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Why Bring the Body into It? Mind-Body Approaches in Therapy

LukeNotes, Spring 2011

Clients who present for treatment at Saint Luke Institute maybe surprised by the frequency with which they hear a question like, “What are you experiencing in your body right now?”Somehow, inquiries about the body do not seem pertinent to traditional notions of “talk therapy.” Yet, as many experienced therapists will attest, an awareness of one’s sensations and physical responses is an integral part of psychological well-being and is crucial to authentically experiencing one’s feelings. Eugene Gendlin, pioneer of the focusing technique in therapy, observed that clients who possess a level of internal body awareness and can pay attention to the “felt sense” of their experiences do far better in therapy than those who do not have such access. In multiple ways our bodies reveal who we are, as they are the container of our personal history, our emotional experiences, and other types of experiences that are felt to be “beyond words.”Furthermore, a number of psychological problems include physical symptoms, pointing to the need for interventions that promote deeper awareness and appreciation of the body.

Bringing our bodies into our awareness, however, often does not come easily. Through cultural and societal influences, many of us learn to view our bodies as things to be suppressed, controlled, or objectified. The body is all too easily disregarded, mistreated, and seen as a constant source of dissatisfaction. In Western culture, many of us prize intelligence, language, and rational thought over the more intuitive and sensory aspects of our experiences. This, in combination with painful life experiences, may lead us to detach from our bodily experiences and, in turn, from our feelings. Unfortunately, moving away from our bodies and splitting ourselves off from our feelings and desires can adversely affect our physical and emotional health. Our awareness of our physical and emotional needs and our limitations is compromised. When our body awareness is limited, we are at greater risk for behaving in ways that promote physical injury or illness, using maladaptive behaviors to fulfill unmet emotional needs, working to the point of exhaustion and depletion, and living a life that is not aligned with our hearts’ desires.

In her book Centered and Connected: A Therapeutic Approach to Mind-Body Awareness, Thea Rytz explores our human tendency to limit our perceptions and disconnect from our bodily experiences. Rytz notes this tendency often surfaces in moments when we fear becoming overwhelmed by strong or distressing emotions. At the first hint of distress we may react by engaging in activities that temporarily distract us from unpleasant feelings or temporarily produce positive feelings or stronger sensations. Physically tensing our bodies, chronic busyness and overwork, and addictive behaviors are among some of our short-term solutions to avoid encounter with emotional pain. Similarly, experiences of physical or sexual trauma and physical illness or injury may further cause us to flee the body, particularly if we believe it has betrayed us. Physical tension brought on by everyday stressors can also inhibit our access to feelings and sensations. It is not uncommon, for instance, for emotions to emerge as one learns to let go of physical tension, breathe deeply, and relax. This phenomenon is illustrated in stories of yoga students who, after releasing deeply into a posture, begin to cry.

In therapy, clients are often encouraged to “sit with”unpleasant feelings, rather than rely on their habitual, maladaptive escape methods. Rytz identifies the concept of oscillating awareness in which we flexibly shift our attention between the three levels of perception: our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. With practice we can track the changing nature of our perceptions and can experience first-hand that no feeling or sensation lasts forever. What was once believed to be intolerable now becomes more bearable.

At Saint Luke Institute, the process of cultivating mind-body awareness takes many forms and is reinforced in multiple program modalities. These include psychodrama and experiential groups, exercise, biofeedback, massage, yoga, awareness exercises presented in psycho-educational groups, and the simple act of tracking sensory experiences in the presence of an interested witness, such as a therapist or other group members. For many, reconnecting with bodily sensations and feelings can be quite threatening. For people who have lived in their minds, actually perceiving physical reactions and sensations can be difficult. Still others are so conditioned to overvalue thought that they think about their body and feelings rather than experiencing them.

Rather than seeing the body as irrelevant or even as the enemy, clients are encouraged to see the body as a tremendous resource for self-understanding and emotional regulation. By engaging the body, important truths emerge and the potential for revitalizing all aspects of our lives is maximized. Metaphorically, this is the task of being at home in one’s own skin. As with most worthy causes, this process requires time and patience. We may encounter resistance to change our long-term patterns of disconnection. For many of us, there is a strong need to re-inhabit the body in order to feel alive, experience joy, and reconnect with our true self. By becoming more attuned to the body and more open to its instinctive wisdom, we move into greater authenticity in relationship to ourselves and others.

Emily Ray, Ph.D., BC-DMT, is the Clinical Director of the residential program at Saint Luke Institute.