Eating Disorders, Experiential Somatic Awareness and Integration

Woman struggling with eating disorder

Contributor: Dr. Gina Negrette serves as the Medical Director for Aloria Health.

Body distress or somatic integration often occurs when a person is under an extreme amount of stress and/or experiences trauma.

Somatic awareness is when a person acknowledges their own self within their environment and uses sensations to identify the psychological, physiological and social factors to promote healing and self-regulation [1].

What is Somatic Experiencing and Awareness

Within eating disorders the symptoms that occur are in part, systematically moving away from their physical being.

Often, the behaviors are a way to move a person away from the awareness of their sense of self. Food, either used as a way to overfeed and numb or purge and numb the feelings or thoughts that are perceived and seen as too painful to experience and express. Eating disorders, therefore, are a coping mechanism to move away from the present moment of the body as an instrument of knowledge, of wholeness, of health.

Somatic awareness then is a way to bring a person back into the present moment without having to use words to express. Being somatically aware is being aware of your body, being in your body, urges and messages your body sends to you, the senses we use through sight, smell, touch, seeing, and hearing.

Being disassociated with the body allows a person to numb out and have a rigid view of the self and the world. It puts what they experience into categories of systemization and rigidity. This allows the sufferer to have one sole identity, the eating disorder.

Most treatments focus on traditional therapies and verbal identification and expression of symptoms and sensations, somatic work is to be aware that you are more than the sum of your thoughts and perception.

That we are ever-present in our environment through our senses. Somatic awareness provides awareness of the constant shift and changes that occur within us and around us.

Using this type of therapy allows the sufferer to be able to challenge the idea of a sole identity of the eating disorder, and begin to discover and celebrate the uniqueness of a person that they are.

Somatic awareness is psycho-biologic in nature and is used to offer changes in unhealthy beliefs, body schema, coping tools, relationship dynamics, sleep patterns, and medication dependence.

It can be easier for a person to understand how experiences alter the impact of past/current trauma, personality, stress, and emotions if they view the body as a vessel that holds past experiences and trauma, healthy or not.

Biopsychosocial perspectives can help clinicians and clients see the connection between the somatic symptoms, past experiences and current experiences when treating an eating disorder. In doing this, somatic awareness is being able to direct a person’s attention to body experiences and feelings to help promote self-healing and improvement in health.

Woman in wheat fieldWhen understanding the idea of a body schema, it is used to organize the changes that occur in the body to stay in homeostasis during a stress period in life.

It operates as close to an automatic way as it can on an unconscious level, and awareness of the body is typically “pushed aside.”

These reactions are done on an unconscious level until a situation occurs where somatic symptoms occur [1]. One way of being able to bring a person’s attention to these body and mind reactions is through steady and rhythmic breathing.

This type of breathing where the abdomen is relaxed can allow a person to focus on how to breathe properly, but also being able to experience a feeling of physical relaxation and well-being.

Practices for Somatic Awareness

When we work with a client in a session, it is noticing what body cues, non-verbal cues, and verbal cues the person is sending. When asking the person what they are feeling, or what they are experiencing can often bring forth a simple description of “I’m anxious,” or merely lumping their self into one word or phrase. It is hard for clients to break out of their eating disorder identity.

Clinicians are able to help clients be able to recognize that other aspects are happening both internally and externally. Clinicians ask questions such as, “How do you know that you are anxious? What is giving you the information that you are anxious right now.?”

The client may respond that they feel tight. Through somatic awareness and integration, clinicians can ask where that tightness or feeling lives within their body, challenging their words to unravel what they are trying to express. If a person is unable to be aware of their own awareness, then they are not able to regulate and organize themselves which is a process of integrating as a human being.

Somatic practices can help a person bring awareness to parts of self, relieve emotional pain, and have a greater understand how the body works as an interpreter for their environment and history [2]. One such way is the Alexander technique. This technique re-educates the body through breathing exercises, yoga movements that work to lengthen and widen the body.

Woman worshipping and enjoying her religionIt is helping a person refining and reorganize a person’s kinesthetic sense of how one is in their own body. Individuals will work on treatment tables, seated on chairs, and performing simple daily movements with an instructor.

It is a hands-on approach but gentle, and practitioners offer verbal instruction. It is allowing the body to move and stretch in ways that release the tension and tightness [2].

In conclusion, somatic awareness and integration is a part of those with eating disorders and trauma. It allows a person to be able to connect to their own body, the sensations, and messages it receives. Somatic Awareness is a therapy that allows a person to find a way to integrate traumatic events and memories into their brain and body to be able to find ways to express what they are feeling, thinking, and needing.


Gina NegretteAbout the author:

Dr. Gina Negrette has more than a decade of experience in psychiatry, treating clients in diverse setting. She has worked closely with individuals fighting addictions, eating disorders, psychotic and manic conditions, as well as those who were fighting simply to live through the night. Through these deeply life-changing experiences, Dr. Negrette found her calling as more than just a physician: as a guide, defender, educator and supporter of people. Joining Aloria Health as medical director has provided Dr. Negrette a chance to fulfill one of her dreams.

“Aloria’s vision allows me to focus on making healing the priority.”


References:

[1] Science Update (2011). Most teens with eating disorders go without treatment. National Institute of Mental Health, retrieved on 08 January 2018 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2011/most-teens-with-eating-disorders-go-without-treatment.shtml.
[2] Beato-Fernandez, L. et al. (2004). Risk factors for eating disorders in adolescents. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 13, 287-294.
[3] Keel, P. K., Forney, K. J. (2013). Psychosocial risk factors for eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46, 433-439.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on March 13, 2018.

Published on EatingDisorderHope.com