It is challenging to seek therapy when you are fearful. Whether your symptoms are high levels of anxiety, panic attacks, or symptoms following traumatic events, there are effective and safe methods to decrease your discomfort and create greater calm and freedom to live more fully. I hope this blog will give you courage, hope, and a better understanding of what you can expect in a body-mind approach to therapy.
There are several body-mind therapy methods, and the one with which I am most familiar is Somatic Experiencing (SE) founded by Peter Levine, PhD. His work is known for its effectiveness in the treatment of PTSD or trauma. SE focuses on learning to recognize body sensations and separate out or ‘uncouple’ the fear that seizes us during a terrifying event from our thoughts, images, and memories. We try to run from the sensations that are within us, and the effort to run from fear leads to anxiety.
When we break a bone, the doctor resets the bone, and the body heals the bone, even strengthening the bone at the site of the break. Notice, the body does the healing. It is an innate mechanism in the body. Levine discovered that the body also has an innate mechanism to heal or reset the nervous system after intense and extreme life events.
Levine, who holds doctorates in psychology and medical biophysics, was observing herds of animals in the wild. He noticed that after being chased and losing a member to a predator, most animals did not continue to show signs of stress. They ran away from danger, shook their bodies, and within a short time appeared settled and resumed grazing. Levine assumed that these animals had innate mechanisms to regulate and deactivate high levels of arousal. He asked himself whether humans might also have this innate healing mechanism.
Levine was interested in finding a way to allow the body to do its natural ‘shaking off’. He surmised that our thinking minds may interfere with that natural healing process. His approach (SE) is through the body, asking the thinking part of the mind to step aside for a moment. By paying attention to the felt sensations of the body we can access other parts of the brain (amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and brainstem), bypassing the frontal lobes or the thinking part of the brain.
A healthy self-regulating system allows us to respond instantly to threats and once safe, return to a state of calm. We have a natural fight, flight, or freeze response. When we face extremely threatening experiences and we can’t escape or fight back, there is tremendous activation and agitation. We become overwhelmed and paralyzed by terror, loss, or rage. It is too much for our nervous system to process and integrate. The unexpressed energy we would normally use to fight or flee gets bound in the nervous system. SE works to release this bound energy and restore us back to a healthy self-regulating state. When the response is to freeze, we work to first reconnect and bring that energy back online.
We have fearful thoughts, and we experience fear in our bodies. With SE, we work to distinguish a thought, an image, or a story we tell ourselves from information from the body. A body-mind approach incorporates the body’s postures, gestures, movements, and inner sensations. We want to increase awareness of when we hold our breath, brace ourselves, shrink, or feel expansive or light, warm. We notice how our bodies tell us how far or near we want to stand from another. We become more attuned to beginning signals of discomfort.
When a body-mind approach is used in a session, the therapist’s intention is to keep you in the present and work with small pieces of activation so that you do not become overwhelmed. You are guided to move back and forth between small levels of activation and states of calm. You build trust in your own ability to return to safety and calm. In the presence of another, you learn to slow down (these nether regions of the brain are slower to come online), and notice the body’s subtle signals. We pause and wait for these body signals to appear and for the bound energy to be slowly processed.
Some body-mind therapists use touch, some don’t. It is perfectly okay for you to decide what, if any, touch you want. The amount of touch ranges from no touch, to you using self touch (i.e. putting your hand on your heart or giving yourself a specific hug which calms the nervous system), to a therapist asking permission to touch your shoulder or to put her foot next to your foot for support. Another option is to lie, fully clothed, on a bodywork table, with the practitioner using prescribed touch. This can be a powerful and effective way to reach the body’s information. All of this is your call. Remember, you and your body get to decide.
This is a brief introduction to a body-mind approach that carefully and thoughtfully addresses healing from anxiety and trauma. I hope it peaks your curiosity and instills hope. Peter Levine says, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” If you are dealing with anxiety or symptoms of PTSD or trauma, please know there is help. You deserve to feel safe and to return to a healthy, self-regulating nervous system. Don’t give up; take action. And thanks for reading this.