If you want to improve your nervous system capacity for emotional self-regulation, nothing is faster than body psychotherapy.
That's because accessing body sensations, movement and imagination directly impacts the nervous system. That's the mind body connection in action!
If you know anything about the band "New Kids on the Block" you'll likely remember how they shifted the music scene to a level that had never been seen. They took elements of the music world that were vital but combined together became explosive. They shifted an entire generation. Organically, all together something brand new emerged.
That's what body psychotherapy is to the field of psychotherapy.
It's like taking pieces of what we know and pulling them together to generate a paradigm shift in thinking about therapy. If you really want to live a BIG life and you're wondering what your first step is, consider body psychotherapy.
Personally speaking, as you may have read throughout this site, I could not have achieved what I have today, without the benefits of body psychotherapy. I've gone from living in the minimus, fearful of posting live on the Net to speaking to hundreds through my writing.
It's a total body experience. Many folks enter therapy because they have problems managing intense emotions such as anger, fear, and anxiety. Others may be struggling with feeling or identifying more vulnerable feelings such as toxic shame or even love.
Most of us try to overcome these emotional states by talking them away or using distractions (i.e. busy-work, alcohol, watching TV). We can push something away, but generally, it comes back on us. In fact, we often delude ourselves into thinking that we've "worked through" an issue when it temporarily disappears.
Yet, the body is an enormous resource. Involving the body into the process of transformation creates change that's lasting and embodied.
There's no constant vigilance or effort to maintain a behaviour or thought, you feel different because you are different
Our bodies are not just for carrying our heads around.
When you're uptight, you feel tightness in your chest.
When you're happy, you feel light--in your body.
And when you're sad, you feel heavy--in your body.
Here's the thing, our body impacts our thinking and our thinking reflects our body. It's a "chicken & egg", two-way dance.
We're all familiar with telling our friends about a terrible event. Talking about it makes us agitated, it get's us upset. We feel it in our body. The story triggers the body.
And, typically, we know we're stressed, excited, or emotional because we "think" it. However, the way the brain is wired, it is usually only when body sensations alert us, that the mind gets engaged.
In other words, our emotions and sensations appear first in the body, and only then are noticed by the conscious mind.
Being conscious of emotions, however, doesn't mean that you can control them simply by changing your mind. Still less can the mind alone "re-program" long-standing, non-conscious emotional reactions.
This is where body psychotherapy shines. The approach uses the physical sensations underlying emotional processes as signals to guide therapy. It resolves emotional problems holistically by working directly and interactively with the nervous system as an equal partner. In this way, it effectively addresses problems that are not resolvable by the conscious mind (i.e. "talk therapy") alone.
Body psychotherapy exploits the transforming potential of both the left 'thinking' brain and the emotion and sensation-based right brain. I like to think that it augments and enriches the talk-therapy approach, rather than replaces it.
To illustrate, a counseling session might begin like this: you and your therapist would discuss a problem you're having. She would ask how you're feeling about it, and she would ask how those emotions show up in your body. She would invite you to pay attention to any body sensations, images or emotions that appear in that very moment. Then you would work with them under her guidance.
With practice you ultimately become aware of how you experience emotions in your body, and in turn, how they affect your thoughts. More importantly, with repeated attention your nervous system will "learn" to quiet down and regulate itself, even in the face of stress and change in your life.
In order to change habitual emotional patterns you need to listen to and respect what the body is telling you. These patterns were laid down in the nervous system to record our earliest experiences of the world, and it is only through new experiences that they can be modified or replaced.
Body psychotherapy exploits this biological fact by working interactively and directly with the nervous system. The idea is to recreate as much as possible the initial conditions in which the emotional patterns were formed so long ago. To accomplish this, the therapist and client must first establish a safe and secure relationship, as the physical and emotional sensations that arise in therapy can often feel overwhelming.
It is only after the uncomfortable or distressing sensations that arise have been experienced and digested that the verbal, analytical powers of the left brain are made effective.
Strictly speaking, body psychotherapy is not an alternative to conventional "talk therapies". But by making the physical manifestations of underlying emotional patterns the core of its approach, it amounts to a new paradigm of psychotherapy.
Traditional "talk therapies" attempt to change your emotions or behavior by changing your thoughts (i.e. through the left brain).**
Body psychotherapy works in the reverse, by using the body and your emotions to change how your nervous system responds. That is, it works through the right brain, not the left.
You see, although thoughts can marginally change our emotions, it is far more efficient - in terms of the way the brain is designed to work "from the bottom up". Body psychotherapy enables the brain to update its emotional wiring naturally (i.e. using the right brain), rather than willfully trying to impose change "from the top down" using thoughts (i.e. through the left brain).
If you think of the times you've tried to make yourself feel (or not feel) a certain way, you'll see that using a left-brain strategy to change a right-brain-based emotion is a prescription for futility.
**(Newer "emotion-based" therapies are a step in the right direction as they allow for the natural ebb and flow of the nervous system. The problem is that when applied, they are often not "contained" to match the nervous system of the client.)
Body psychotherapy is one of serveral types of mind-body psychotherapies. Mind-body psychotherapies have been around in various forms for years, but it's only since the "Decade of the Brain" that their advantages were corroborated.
Technological advances in neuroscience provide a scientific explanation for its effectiveness. Today, brain scans (e.g. PET, CAT & SPECT) and neurofeedback devices reveal the dynamic interplay between our thoughts and feelings, how feelings are "stored" in the body, and how they affect our thought processes.
Applying these discoveries in a clinical setting has been a huge step forward for psychotherapy practice.
Mind-body psychotherapy is based on the notion that the energies associated with physical and emotional stress are "stored" in various body tissues; stress is stored in the muscles, for example. Balance in the nervous system is restored only after these energies are discharged. Once this happens, the client is much more resilient in the face of life changes and emotional stress.
Mind-body psychotherapy is designed to optimize how the right brain works and that automatically translates to better emotional self-regulation. We suspect it does this by "rewiring" areas that are impervious to left-brain directed therapies.
As an example, the body-based symptoms of anxiety and depression are believed to be largely under the influence of the right-brain processes. This makes mind-body psychotherapy an effective solution for these types of conditions.
Because the right-brain works continually behind the scenes (i.e. non-consciously) to regulate our moods and behaviours, it ultimately determines the quality of life.
For the most part, traditional forms of counseling underestimate the transformative power of the right-brain. This is the reason why mind-body therapy, with its focus on right-brain processes, can offer holistic, quality of life improvements that are unattainable by traditional psychotherapy.
An added benefit of mind-body psychotherapy--if what neuroscience suggests is correct and what our clinical work is showing--is that it will reinvigorate the autoimmune system. This may provide hope to such stubborn ailments as allergies, arthritis, asthma and relatedly, conditions such as digestive disorders, insomnia, PMS and menopause symptoms, hormonal imbalances, chronic headaches, cardiovascular disorders and high or low blood pressure.
It should be no surprise, then, that yoga has become so popular. Those who do yoga regularly have discovered its secret (even if they don't know they know, if you know what I mean): as you calm the body you automatically and naturally calm your mind. This effect illustrates the holistic nature of mind-body therapy, where the body itself serves as the basis for healing both mind and soul.
You'll be hearing a lot more from myShrink on the benefits of mind-body psychotherapy. I look forward to sharing this information with you!
Levine, Peter, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Check out Dr. Levine's site where you can find a body-based therapist: TraumaHealing.org
Scaer, Robert C.,, "Precarious Present" in Psychotherapy Networker, Nov/Dec 2006.
Scaer, Robert, C., (2005). The Trauma Spectrum, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.