Understanding how the nervous system works is an important element of somatic therapy. Below is a brief overview of the different divisions, as well as explanations why this information is relevant:
The Central & Peripheral Nervous Systems
The Central Nervous System is made up of the brain and the spinal cord, and the Peripheral Nervous System consists of all the nerves going from the spinal cord to the rest of the body.
The Peripheral Nervous System is divided into two main parts: The Sensory Division and the Motor Division.
The Sensory Division
The Sensory Division carries information from the body to the brain. It does this using afferent pathways. These are pathways which carry nerve impulses from the sensory organs to the spinal cord through the sensory neurons.
In turn, the Sensory Division is further divided into Exteroceptive and Interoceptive Divisions. The Exteroceptive is what we often refer to as the “five senses” of touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight. It is our direct link to the external world, as we are perceiving it in the present moment. It is our external reality.
Why the Exteroceptive Division is Relevant to Feeling More Connected
A big part of somatic sex therapy is helping clients to become more mindful of whatever is happening in the present moment. Becoming more deeply aware of the five senses can help us to feel more connected to others and the world around us. It can also help to ground us, meaning that our resilience to stress can increase, by bolstering our ability to stay present to whatever is happening, without becoming overwhelmed. This is called self-regulation.
When we feel safe, it can help us to feel more alive and to feel more pleasure from receiving touch and connecting with others in an intimate way.
Why the Interoceptive Division is Relevant in Therapy
The Interoceptive consists of the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. The vestibular system helps us to have a sense of balance and spatial orientation. Proprioception is the ability to feel sensations from inside the body. It is our direct link to the internal world, as we are perceiving it in the present moment. It is our internal reality.
Being more aware of what is happening inside our body can help us to feel more connected to ourselves. Developing the ability to feel sensations and emotions from within can help to antidote dissociation, which is a common way of ‘cutting off’ from one’s own thoughts, feelings and sensations. The ability to re-connect to self in a safe way is often key to healing.
Another reason why interoception is important in therapy is because it gives us access to emotions and body memories from the past, which are re-occurring in the present moment. Developing this ‘dual awareness’ can enable us to recognise that what we are feeling in the present moment is because of something we had experienced in the past.
The Motor Division
Going back now to the Motor Division. It carries information from the brain to the body. It does this using efferent pathways. These are pathways which carry nerve impulses from the spinal cord to the peripheral organs and muscles.
The Motor Division if further subdivided into the Somatic Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System. The Somatic Nervous System controls all the voluntary muscular systems in the body. The Autonomic Nervous System is involuntary and is made up of two further branches: the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic.
The Sympathetic Nervous System is a network of nerves that helps the body activate its “fight-or-flight” response. It is also involved in day to day functioning, increasing activity whenever we are physically active. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is often called the “rest and digest” system. Its main jobs are to conserve energy and regulate key bodily functions. It predominates during rest periods. Interestingly, it can also become further activated to send us into a “freeze” response in times of stress and danger.
Why the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems are Relevant in Learning to be More Resilient
It helps me to observe, and help clients to determine, when their nervous system is becoming over-activated, and how to be able to down-regulate it. In turn, this helps to avoid emotional flooding, which can be too overwhelming to be integrated in the present moment. On the other hand, it is also useful to observe, and help clients to determine, when they are going into more of a dissociative response, and to learn tools to stay connected whilst, at the same time, avoiding emotional overwhelm. By learning to self-regulate we can build our tolerance to feel and stay with difficult sensations.
A lot of modern stress is due to the over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Learning how to down-regulate it can help our bodies to feel more safe and more at ease. In turn, this leads to less illness and a greater enjoyment of life. Psychosomatic therapy can help to learn the tools to bring greater peace and relaxation to both mind and body.