What is your body telling you?
You might think that counselling is all about the brain: all about talking and thinking and saying what’s on your mind. However, myself and many other therapists are increasingly interested in using the body to understand what is happening, and even to help you begin to let go of emotional difficulties and past trauma.
What does the body have to do with it?
For many centuries, philosophers have asked the question of whether the body and mind are linked, or separate. Western society has in recent times erred on the side of the argument that they are two different spheres, and treated them as such. However, things are changing. If you visit your doctor with a physical ailment they are likely to enquire about your emotional health, such as stress levels, as well as how your body feels. In therapy, it can be very helpful to listen to what your body is telling you to get the full picture of what is happening.
We all instinctively know that our body is absolutely involved in how we feel. Think about when you are scared: you might feel your heart racing or your stomach flipping. Or what about when you are feeling upset: you feel your heart sinking, or your stomach tied in knots. We actually feel all of our emotions directly in the physical body, but we have come to devalue these parts of the experience, and we often only concentrate on the thinking part of the emotion in the therapy room.
How can I listen to my body?
When we are more connected with our bodies, it is sometimes described as being ‘embodied’. This is a way of being that can be worked on and improved over time, with very simple exercises. A good starting place is mindfulness or meditation, where you take time out to simply notice what you are feeling and where you feel it in the body. Other ways are engaging in more physical practices such as yoga or Pilates where you are aware of your own movements, and connect to your body intimately.
Some people will find it difficult to be in touch with their bodies. People with a history of trauma have often learnt to dissociate from their physical feelings in order to cope with difficult emotions. Working with a trauma-informed therapist can help you to slowly learn how to get back in touch with your body. Sometimes it is a question of relearning what the sensation means. Clients will tell me that a certain physical sensation is so familiar, they hadn’t realised that it was an emotion.
This kind of disconnection from the body is also very common with people who have simply been taught from an early age that feeling is bad, that they should ‘man-up’, or ‘keep calm and carry on’. It can also be the result of suffering from physical injury, or having to cope with chronic pain. Working with a physical therapist such as an osteopath alongside your counselling can be extremely helpful in such cases.
The body is helpful
When working with certain clients, I will take an embodied approach to therapy where we include techniques such as breathwork and grounding exercises to stay regulated during the sessions. This can be particularly helpful when working with anxiety, where our bodies try to take us into ‘fight or flight’ mode to survive. Equally, clients with feelings of stuckness and depression can use the body to move out of the ‘freeze’ state, which is our species’ earliest survival technique.
We can also track the physical sensations alongside any emotions that arise in the counselling room, to help us to get a full picture of the feeling. For example, a recent client James* mentioned that he struggled with stomach pains and IBS. We began including a check on how he felt in his body in different sessions and established a clear link between his relationship difficulties and his physical pain. As the therapy progressed, his symptoms also improved.
Whatever your current relationship to your body, take a moment today to check in with yourself. How do you feel? How is your breathing? Where are you holding some stress? Counselling can help you to take this journey further, and use the whole of your self, mind body and soul.
*All clients have been anonymised