What is your body trying to tell you?
A couple of weeks ago (before I got distracted by Birth Trauma Awareness week) I’d started a little series looking at the three ‘compass points’ that we work from when we’re exploring and then processing trauma. As a quick recap, we’re talking about thoughts (this is more about the meaning or beliefs we have about ourselves, other people or the world around us as a result of certain events or experiences), physical sensations and feelings (or emotions). This week I’m looking at the body and all the incredible insights we can glean from the messages it sends us.
The body is an amazing receptor for all the different signals it receives every second of the day from our central nervous system. We feel many of our greatest pleasures (think about eating your very favourite meal) and our deepest hurts (think about a romantic break-up or the loss of a pet that you’ve experienced) in our bodies. Many of us have learned to tune out these bodily sensations, and others of us have developed quite complicated aversions to them. When we work from a somatic psychotherapy perspective, we engage in the awareness held in the body as a powerful tool and intervention in therapy. Here are a range of different concepts and approaches that we might use in somatic psychotherapy sessions:
- Developing somatic awareness
We might look at identifying areas of tension or tightness in our bodies – notice now for example if your neck or shoulders are raised, is your upper back hunched or tummy sucked-in? Then we might turn to other behaviours or feelings that help promote a feeling of calm and safety to explore gently the impact that might have on our bodily constrictions. This allows us to start to “feel” inside our skin.
We use this approach in other forms of therapy like EMDR, but it refers to the way that we strengthen our innate sense of safety in the world. We might create a ‘calm place’ in the form of a visualisation exercise. And we might recruit some ‘protective’, ‘wise’ or ‘nurturing’ figures in this imagined space who fill us with a sense of strength, empowerment and safety and we might tether this to a bodily awareness when we call them to mind. In this way we can start to anchor in our body a felt sense that accompanies thoughts and images.
- Big description words
With somatic practice we look at really digging into and expanding our awareness of physical sensations. For example, if we can identify as part of recalling our traumatic experience that our chest tightens uncomfortably, instead of skipping past that because it’s providing discomfort, we actually explore this more by using lots of descriptive language. It might sound something like, “it feels like a cold, vice, squashing and squeezing both my ribs and my lungs until it feels like I can’t breathe.” As we stay with the sensations, instead of increasing we notice that the attention allows the physical feelings move and shift, and also allows us to move the focus away from distressing event details.
“Movement helps us tap into our innate ability to heal the stories that our bodies hold” (Integrative Psychotherapy). We might use movement in a host of different ways to either explore or move through an emotion or experience that is coming up in session. We might embody what it feels like when we are feeling ashamed and then move through what it might feel like to be rid of that shame. Sometimes we exaggerate one movement to release and shift a sensation or tension in order to feel the freedom that comes from letting go. This is creative and very much based on whatever shows up in session.
- Boundary setting
Because boundaries are a foundational piece of work that comes into moving through trauma, we might explore what boundaries we are setting both verbally and nonverbally. This can take a range of different forms – we might play with saying words like “yes” or “no” or “stop” or “okay” and really feeling into the body while we say it. We may also creatively play with this such as building a literal boundary out of cushions to see how differently it feels to be in that space, before exploring how to adjust that boundary in different ways that feel safe.
Somatic psychotherapy can be a stand-alone approach to working with trauma or it can be used concurrently as part of other psychotherapeutic modalities like EMDR. It’s part of why we have two very different practice spaces at Thea Baker Wellbeing so that we can really make space for this kind of work – we mean it when we say we’re all about: Therapy. Done differently.