Why we work with the body
Some counsellors often ask clients, 'where do you feel that in your body?' This can leave people slightly baffled. Sometimes, we experience ourselves as existing only in our heads, as if cut off from the neck down, with all the activity taking place in our brain. This is in part a consequence of the mind/body split that goes as far back as Descartes' famous statement, 'I think, therefore I am.' However, this split is both unhelpful and inaccurate, only a vague idea, and far from a fact. Folk knowledge tells us what's really going on. Think of the phrases, 'gut instinct,' 'heartbroken,' 'a pain in the neck,' a sinking feeling,' 'butterflies in my stomach,' or 'weak at the knees.' Notice how these phrases link feelings and bodily states.
Recent findings from the field of neurobiology have conclusively supported the embodied nature of emotions. Emotions are physiological events, created, felt and regulated through bodily sensation. In fact, emotions are forms of energy in which hormones and other neurochemicals move around the body. They start in the body, activated by our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and are then translated by our sophisticated prefrontal cortex into ideas and words. Modern life has taken its toll here, as technology, advertising, appearance conformism and intellectualising have disconnected us from our embodied states, and so from our true selves.
When we take a moment to sink into our bodies, the results can be surprising. Have you ever felt like your heart was full of joy or sadness, or that anger created heat in your chest? Has anxiety made your palms sweaty or your heart race? If so, you have experienced first-hand the origins of your emotions. Once the source in the body has been identified, the emotion can then be regulated, through breathing, for example, which calms the sympathetic nervous system, or grounding, which returns you to the here-and-now, letting your body know that there is no current threat. Often difficult emotions are linked to experiences of danger in the past.
So when a counsellor asks 'where do you feel it in your body?', trust that there is a method to the madness. Take a moment to connect with your whole self, which exists not only in your head, but in your entirety, from your head to your toes.
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About Mary-Claire Wilson
Mary-Claire Wilson (MBACP, Dip Couns, Dip Advanced Psychology, BA, MA), is an experienced Integrative psychotherapist, counsellor and writer. She's a Registered Member of the BACP and of the Body Psychotherapy Network. She works in private practice in East and Central London.