A goal of somatic therapies is improved self-regulation – the ability to organise one’s own experience, to understand what we are thinking, feeling and sensing, and to respond in ways that benefit us.”
Erica Fernandez, Advanced Practitioner with QPASTT in Brisbane
Erica Fernandez is an Advanced Practitioner who has worked at QPASTT for over a decade. She is exploring approaches informed by Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, which prioritises bottom up somatic approaches to offer a holistic approach to healing trauma that recognises the connection between mind, body and spirit.
“With trauma, people get stuck in patterns of protection and defence. We can disconnect, dissociate and compartmentalise as a way of coping and surviving. When that is taking place in the body, it can be hard to process the impacts of trauma through top-down talk therapy alone. A goal of somatic therapies is improved self-regulation – the ability to organise one’s own experience, to understand what we are thinking, feeling and sensing, and to respond in ways that benefit us. Therapy sessions aim to bring awareness to the patterns of what is happening both in the environment and internally, making room for a client to learn ways to self-regulate and co-regulate with others.
I was working with a young woman from a Sri Lankan background. We did a few processes and asked questions about how she felt about her body. At the end of the session, she exclaimed, “I have a body!” It was a big realisation for her. Very gently and slowly, we started to befriend her nervous system, befriend her triggers at that somatic level, and understand her patterns of procedural response. She realised that when she had panic attacks, while before she would sit feeling immobilised and overwhelmed. Now she follows her impulse to move. She recalls an instance when she was pacing in her backyard while having a panic attack and telephoned her mother. Together they experimented with what her body was experiencing – ‘what happens if I walk faster,’ ‘what happens if I walk slower’, noticing from the inside out what the body needed. Recently she said she has started to experience joy in her body.
As a therapist, I do not have the answers. The client, and often the body, has the answer – we just have to learn how to listen and pay attention to the story as it is expressed in the body. If we are in a disassociated or disconnected state, the story might be that ‘I am alone, nobody cares, and the world is cruel.’ If we are in fight or flight mode, the narrative might be that ‘the world is dangerous and we have to fight really hard.’ If we are in a regulated state, feeling safe, calm and connected, the story could be that the world is actually okay, or even wonderful and beautiful. What I love about body and sensory work is that it helps us to understand that the physical/ feeling state comes before the story – that we are creating the story to justify the nervous system response we are experiencing. When people realise that, a lot of shame falls away. When we start to pay attention from the inside out, we can see more clearly the stories that we have internalised. There is now room to ask ourselves if we want to hold on to those stories and get unstuck from unhelpful patterns of responding to our environment and stress.
Most Western psychotherapies are ‘top-down’ interventions that start with cognitive and emotional processing. Many other cultures recognise the connection to the body, and body therapy plays a much more substantial role in traditional culture-based healing modalities. Communal cultural traditions like dancing and movement let emotions move through the body. Rituals for mourning allow people to collectively grieve, cry and show their pain. Recognising their wisdom and efficacy, supporting opportunities for community and culture-based healing is a key focus for QPASTT.”