A fundamental modality, somatics therapy requires active participation on the client’s part to sense, feel and move so that signals between the brain and nervous system become clear and efficient to the rest of the body.
This recalibrated sensory-motor feedback loop is critical in reclaiming voluntary muscle control. This allows the body to come out of pain, tension, grip, and fear of moving, to return to its inherently brilliant design and function to be able to move, live and participate in life fully again.
To learn more about somatic therapy, we invite you to read the sections below:
Dr. Perry Nickelston’s phrase struck a thunderous chord in me: “No system ever works alone, no system ever gets injured alone, and no system ever heals alone.” My lens has always been musculoskeletal with a very respectful reverence for neuroscience, but I’ve long felt there was something missing, something to help clients to not only feel better but stay better and climb out of a pain/threat cycle. Incorporating the vagus pathways and lymphatic system were key to improve my view, and my clients have been sensing the benefits and learning more about their underpinnings of why they don’t feel better beyond several days of reprieve.
The vagus nerve not only provides the pathway to the healing and repairing parasympathetic response, but it also manages the inflammatory system. This is key for clients with long term pain, inflammation, and other health concerns. And the lymphatic system carries away the waste by-product of those damaged cells, as well as daily metabolic waste. When these systems are in place and flowing, the client can better flow with less obstruction and interference in their recovery.
Just as neurons fire and wire together using chemical and electrical synaptic transmission, the vagus nerve fires and wires together via ephaptic transmission to communicate with adjacent cranial nerves. The vagus nerve can be seen as the Queen Bee for all other nerves, and like all nerves, they are either switched on or off, and without its signalization being effective and following the ventral vagus pathway, we do not have ability to turn off threat. This inability keeps the body in a very sympathetic state. We are only hardwired for social engagements when we are not threatened. When we are engaged in a ventral vagal state, we are more regulated, calm, engaged, accessible.
When in the sympathetic state of fight/flight, we become primitive and do not have access to our parasympathetic response, which is the rest digest heal and provides a feeling of safety and engagement. There is another response called freeze, which is the pathway called the dorsal vagus which keeps us in a defensive, immobilized, dissociative and shut down state. When we are governed by our sympathetic or dorsal vagal states, the only way to return to a ventral vagal state is to provide a feeling of embodied safety. I have my clients understand and experience this shift for the autonomic nervous system by way of working ventrally, quieting the sympathetic and releasing/turning off the dorsal vagal circuit by engaging them with very simple, yet effective explorations.
People withdraw when they are in pain and a safe return to coregulation is so important to support a shift for someone in freeze (threat response, a dorsal response), or fight/flight (threat response, a sympathetic response) to a state where they feel safe and can interrelate and sense and feel their embodiment again. Co-regulation is a potent way of shifting from a defense state to a more accessible calmer state.
Embodiment, integration, awareness, and accessibility of the ventral vagus system is critical to a person’s return to well being, because a dorsal disassociation changes the feedback loops between visceral organs and the brain. Dr Stephen Porges refers to this as Dysautonomia, when the autonomic nervous system loses its ability to regulate the visceral organs, and a whole slew of medical issues can arise—right down to the end organs. It is important to consider that nerves go to all organs, and the vagus innervates each organ, communicating whether they are in a calm safe state, or is it time to fight and flee? Am I being threatened right now, or am I safe, loved and in a place where I can learn something? Retuning our autonomic nervous system to a window of tolerance between the sympathetic, which keeps sufficient oxygen flow to the blood without the threat response and an engaged, calm, parasympathetic state is key to leading a healthy balanced moving-breathing-engaging physiological system.
Clinical Somatics is a highly effective client-centred method of hands-on neuro-muscular retraining, that has become even more effective with the ventral vagus nerve providing better signalization and the lymphatic channels and nodes open, which contribute to improved physiological fluid and pressure exchanges. Clinical Somatics has been very supportive to many clients who have experienced TBIs, concussions, musculoskeletal injuries, surgeries, and other sequelae.
As a fundamental modality, Clinical Somatics is effective because it can use this adaptive superpower that humans must specifically involve the use of the sensory-motor learning feedback loop between muscles, sensory-motor tracts, and the brain to reclaim voluntary control of physiological processes. This learning is somatic by virtue of it occurring within the client as an internalized process and as such requires active participation on the client’s part to sense, feel, and move so that the signals between the brain and the nervous system become clear and efficient to the rest of the body. A sensory-motor feedback loop is critical in reclaiming voluntary control of the muscles which will then allow the client to come out of pain, tension, grip, fear of moving and return to their body’s inherently brilliant design and function to be able to move, live, thrive, and participate in life fully again.
In the body, there is a complete sensory motor loop, that can be referred to as the Circuit of Awesomeness. Throughout this circuit, there are calibrations constantly happening, that take into account what the outer world requires, and consequently, what our inner workings need to do in order to sense, plan and execute an action.
When we learn something, anything at all, it must be done in steps. Think, perhaps, of first learning to crawl, then walk, then run. This process is rudimentary, and essential to learning. The process with somatic therapy is similar – we lead, and guide, through steps of learning a movement, until it becomes understood, and excecutable.
So, when we learn to make a movement voluntary, it involves a communicative loop – one that involves 1) what we want to move and 2) what we are able to sense.
This looped process requires an excitatory electrical message to be sent from the upper motor neuron originating in the cortex, down through the cortico-spinal tract. This message continues down through the brain stem along this thick axon, and then crosses through the medulla to become either a left- or right-sided action. From there, the message continues on, to synapse on a lower motor neuron and joins other neurons, bundling together and heading out of the ventral side of the spine, at which point it becomes a peripheral nerve that goes directly into a muscle. Then, this lower motor neuron sends a message to a motor unit of muscle, and the spindle cell inside the muscle fibers returns sensory input, along another lower sensory neuron, which synapses upward onto an sensory neuron, and then goes back through the brainstem, dispersing information into various places relaying temperature, and where the body is in space. Ultimately, this returned message arrives in the sensory cortex of the parietal lobe, completing the communicative loop.
In ideal movement situations, so that not everything fires at once, there are inhibitory and excitatory impulses sending signals, so that one muscle can get the job done and not every muscle of the arm contracts for the task at hand.
There is much calculated, sensed, and recalibrated in the brain and brainstem and translated through the spinal cord in to the periphery of the body.
The somatic nervous system needs to be engaged and consciously involved. Otherwise, we continue to repeat maladaptive patterns, or patterns that don’t offer the brain new information – by trying to force, yank, strain or pull.
The brain and nervous systems have several functions and safety features related to reflexes, one of which is to prevent over-stretching muscles and tendons. One spinal reflex, called the stretch reflex, happens as an immediate, reactive response through the autonomic nervous system. It is a ‘pause and grab’ of a muscle that says “Wait! We should not do this, and I am going to weave even tighter now to protect that from ever happening again”. If we took time to understand this informative reflex, we could realize that a particular muscle is not going to let go, or shift – because there is a muscle, or group of muscles, that can’t understand its/their role in a particular action of the body.
The stretch reflex is among other spinal reflexes, such as the Golgi Tendon Reflex (part of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) – a skeletal muscle contraction which causes the antagonist muscle to simultaneously lengthen and relax, so as to prevent damage to the tendon end of the muscle); the Excitatory Reflex (withdrawal from pain), and the Reciprocal Inhibitory Reflex (process of muscles on one side of a joint relaxing to accommodate the contraction of the other side of that same joint).
Apart from dolphins, humans are the most cortically-gifted mammal for learning. Our frontal lobe contains the abilities for consciousness, motor planning, thinking, planning, doing, intellect, inhibition and conscious thought. Inhibition leads to freedom – that is, we free one area by inhibiting another. By quieting what’s getting in the way, we strengthen the pathway of what it is we want to improve. When we’re tired, our frontal lobe stops working and we go subcortical, and as we get older, or more accurately, well-patterned, we can become more disinhibited and movement becomes habitual.
Somatics as a science is very effective, as we can work with the cortex and make movement cortical more than any modality. We can investigate and understand which movement patterns have become subcortical, habituated and maladaptive. We can create better ‘habits’ of easier movement by releasing and lengthening, engaging and contracting. We can train a balanced relationship between the abdomen and the back, between segments, between the centre of the body and its periphery.
When we practice improved patterns of movement, the cortex still tracks them, and becomes more connected to the subcortex as the movement becomes habituated and more smooth, as there is cortical engagement when we move well.
Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is essentially the difference between what the cortex is paying or not paying attention to. We can become frozen, in a way, in that data keeps repeating in the nervous system and never quite makes it up to the cortex to notice and examine.
This amnesiac, or frozen or stuck muscle or movement pattern is a learned maladaptive pattern that develops as a result of trauma, or repetitive use. It is an adaptation that reacts or is activated. SMA can’t be unlearned, as the pattern will always be there, but we can learn to inhibit the thing we are doing, by retraining the cortex and differentiating muscles to get a better, clearer understanding of the fact (for example) that we always use our upper trap when we take our arm into flexion, or can’t find a clear route when we depress the scapula.
The patterns we use, perhaps due to injury, repetitive use, or because someone showed us how to do something a certain way become sub-cortical, and overly habituated, and soon they become the way we move and use our bodies.
A classic example would be when someone breaks their leg and they end up hiking the hip to carry the leg and avoid putting weight on it. Such a movement causes a whole chain of events to cascade – up through the pelvis, spine, ribs, shoulders and neck, and over a period of six weeks can become the “way” we walk, unless we break the pattern.
Clinical Somatic Education is effective for an individual who is tired, sore, in pain, and wants to improve but does not know how. It provides data for that person to notice what it is they’re doing, or not doing, so that they can improve up on it. We don’t unlearn these too-clever patterns, but we do learn how to inhibit and interrupt them. We make a new, more beneficial pattern normal for the soma, and to sense what can be felt and done, now that this new pattern has been introduced.