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What Language Does Your Body Speak: Some Thoughts on Somatic Psychotherapies in International Contexts


Trauma, by definition, is a body experience. A cascade of physiological and biological changes that become the imprint of suffering begins the moment of exposure in those who go on to be traumatized. This is the universal. Culture is the component that “dresses up“, and layers in, how a person demonstrates or expresses his/her state(s) of traumatization.

The body may potentially be a dual-experience as both refuge and minefield for anyone who is truly traumatized, and we now have greater understanding of the mechanisms behind this dual reality. Recent discoveries in neuroscience, and more specifically arising from research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology (Siegel, 2012) and neuroplasticity, and perhaps most importantly, social engagement (Porges, 2011), are guiding the increased endorsement of mindfulness, somatic, and movement based approaches, therapies and practices for health and well-being. Increasingly, neuroscience endorses somatic, and/or non-verbal, therapies as promising (and perhaps best practice) for trauma survivors. The majority of somatic approaches, frameworks, programs and training opportunities remain in the “developed” world, and more specifically in the west or north, where mainstream psychotherapy has existed and been utilized far longer than in non-western, “developing” countries.

Internationally, the inclusion of psychosocial interventions in humanitarian response work is a fairly new phenomenon. Only recently is there some openness in Western, mainstream mental health to recognize “alternative” practices such as somatic and creative arts therapies; similarly, cross cultural, humanitarian applications tend tolean on “evidenced-based” or “best practice” approaches, and the burgeoning field of somatics is still more an item of interest than it is consistently included in these response programs. Simultaneously, some of the somatically-based trauma training programs are outreaching their trainings into post disaster and complex humanitarian contexts, with unclear impact and little evident attention to social/cultural integration. An assumption seems to be made that these approaches are helpful and meaningful in these cultures, because working through the body or the creative process is more universal.

An important consideration is that many (but not all) of the recent crises and disasters have occurred in more sociocentric cultures. The US is a particularly egocentric culture, and one in which many of the somatic approaches that are rooted there, are still framed in a traditionally western psychotherapeutic paradigm. Many of the non-white dominant or western/northern cultures have never subjected themselves to the mind-body split of the post-Cartesian era (Damasio, 2005).

In sociocentric cultures, a history of healing through embodied and creative rituals and practices may actually mitigate the need for “discovering” new treatments. In fact, one might argue that in these places, the historically intact socio-cultural processes that serve as ritual, rite of passage, healing, celebration, mourning and marking may be more relevant than “new” somatic approaches (Harris, 2002) . It is worth considering that what science is now endorsing through its studies of memory and trauma, and the essential role the body places in the restorative process after trauma, has always been central to indigenous healing practices and processes. This is notwithstanding the fact that in many large-scale disasters and emergencies, these important social structures are undermined, distressed, and sometimes destroyed, and may therefore not be as accessible. That topic is beyond the scope of this article.

There isn’t a right or wrong here; however, the fundamental principle upon which psychosocial programs in humanitarian response contexts are offered is Do No Harm. The IASC Guidelines (2007) framework of guiding principles for psychosocial work across borders and cultures, with Do No Harm the foundation. As a long time humanitarian worker who now also trains health and mental health professionals, as well as allied health professionals and paraprofessionals in the integration of dance, movement, body and arts-based therapies into their work, I am aware of the need to constantly reconsider my intention in offering this work, as well as my methods and style of delivery. I have begun to ask myself an orienting question that serves more as an ongoing inquiry to assist me to re-organize the work, as needed, versus a question that always has a clear answer: What language does my body speak?

To read more of Amber’s article, click here