Somatic awareness, also known as bodily awareness, refers to the conscious recognition and perception of our own physical sensations, movements, and bodily experiences. It is the ability to tune into the subtle signals and messages that our bodies communicate to us. The problem is that many of us can’t hear the subtle (and not so subtle messages) our body speaks. We march through life missing a significant source of wisdom for heath and happiness.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote regarding interoception, another word for somatic awareness, that it, “is the perception of sensations arising from inside the body, including perceptions of physical sensations of internal organ function such as heart beat, respiration, satiety, as well as sensation from the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions” (Murphy, 2022). Lacking somatic awareness is a key element of the disorder alexithymia. In alexithymia, the body and mind divide and body sensations of emotion and pain are not consciously experienced.
Developing somatic awareness can have numerous benefits for our overall well-being. By paying attention to and understanding our bodily sensations, we can gain valuable insights into our physical, emotional, and mental states. It allows us to cultivate a deeper connection with ourselves and ultimately make more informed choices about our health and lifestyle.
Somatic awareness is the conscious recognition and perception of our own physical sensations, movements, and bodily experiences.
A key component of the empirically supported program of mindfulness based stress reduction program is somatic awareness. The program founder Jon Kabat-Zin discovered that mindfulness of the body has a positive impact on all aspects of our lives. He introduces program participants “to ways that they can use to listen to their own bodies and minds and to begin trusting their own experience more” (2013).
Much of the writing and research on somatic awareness combines awareness of body sensations with overall mindfulness. Lawrence Heller Ph.D., a trauma specialist wrote, “mindfulness, in the most general of terms, means paying attention to our experience: listening to ourselves, to our thoughts, to our emotions, and to our bodily sensations. Ultimately, we learn to listen in such a way that we don’t push elements of our experience away but come to see that thoughts, emotions, and sensations come and go. The appeal of mindfulness is the freedom that we experience and the sense of flow and fluidity that comes when we are present to but not identified with our thoughts, feelings, and sensations” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, Kindle Location: 305).
Liz Kock adds, “It is the combination of somatic awareness, emotive expression, and conscious intention that brings meaning and coherence to human movement” (2012, Kindle location: 409).
Healing Elements of Somatic Awareness
More than our brain learns. Our entire body absorbs experience—both pleasant and painful. Healing often requires addressing the body as well as the mind. Richard Strozzi-Heckler explains that trauma stored in the body constricts the entire system. Perhaps, this is the general reason behind the successfulness of Kabat-Zins Stress reduction clinic.
Strozzi-Heckler warns that, “we will not free ourselves from this sustained contraction by ideas and philosophy only. It’s necessary that we unwind it from its embodied location. The first step is to notice it, which is Somatic Awareness. We look directly and simply with bare attention, disclosing qualities such as holding, tightening, and hardening that reveal how we fight the currents of our yearnings, our hopes, our need for contact” (2014).
Donald Bakal, Patrick Coll, and Jefferey Schaefer wrote “somatic awareness involves directing a patient’s attention to interoceptive or bodily experience and associated feelings for the purpose of self-healing and achieving health” (2008).
Heller adds that “by paying attention to the body, we are more easily able to recognize the truths and fictions of our personal narrative. As shock states held in the nervous system are discharged, we come into more contact with our body. A positive cycle is established in which the more self-regulated we become, the more we are in touch with our body, and the more in touch with our body we are, the greater our capacity for self-regulation” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, Kindle Location: 387). Consequently, somatic awareness aids healing from both physical and emotional trauma.
Psychosomatic illnesses may be attributed to lack of somatic awareness. When there is a division between processes, disorders will likely occur.
Calming the Nervous System
When we tune into our bodies, we can observe sensations such as tension, pain, comfort, or pleasure. This heightened awareness brings us into the present moment and helps us notice any emotional patterns or changes that may be occurring within our bodies. Accordingly, taking note of the messages has a reciprocal effect. Koch explains that “when the nervous system is overburdened, somatic awareness becomes limited and results in the substitution of muscles to perform an activity. Compromised and vulnerable, the joint demands more muscle tension in an effort to create a sense of support. When muscles are compensating as a form of support, they no longer are fully functional, so the cycle of dysfunction continues” (Koch, 2012, Kindle Location: 1,218).
Through practicing somatic awareness, by purposely bringing mindful attention to our bodies, we can help soothe the overburdened system and bring our bodies and minds back into alignment.
Heller explains that “a healing cycle is set in motion in which nervous system regulation increases and distorted identifications and beliefs diminish and eventually resolve. In a positive healing cycle, the increasing nervous system regulation helps dissolve painful identifications, and as painful identifications and judgments dissolve, increasing capacity for self-regulation becomes possible.” He continues that “in this self-reinforcing cycle each step builds upon the previous and makes the next possible” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).
Somatic awareness slowly opens up the mind, reconnecting to the body. And through the reintegration of body and mind, we heal.
Disruption of the Homeostatic Process
A prominent theory of lack of somatic awareness and disease and illness is that it disrupts the homeostatic process. This process refers to the way any living being reacts to environments to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival. Basically, when environmental (inner or outer environments) change the living being adapts to maintaining survival. For example, when our hand is burned by a flame, we experience pain, and then move our hand from the fire. Of if it is cold, we put on a jacket.
When we lack somatic awareness, we do not recognize the message of imbalance from the body and consequently do not react to regain balance. Accordingly, we ignorantly miss small protuberances to our homeostatic balance and they accumulate. Kenji Kanbara and Mikihiko Fukunaga explain, “emotional awareness and somatic awareness are essential processes for human psychosomatic health because disturbances of these types of awareness lead to unhealthy conditions through obstruction of homeostatic processing” (2016).
Basically, lack of somatic awareness suggests interference between the limbic and neocortical system. Communication between these systems is essential for maintaining homeostatic balance. Our bodies signal something is wrong and we examine the environment and make adjustments. We read signals, find causes, and adapt.
Expanding Somatic Awareness
Somatic awareness is experiential. We learn from experiencing it. We can’t expand bodily awareness through reading a book. Bakal, Coll, and Schaefer wrote “somatic awareness is an experiential guide or meta-skill rather than a treatment technique.” They do not suggest that the physician begin holistic treatment. Rather, they suggest that the “physician and patient…decide together what modality treatments and resources available in the community might strengthen this skill and the patient’s self healing” (2008).
Daniel Holland Ph.D., a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arkansas at little rock, wrote “a premise of somatic education is that this process can be imparted through specific, experiential, pedagogic approaches like mindfulness or yoga.” He explains that “somatic education involves an ever-deepening process of self-awareness. This process is facilitated through exercises, movements, and focused attention led by a teacher” (Holland, 2004).
Kabat-Zinn explains “we go about this discovery and cultivation through paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” through our attentive awareness, we become “more familiar with the field of your own body, mind, heart, and life” through paying attention “in new, more systematic and more loving ways—and thereby discover important dimensions of your own life” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
Kabat-Zinns Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) clinics are offered in many locations and on-line. The MBSR clinic is a six week program experimenting with different forms of meditation (mindful breathing, sitting, body scan, walking, etc.) and Yoga.
Training in Somatic Awareness Through Mindful Attentiveness
We can explore somatic awareness through other activities involving the body as well. Kock explains “whether it be yoga, Pilates, exercise, or dance, let your own somatic awareness be your guide for everything that you do. When you become attentive to rather than ignore the innate pleasure of sensation, you will be moved from deep within by life’s core wisdom” (Koch, 2012. Kindle location: 1,509). These activities encourage us to become fully present in our bodies, fostering a mind-body connection and promoting a sense of inner harmony.
We can practice mindfulness of our body everywhere. Our body is always actively involved in some activity. Just giving non-judgmental attention to our breathing enhances our somatic awareness. Or as Kabat-Zinn suggests, “just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all” (2005). Basically, we just need to stop, clear our minds of all the fluff and pay attention to our own bodies. Quietly giving attention to the inner happenings without a running narrative. Easily said, very difficult to do. Our minds want to explain and comment on everything. We are meaning making machines. However, occasionally we can step away from the need to explain and just be.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
In today’s fast-paced world, where we often find ourselves distracted and disconnected from our physical selves, cultivating somatic awareness can be a powerful antidote. It reminds us to slow down, listen to our bodies, and honor our physical needs. By doing so, we can enhance our overall well-being and build a healthier relationship with ourselves. Consequently, healthier relationships with ourselves is the foundation to healthier relationships with others.
Kock encourages this journey of awareness, explaining, “getting in touch with our sensations, feelings, and thoughts while being present (observing the quality of light, sounds, smells, taste, and sense of contact) helps to evolve the nerve pathways and awaken fresh somatic awareness benefiting not only our capacity to survive, but also our capacity to thrive” (Kock, 2012, Kindle location: 896). And thriving, more than just survival, is something most of us seek.
So, take a moment to pause, close your eyes, and gently tune into the sensations arising within your body. Allow yourself to be fully present in this journey of somatic awareness, creating greater harmony between your body and mind. Almost magically, over time, this connection ignites self-healing.
Remember, your body is a marvelous vessel, and somatic awareness is the key to unlock its wisdom and vitality.
Bakal, Donald; Coll, Patrick; Schaefer, Jefferey (2008). Somatic awareness in the clinical care of patients with body distress symptoms. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 2(1), 1-6. DOI: 10.1186/1751-0759-2-6
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2013). Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam; Rev Updated edition.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2005). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hachette Books; 10th edition.
Koch, Liz (2012). Core Awareness, Revised Edition: Enhancing Yoga, Pilates, Exercise, and Dance. North Atlantic Books; Revised ed. edition.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Interoception. Psychology Fanatic. Published 3-1-2022. Accessed 9-2-2023.
Strozzi-Heckler, Richard (2014). The Art of Somatic Coaching: Embodying Skillful Action, Wisdom, and Compassion. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition.