Is Somatic Tracking for You?
Somatic tracking is an excellent tool to aid in rewiring a stressed nervous system by helping draw attention to one’s own body sensations. It's one of the main tools I use with clients in my chronic pain, chronic symptoms, and TMS coaching practice. However, there are cases when focusing on body sensations or symptoms is not wise, especially if you are doing it on your own without the help of a trained coach, facilitator, or therapist. Let’s take a look at what somatic tracking is, how it might be of help in your recovery, and the situations where I advise against using it.
One critical aspect of somatic tracking is the development of a sense called interoception. This is a fancy word for being able to feel our body sensations. Our body is always communicating with us through the language of sensation, and if we can learn to listen, we may find tremendous wisdom and information. Just as we use our senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell to navigate the world, the sense of interoception is extremely important to our survival and wellbeing. Anyone who is able to know when they need to use the bathroom is familiar with interoception; so you are already doing it and just may not have been aware that there was a name for it.
The mind-body connection
Though I had some previous training in interoception and somatic tracking through my education to become a yoga teacher and a certified TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises) provider, most recently I’ve been focusing on somatic tracking as a tool of a larger modality, Somatic Experiencing (SE), in which I am currently training. SE was developed by Peter Levine as a treatment for trauma and trauma-related symptoms, which are manifold (and the topic of future posts). Some of the more well-known trauma-related symptoms are nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks. These symptoms are understood by lay people (and many professionals) to be “mental” in nature and reflect a DSM-5 diagnosis of “PTSD.” This can create a limited view of what trauma actually is and how it affects not only the “mind” but also the “body,” again calling into question that these two can even be thought of as completely separate. What is less widely known and understood, even by many well-educated and highly experienced doctors, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists, is that there are a plethora of trauma symptoms including those that show up in the body such as chronic pain, IBS, chronic fatigue, tics, ringing in the ears, and bladder issues, to name a few.
They can't find anything "wrong"
People who have these manifestations of a chronically stressed or traumatized nervous system may spend years and years going from professional to professional without relief of their physical symptoms. The reason they don’t get relief is because the genesis of the symptoms is a chronically stressed nervous system, and not a “structural” problem in the afflicted body part.
Any attempt to treat the symptom alone will not be successful because the root cause has not been addressed. This “treat the symptom only” approach is akin to yelling at a faulty smoke alarm and expecting it to turn off. The symptom is the annoying chirp of the smoke alarm, but the root cause lies deeper within some aspect of the smoke alarm itself. The noise, although super annoying, isn’t the problem.
It’s important to note here that the nervous system is not the enemy. The nervous system’s core job is to keep us alive. It’s constantly adapting to our life experience and sometimes that adaptation results in pesky symptoms. When symptoms are originating from the nervous system, the nervous system must be engaged in the healing process. There are tons of ways to engage the nervous system; somatic tracking is but one way among others such as yoga, meditation, exercise, journaling, safe relationships, and many more. Indeed, many of you may have found these and other practices therapeutic without understanding the mechanisms that helped make them effective. The key is this amazing thing called the mind-body connection through which we can communicate with our nervous system. While I’m writing about it as if it’s something that was just discovered, humans have actually known about this for millennia, and mainstream western medicine is just beginning to see it as legitimate.
Somatic tracking helps to rewire a stressed nervous system by teaching the brain to re-interpret sensations in a more productive way. By slowing things down and establishing new communication between the mind and body, we can begin to change the wiring of the nervous system.
In the chirping smoke alarm example, this is like locating the smoke alarm, getting your chair, climbing up, and taking a close look at it. Does the battery need to be replaced? Is it painted over or clogged with dust? Did you install it in the wrong location in your house? At my house, our smoke alarm kept getting triggered by steam from the shower because we had it right outside the bathroom. We moved it to a better location and now it can do its job more successfully.
It’s fairly common for people with chronic stress-related symptoms to relate negatively to their bodies in the form of fear, anger, disgust, or even hatred. This is completely understandable, since the body seems to be the source of the problem. It’s a stress response on top of a stress response. The body is producing symptoms due to being overly stressed, and then the mind reacts to the body with yet another stress response: stress causes physical symptoms, which we find stressful, of course! Somatic tracking can intervene in this vicious circle.
When we take a closer look at what is actually happening in the body, we often find that the physical sensations our mind had decided were threatening aren’t that scary after all. That sensation that was previously interpreted as “pain that never changes and will never go away” is a little more dynamic than we thought. We may notice that it’s made up of elements of pressure, heat, and pulsation. The longer we sit with it, the more it changes. Or, we may notice that what we thought was tension in the low back is in fact closer to the hip, which gives it a whole new meaning and takes half of the fear away. Or, we recognize what we previously referred to as anxiety in the stomach more closely resembles excitement, changing our entire relationship with it. In our current covid-19 situation, the smallest cough or sniffle can spark anxiety -- but this has more to do with the interpretation of these symptoms than what’s actually causing them.
Top-down and bottom-up
By placing our attention in our body in this particular way, we engage two important parts of our brain at the same time: the conscious or “higher” functioning, and the “lower” functioning, commonly referred to as the automatic or unconscious functioning. It’s this holistic approach, fusing “top down” and “bottom up,” that creates a clearer picture of what’s happening in the body, and over time allows the conscious mind to make new interpretations of body sensations. This in turn leads to a calmer nervous system and all the associated physiological changes such as decreased heart rate, lower blood pressure, less muscle tension, the ability to think logically about our symptoms and sensations, and the ability to self-soothe.
Too much of a good thing?
A lot of my clients who are dealing with chronic symptoms, especially chronic pain, often feel that a big part of their problem is they can’t stop focusing on their body. A key difference between somatic tracking and run of the mill attention in the body (or obsessive attention in the body) is the quality of attention, and the intention with which it is applied. Attention in somatic tracking has qualities of curiosity, non-judgment, openness, and mindfulness. The intention is to become as objective as an observer as possible of what is happening.
This “intention of attention” can only be achieved when the nervous system is in a state of relative safety and calm regulation. If the system is too stressed, access to the part of the brain (the “higher” functioning mentioned earlier) that allows for this intention of attention is lost. If a lion comes into the room, why would the nervous system care about systematically tracking body sensations? You'd have your head chewed off before you could even begin! When stressed, all non-essential body and brain functions are cut off so that the body can focus its energy on survival.
Is it right for me?
Here are some signs that your nervous system might be a little too close to the stressed end of things to utilize somatic tracking productively on your own. If you notice that you fall into any of these categories, don’t despair! It’s far better to be aware that this isn’t the tool for you right now than to push forward with something that could cause more damage. Once you calm your nervous system a bit, you can try again!
You aren’t noticing any change in the troubling sensation you’re focusing on.
The more you focus on the sensation or symptom, the worse it gets, and it doesn’t change or decrease.
Attempts at somatic tracking produce intolerable feelings or sensations such as anxiety, rage, dizziness or intense fatigue/sleepiness.
You notice yourself feeling out of control in some way. This could take the form of blacking out, feeling extremely cold, losing significant chunks of time, a feeling of floating, or the sense that you can’t move.
Working with overwhelming sensation
Here's a great video from Tara Brach that discusses a couple of ways to work with overwhelming sensation. First, for those whose sensations are loud but not too distressing, there’s the practice of “pendulation.” For those who find themselves in numbers 1-4 above, it's most advisable to move the attention away from the body for a time and find some outside support. Once you feel more grounded, you can try somatic tracking again. Outside support could take the form of a friend or loved one, a trained practitioner, a hot bath, a favorite place outside, or a beloved pet. Tara gives an example of a girl who found her dog's heartbeat to be a good source of outside support.
If you want more information about somatic tracking and how it might support you, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.