves. This includes how they felt in that moment, exploring their senses for that time, and noticing their thoughts in those moments. This sheet can help keep your client grounded by working to regulate their emotional and autonomic nervous system.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Activities for Somatic Therapy
Thank you for reading this resource on 10 Somatic Therapy Exercises and Activities you can do with your clients in therapy. Somatic Therapy activities and exercises can be great tools for reinforcing skills, strategies, and approaches discussed in therapeutic sessions. Somatic Therapy can be impactful for clients who are living with different mental health concerns and can be tailored to meet the needs of our clients. This holistic approach can be used to help our clients become more in tune with their physical sensations and aware of how their body and movement are connected to their mental health.
If you are interested in learning more about Somatic Therapies, we encourage you to look for training opportunities and continuing education courses that can help you develop the skills needed to effectively use these activities and exercises in your clinical work.
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- Kuhfuß, M., Maldei, T., Hetmanek, A., & Baumann, N. (2021). Somatic experiencing effectiveness and key factors of a body-oriented trauma therapy: a scoping literature review. European journal of psychotraumatology, 12(1), 1929023. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2021.1929023
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd