Do you consider your mind and body as separate things? If you had asked me this a couple of years ago I would probably have said “yes”.
Having spent a few months doing some additional training in body psychotherapy, I came to see that we could all benefit from paying more attention to our bodies and considering it as one whole package, being wholly embodied.
In therapy, the focus is often on talking about and trying to understand our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Sometimes we just don’t have the words to explain these, especially if we are holding some deep rooted issues. Often we don’t pay enough attention to, or even hear, what our bodies may have to say. I often ask clients to notice their body sensations, both in our sessions whilst we are talking through issues, and outside of the sessions in their day to day lives.
Body sensations can tell us so much when we cannot find the words. Our bodies hold a record of our developmental history. If you think about tiny babies, their whole world is based around sight, sound, touch and sensation. They simply don’t have words to explain what they need or what is going on for them. They communicate using their bodies, for example by crying, mirroring, gurgling, smiling, waving their arms and legs around and reaching out. As we grow, we learn to replace our communication with words.
You may have noticed that in our every day language, when describing what is going on for us emotionally, we often use words which refer to the body or body sensations, such as:
“I can’t stomach it”
“I just have to swallow it”
“I was in a sweat
“”It took my breath away
“”I am heartbroken”
“It feels like I have lost a limb
“”You make me sick”
“My heart sank”
“My stomach flipped”
“It made my skin crawl”
“I was choked”
“I was scared stiff”
“I was tongue tied”
Many of us will be familiar with feeling physically sick if we are nervous or frightened, or perhaps feeling hot if we are angry. This is often accompanied by a pounding heart, tightness in our chests, clammy palms and sometimes blurred vision or noises in our ears. If something is particularly painful emotionally, we may experience pains or aches in our bodies. In times of stress we may suffer from headaches, tense muscles, tummy upsets, loss of or increase in appetite and fatigue. We can hold past traumas in our bodies which may show as pain or illness. If we start learning to listen to our bodies, noticing sensations rather than ignoring them, we can gain insight into what may be causing us emotional difficulty, anxiety or stress. Sometimes by exploring a physical sensation, we can recall early traumas which had been lost in our memory.
Whilst many of these feelings are unpleasant maybe our bodies are trying to tell us something. The body can act as a warning system (our own in-built smoke detector), warning us “Hey, pay attention, something is wrong”. This can often be a warning of something being emotionally wrong, rather than physical.
If we suffer from anxiety, the body sensations such as racing heart, palpitations, sweating, distorted vision or hearing, feeling sick and breathlessness can all be our body warning us that we are facing impending danger. This is often emotional rather than physical danger. Previous traumas or incidents of emotional pain will have left a mark on our brain which then sends a signal to our body if we are in danger of feeling that way again. It is a defence system, there to protect us but it can actually feel unpleasant and frightening. If we learn to notice early warning signs in our body, this can help to fend off or manage anxiety attacks.
If we are prone to outbursts of anger, there are often times when we can regret our words or actions. By listening to early warning signs in our bodies, such as feeling hot, pounding heart, tension in our body, clenched jaw or fist, this can give us time to take a pause to allow us to consider our response rather than lashing out verbally or physically.
Practices such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation can help us to get in touch with our bodies. It can also be helpful to spend a few minutes quietly, with eyes closed, scanning our bodies from head to toe, noticing any areas of discomfort or tension. With practice, you can begin to notice patterns and start to recognise your body’s language.
Start listening to your body, it probably has a lot to say. As a therapist, I can work with you to find words and make sense of what your body is trying to tell you. You may be surprised.