Working intuitively with the body in counselling
Counselling is traditionally a talking therapy whereby professional therapists use the talking cure to help and guide by providing that safe space for their clients, offering them time to 'offload' or to have their difficulties and issues understood, witnessed, and held. This involves using skills such as listening, being present, and being compassionate. Listening to understand and not to respond is essential, and this I feel must be to the body too, not purely just the verbal narrative.
Carl Rogers gave us the foundational core conditions that really are the bedrock of any good therapist's work - placing yourself in your client's skin to understand their subjective experiencing, having unconditional positive regard for them no matter what, and being genuinely honest and real without wearing a facade or trying to be super-human, better-evolved person. Working with this base, we can bring more of ourselves into the therapy space and invite more of our clients too by being informed from our bodies.
Our bodies, the posture, holding, and gestures speak volumes, and being tuned into accessing these along with what is being spoken can really provide a great opening for working with our clients.
I believe it was Lacan who said that 'words are the foundation of reality', and in attending to the bodily embodied experience we learn that when the words are spoken from the implicit self that life becomes lighter because we don't have to spend all our energy and time defending and surviving.
We all know as therapists that presence is most important and really, without it, we are not able to attune to anyone. Presence is a quality that grants presence to another, and so despite whatever approach or training a therapist (counsellor/psychotherapist)has had, I think that first and foremost practising and fine-tuning one's ability to be present is crucial to the therapeutic alliance. It is a quality that is to be felt through the body and has a direct link to compassion and according to Tara Brach.
“Compassion is the medicine we most need as individuals and as a species to heal suffering and free our spirits. Radical compassion has three key elements: it is an embodied experience (a felt sense of tenderness), it is inclusive all beings, and it naturally moves us to act from a caring heart”.
We need to be attending to the body most, especially with people who are carrying trauma in their systems.
Many clients find it extremely hard to speak and express their needs, and live in constant anxiety, especially those who have suffered abuse and other traumatic events. They can live in a pattern of running away, reacting in anger and feeling bad about themselves because they cannot control their nervous systems' reactions. Oftentimes for 'mental health' issues, the approach offered through the NHS is six or so sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which seeks to help the client manage their problems through changing the way they think and behave. However, this approach does not always work for high intensity and complex problems such as suicide ideation, for example.
Our wounds are stored in our physiology, and without recognising this and finding ways to integrate this into our work, we may be doing our clients a disservice, because the original wounding will surface again at some point in their lives. Unresolved trauma can destroy our lives.
So, how can we attend to the body in counselling?
There are several key indicators that we can begin to be informed by, such as breathing pattern, posture, movements, and gestures. Noticing firstly if your client is breathing in their chest is very important. Many people are breathing out of their own chests, and so this would be the first thing to do and to continue doing until such a time comes whereby their breathing is there. This might sound strange to a few people, but it is very common. So, what does this look like in terms of your work together? Every session, you will spend time just focusing on the breath, and mindfully and lovingly helping them to inhabit their chest. This could be for 20 minutes, or it could be for the whole session - whatever it takes to help them to become more present to their own experience.
By paying attention to the posture, you will be able to find a doorway into their vitality and to get some flow going, especially in those moments when you might feel that there is just no energy here. Somebody with a collapsed posture, with a tendency to be in a hypo-aroused state, could practice pressing down into the ground with their legs and lifting from their spine to sit straight each time gently and for as long as they are able to tolerate and perhaps be able to experience moments of strength and empowerment, a different sensation and holding in their bodies providing opportunities for new beliefs to be embodied and held safely over time.
Working with movements and gestures could look like asking your client to remember a time for example when they felt threatened and they shut down and froze in response to this threat. Mindfully explore the details with them and search for a memory of when they wanted to take some kind of action in order to fight back, noticing impulses and sensations in the body. As you notice the shutdown actions of the bodywork to mindfully guide the execution of a movement that wanted to happen from the physiological, physical experience.
"Our bodies tell our story without any doubts and our words can betray us. When we can integrate our life story with our words coherently we are safe to live from our hearts”.
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