I use a body-oriented approach to guide you in your process of making changes in your life. Whether you’re bothered by something physical, or by something that is psychological or emotional, I include the somatic level in the way that we address what you are trying to move towards or away from.
Bodies and Psychology
What does the body have to do with psychology? And why would a broader approach be helpful in working with physical symptoms? You might notice how tense you are when you’re stressed and anxious, or what happens to your eating and sleep. Or you might have notice how you stiffen up against that pain. Or how, even though you thought you’d worked out your psychological patterns, there seems to be something deeply wired in your body that keeps you hooked into them.
What is your body anyway? The last few centuries built up a strong idea of a division between minds and bodies, but the past decades of research in various fields of science and social studies have shown that this division is pretty much nonsense. There is so much complex interaction between our brains and the rest of us, that it is difficult to even draw the line between the two.
There is a huge amount of feedback from the body level to the brain informing how we feel. In this “bottom-up processing”, unconscious parts of the brain monitor sensory factors such as blood vessel constriction, muscle tension, and joint position, and that information is a large part of what creates our sense of well-being: the feeling that things are okay. That means that when the body is in alarm-mode, for whatever reason, you will feel uneasy – even if you can’t explain why. What’s more, if those brain areas register things like braced shoulders and shallow, rapid breathing, then they trigger the body’s fear response, thus maintaining the physical state of alarm.
A key part of our emotional processing also happens in the unconscious area of the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, and the areas it is in close and complex connection to: the hypothalamus, the cingulate gyrus (emotion processing and communication), and the insula (connected to feeling internal sensations or “gut” feelings). The limbic system also drives and regulates our fear and stress responses (via the hypothalamus) by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which kick us into active mode and power the fight-or-flight response.
Many of our emotional response patterns become established in those brain areas in our very early years, including our reactions to conflict and emotional and physical pain. They determine whether we calmly and resiliently experience various emotions, or whether emotions like anger, sadness, or shame push us into a frightened state of alarm, anxiety, and panic: over-activation of the SNS.
Conversely, if we have established passive emotional patterns when we are afraid, then experiencing those emotions might cause us to shut down and withdraw, going into a collapsed state of lethargy, numbness, and depression. Usually, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) should come into play when we are in safety, allowing us to calm down again. But there is also an aspect of our fear systems that switches us into a freeze or flop mode, particularly when we perceive we are helpless. This system is designed to protect us, but being stuck in it for a prolonged period can be considered an over-activation of the PNS.
These kind of dysregulated patterns could have been set through deficits of attachment and bonding, or traumatic experiences. If we conceptualize trauma in terms of a break in the regulation of the nervous system’s response to threat, then we could talk of it becoming effectively stuck “on” or “off”. Our bodies are built to be continually shifting between the SNS and PNS systems, which don’t only regulate the fear response, but also all of our basic organ functions: the activity levels of the digestive and immune systems, heart and breathing rate, blood vessel constriction and muscle tension. This is why psychological imbalances are so often connected with physical symptoms.
Crucially, the patterns in those unconscious areas feed into our conscious, thinking brain, and inform our rational thought. Although there are excellent strategies for “top-down” regulation of emotion, sometimes we can’t shift those body-mind states. If our body-systems are effectively programmed to slip quickly into a fear response, then we will keep coming back to anxious or shut-down feelings, and think in ways that are colored by those feelings.
Body-psych coaching sessions
My approach is based on recognising this intermixing of different factors. So, what does that look like? From my side, it means working with a combination of observation, talk and touch. I don’t use these things to fix you and get you into some ideal state. I use them to draw your attention to patterns that have been happen unconsciously up until now. And how does that work?
One aspect is to develop more body attention. Our world is dominated by images and words. We present ourselves, we perform, we talk. Many people’s connection to their bodies is also very visual or cognitive. We tend to have quite a limited connection to body sensations, often dominated by negative experiences. Through paying attention to your body, guided by my instructions and touch, we work on building up your level of body awareness – your perception and experience of your body. It’s a bit like getting more of a connection to yourself, and in a way, it’s like learning to sense your own nervous system.
When your body’s voices are louder, you can notice more clearly what it’s saying. Often, we are overly dominated by particular sensations – a chronic pain, the empty, disconnected or weak feeling of being depressed, the tense shoulders and neck of feeling stressed, the tight fist in the belly and restless feeling of being anxious. During the sessions, we use various strategies to learn to shift out of those body-states, and into others. We notice how those body-states are connected to particular situations in your life, and to particular feelings and thoughts that you have about yourself and others. We are learning to reprogram your nervous system, so that particular situations don’t slip you so easily into an overactivated (anxious) or underactivated (depressive) response, exploring what else is there instead.