Why body-awareness is integral to the psychotherapeutic process

Psychotherapy is healing through the psyche. What is the psyche really? Does it reside in the brain? Not only. However, if it were so, then what is the brain? The brain is an inseparable part of the body. The body is the brain and everything material about a living person. The psyche is affected by the environment in which the individual is exposed to. The body responds and reacts to the environment throughout the life of the person. The environment is the external part of the body. The environment includes the physical as well as the social aspects of the person’s life. Psychotherapeutic practice that integrates work with the body is holistic. Not all psychotherapists work with the body. Those who do, work on the premise that the route to emotional and mental well-being is body-awareness and care.

What are emotions for?

Emotions are actual physiological reactions that tell us how to behave and react to the environment presented to us. Emotions are triggered by our body’s interaction to the present in the environment. Emotions can also be triggered from our imagination, dreams and fantasies. Emotions are necessary for us to live and thrive in our social and physical environment.

Emotions are felt in the body.

When we get anxious, we feel our heart racing and our skin sweating. When angry, we feel heat. When ashamed, we get red in the face. Whether or not we acknowledge these emotions in our minds, the body feels these emotions. People who are not in touch with their emotions often actually do have feelings. They simply “think” that these feelings are not present. Not feeling emotions is a way of protecting oneself from being emotionally hurt and weakened. Just because the mind is not able to acknowledge the emotions, it does not mean that the emotions are not felt. People stop themselves from feeling emotions through actions like tensing muscles, shallow breathing, numbing the sensory organs or storing/losing fat.

A study by Nummenmaa et.al (2014), provides us with interesting graphics of body maps related to different human emotions. About 700 participants were asked to color outlines of bodies in such a way as to describe how their bodies feel in response to stimuli that evoke particular emotions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus. The results are represented in this the graphic below. Bright yellow shows high activation, while blue to green shows deactivation of the part of the body when the emotion is perceived.

Bodily topography of basic (Upper) and nonbasic (Lower) emotions associated with words. The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colors) or decreased (cool colors) when feeling each emotion.

In psychotherapy, emotions are not only acknowledged as mental states, but also as physical states. The work oscillate between talking and listening to the narratives, feeling the sensations in the body, and identifying the emotions underlying. We work to integrate these different aspects of emotional perception. I sometime describe this as defragmentation; to bring disconnected parts back into an understandable whole. This works for all symptoms presented and especially well for clients who are surviving trauma.

Integrating the feelings in the body with the emotions and then the thoughts that accompany these sensations are integral to the psychotherapeutic work. In my practice, the emotion-body awareness link is worked on at the beginning of the client’s therapeutic journey. New clients, especially, need assurance that this process is effective.

Bibliography

Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J. K. (2014). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(2), 646-651. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646

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