Bringing the Body into the Therapy Room
Integrating awareness of the body within a talking-therapy context can have a surprisingly powerful effect on changing our psychological patterns. In practice, it’s a bit like bringing mindfulness into dialogue with another person. But tuning into our bodies often begins with noticing unpleasant, unwanted sensations. This is exactly why I want to use an example from the therapy room, where my client, Rosie, managed to become relaxed and confident going into an operation that she’d been terrified of. Navigating through and beyond our physical experiences can enable us to shift the tracks of our nervous systems and transform experiences like anxiety.
Mind–body therapies have been gaining increasing attention in recent years (Scharff, 2017), with a growing awareness of how strongly linked our mental and physical well-being are. There are many studies on the effects of practicing mindfulness meditation (Sundquist, Palmer, Johansson, & Sundquist, 2017), acupuncture, doing yoga (Rankin-Box, 2015), and breathing techniques (Alderman, 2016), which show the links between these practices and reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. There has been a great deal of research into the brain–gut connection (Carabotti, Scirocco, Maselli, & Severi, 2015), revealing how much our guts influence our mental health (Rieder, Wisniewski, Alderman, & Campbell, 2017). Advances in the neuroscientific research on the brain and body in trauma also abound, an excellent starting point for which is Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score (2014).
In any kind of body-based therapy, when the therapist talks with her clients, she is also listening to what their body is saying: the way they hold themselves, the places that seem tense, stuck, or absent, how they become animated or worked up, or collapse and shrink into the chair. At various points in my conversations with my clients, I slow things down and ask them to describe what they notice about their experience, gradually including the physical level as well as emotional and cognitive experience.
Bodies can be uncomfortable things. When we start tuning in to them, shoulders have a habit of feeling tense or weighed down, chests can feel tight or like an empty void, and bellies can seem to have minds of their own, becoming tensed and twisted, or like a heavy block. For some people, noticing their bodies means noticing a high level of activation that they have built strategies around shutting out. What’s worse, paying attention to those sensations can intensify them. For some people, starting to actually notice the tension in their belly or chest makes it feel as though that tension is rising up to strangle them in the throat.
Focusing on these experiences can make people feel uncomfortable and frustrated, and can bring a sense of shame or self-judgment. Stronger still, it can make us panicked and overwhelmed. But there is a lot to be gained from learning to dip into these uncomfortable sensations. Taking a slow, titrated approach, we can explore the sensations, learn about them and how they are connected to different thoughts, emotions, and ideas about ourselves, and learn how to move through them.
As a way to engage further with this physical level, I encourage my clients to describe what it feels like their body is trying to do at that moment. What does it feel like the tension is for? Some people feel like they’re ready to spring, while others feel a restless energy of needing to do something, but not knowing what, and are trying to hold themselves together. Others feel like they’re trying to defend themselves against something, or that they’re trying to hide or disappear. Still another pattern is to feel disconnected from their body, becoming numb and shut down. Getting to know these physical patterns can help us change our psychological states, since they are always linked.