22 Nov Emotions and the body in therapy
We are conditioned to avoid what is unpleasant. If it hurts, it is tempting to hide it. We hide our tears, or ignore the knot in our stomachs. But when we “keep going”, our painful emotions hide in the body, where they prevent us from living with ease.
Emotions and their link to the body
Although we name and describe emotions using our minds, they are an experience of the body. Emotions are a result of what we feel within our bodies and how our brain interprets those sensations or feelings. In everyday language we connect the emotions with our body. “I could burst!” or “This is a pain in the neck”.
“If you can comfortably connect to your inner sensations and trust them, you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings and yourself”
The effects of not expressing emotion
Emotions become troublesome when they are not well received. If you are repeatedly met with “don’t be silly”, “stop crying” and “that is enough” in early life, you learn that certain emotions are not safe to express. Instead of processing emotions with people you trust, you learn other ways to take care of yourself. One way in which we do this, is to disconnect from our body (3).
“Cognitive and emotional processing are affected by the feeling of what is happening in the body`` - Damasio
The body in psychotherapy
When we feel safe to feel the range of experiences our body holds, it allows us to live more freely. Over the last decades, many valuable ways of working with and including the body in talk therapy have evolved. Mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and other techniques are entering the psychological mainstream (6). Psychotherapy is no longer a focus on the mind with the body as an afterthought (5). Paying attention to the emotional context of our stories and noticing our bodily responses goes a long way towards positive change.
``We attempt to understand the body in isolation from the mind” - Gabor Mate
My somatic approach
Adjusting counselling approach based on what is beneficial to you as an individual is important. In therapy with me, how you feel about the story you are telling, and exploring that together, is more important than the techniques we use. Without judgement we make sense of your experiences. This idea based in Intersubjectivity theory is also supported by Dr. Stephen Porges Polyvagal theory. He scientifically proves that feeling safe and supported in a relationship – is the fundamental cornerstone to positive changes in the brain.
Decades of research show that how we grow to become well-functioning adults, is entirely dependent on being around emotionally competent others. Early in your life, this may be your parents or a teacher. Later in life, it may be your therapist. To explain it simply, when you have a therapist you trust, your nervous system, as well as your thoughts, have a chance to organize themselves differently. Over time, the calm and strength you feel when you are with your therapist, will also be felt outside the therapy room (8). Whilst this change often will be experienced as changes in behaviours or thoughts, your emotions and bodily reactions will also change.
``The mind is a process that is both embodied and relational” - Daniel Siegel
Somatic (body) therapy with me is deeply supported by the relational and contemporary psychoanalytic modalities of Intersubjectivity and Self Psychology. The emotions we connect with our experiences are important to how they impact us. Together, we help you connect your words with your feelings. As we do this, we also help you restore perspective, feel your strength and ability to take charge – even in your most difficult life stories. To understand what is going on we also listen to the body. My experience is that when we can connect to what our body holds and also bring that into conversation – we start to experience change.
Introduction to somatic approaches
Somatic Experiencing by Peter Levine offers valuable and simple techniques that I use to bring the body into the therapeutic experience. Dr Levine’s approach gently guides trauma victims towards being able to feel safe in the body again (7).
“You can not split body from mind” - Socrates
2)8) Fiskum, C. Psychotherapy beyond all the words: Dyadic expansion, vagal regulation, and biofeedback in psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 2019.
5) Kaplan & Schwartz. Listening to the body: Pragmatic case studies of body-centered psychotherapy . Rutgers University and New York, NY. New York Center for Somatic, Psychotherapy & Trauma Resolution 2006.
6) Dana, D. “The Polyvagal theory in therapy – Engaging the rhythm of regulation” W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
7) Levine, P. “In an unspoken voice – How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness”. North Atlantic Books, 2010.