A professional colleague just sent me a link to a very nice, simple but not simplistic explanation of how our nervous systems are affected by everyday life and by trauma. Let me know what you think.
Why and how to use movement in a therapy session
There are jokes about the therapy couch, but people expect to sit and talk during therapy. As I’ve said before, talking as the only healing path is limiting. Somatic therapists have other tools. Movement is an important one.
Movement facilitates the process of therapy. Muscular and joint activation increase access to memories and feelings through a process we call embodiment. Rather than intellectualizing experiences, we (somatic therapists) seek to embody them. Body psychotherapists use movement intentionally.
We support people to be present in their real life, not just a cognitive stew of memories or future fantasies. Remembering and imagining are important but they can be escapes from real life. Some people are so caught up in memories and what “should” have happened they miss what is happening now. Others are frantically trying to manage and control a future that hasn’t even happened yet, or are daydreaming possibilities that require groundwork in the present. Getting people present is a good start to a therapeutic session. Being present in your body is being embodied.
Embodiment is experiencing your body as it is right now, full of sensations, feelings, thoughts. Embodying your feelings means to feel them (not just think about them). Movement supports the process of embodiment, particularly for people who spend a lot of time in thinking, worrying, imagining or fantasizing.
Movement includes any motility of the body, including the flow of energy. Volitional movements help us in therapy. These include finger clenching, blinking, head shaking, jumping up and down, kicking, and punching a pillow. Different movement serve different functions. Below are some ways that movement helps us land in the here-and-now physical self.
Five functions that support becoming “embodied.”
Mobilizing or increasing energy in the body. Low-energy clients, whether due to fatigue, depression, or character, benefit from energizing the body. Movement literally requires energy, and it also creates the experience of energy moving through the body.
Increasing body awareness. In bioenergetic therapy, asking people to move spontaneously increases their awareness of the somatic experience. In part, this is because the movement of energy in the body generates sensations.
Reducing chronic muscular tensions and connective tissue contractions. Movement softens tight muscles in the upper back and neck, as well as the rigidly held shoulders. Softening allows energy — and therefore, feeling — to flow through those parts. Bioenergetic therapist and massage therapist Lucy Belter reminds me regularly, “Motion is lotion.” Loosening chronic constriction requires movement. Helping people to move their constricted parts also helps restore sensation and feeling in those areas.
Embodiment of emotional experience. Movement mobilizes energy, which creates sensations. Sensations are the building blocks of feeling. Movement can generate the flow of emotion very quickly. At other times, it can be a gradual building of somatic experience.
Healing and expanding relational capacities. Expressive movement with another person can be reparative. It offers a different way of being with one’s feelings, while relating to another person who is connected and present. We can translate this experience into opportunities for changing
relationships in the larger world. It helps an individual explore and develop new ways of relating to other people.
Movement expands the ability to feel and express feelings. It also provides a route for expression that people might not choose on their own. In therapy, we can invite people to use movement to process and express what they are feeling, and doing so makes it more likely that movement will become part of the person’s home toolkit.
Embodying feelings allows the person to experience and express their emotions to process and integrate them. The goal is for the person to experience their feelings, contain them without constricting or shutting down, express them appropriately, and have access to increased vitality, spontaneity, and clarity.
How do we do movement with clients?
First, we notice the client’s spontaneous movements. We can mirror them, invite the client to pay attention to them, ask them to exaggerate them, and check in on what that is like for the person.
You can ask a person to imagine what it would be like to move in a particular way. “How would it be right now to give that pillow a shake?”
If they find that interesting, invite the action. “Why not give it a try? See how it feels.”
Use your voice, eyes, and words to encourage. “Yeah! Shake that pillow.” Model narrowing your eyes and sticking out your jaw. “Give it to ‘em.”
When the client has moved, take a moment together to breathe and see what they experienced. “What was that like for you?”
Perhaps that will be enough, or maybe the person will do a little more. In any case, try out a little movement, especially if it is expressive movement like shaking a pillow, and then check in. Help the person find their inner safety. Notice breathing, grounding and connection to you. Allow for plenty of time to let feelings emerge and surface. Try not to rush to the next thing.
When we work with movement in session, we integrate it into the rest of the material. Usually, the movement will bring thoughts and feelings to the surface. These can be explored with more movement or with talking. Mostly we’re helping the client to be safe while becoming more aware of her own body experiences, so that she’ll be more free to feel when she’s not in therapy.
WORKSHOP for you. Saturday September 18th.
ONLINE. Join me and my colleagues.
It’s not about a pedicure. It is about taking note of how you are feeling. Take note.
The term “self-care” is all over the internet, aimed at first (I think) at women who probably don’t take care of themselves particularly well, but more recently becoming a buzzword designed to sell products and services.
Radical care of the self isn’t about buying things or even about buying a service, such as massage or even psychotherapy. Radical self-care is about taking care of yourself as if you counted, as if you are as important as the other most important people in your life.
So let’s deconstruct this. What do you do to take care of other people’s selves?
I am guessing that you may be involved in material care of other people. If you have children or a spouse, certainly you are involved in making a safe and secure home, procuring food, clothing and other things that are needed, and doing daily tasks that are required to maintain lives. You are probably also engaged in helping those people with their emotional work. That is, you may keep a weather eye out to see if your child is looking tired, or if your spouse is stressed or feeling harassed, or if there is something to celebrate from the events of the day. You are the one who notices these things, who expands on them as appropriate (“Let’s tell Auntie June hooray for her promotion at work!”) and helps process them as needed (“Let’s talk about what happened at school today.”) You are the one who is attentive to all of the nuances in the family system, keeping a light finger on the pulsing dynamics, noticing when the toilet paper is low and when spirits are low. These are important facets of being a family member, and particularly with children, this work is essential to helping to grow up adults who can function emotionally.
The challenge of self-care, though, is to provide yourself the same level of concern and attention. We generally know when things are very bad with us or when things are very good. Those extremes are often easy to label because they are extremes. But it is important to check in with ourselves regularly, not only when an extreme of feeling makes us pay attention.
What’s the purpose of this? We are designed with early warning systems, actually, that can help us to know in advance when we are on the pathway to becoming overwhelmed. We can’t tell that we’re on that path, though, unless we take a moment or two to check in and see how the current situation is sitting with us. How often have you suddenly felt like you couldn’t take one more baby crying, one more request for something, one more kid arguing? Sometimes we experience this as if we are going from zero to sixty in an instant but generally we didn’t start at zero. We started at about forty-five because we were so busy “holding on” or “holding in” whatever reaction the stressor was creating. So then we get explosive, the kids get scared, the spouse gets defensive and angry and another lovely evening begins.
This is not the failure that you think it is. You haven’t failed to be a perfect mother. You have failed to pay enough attention to yourself to realize that something has to shift in order to avoid a blowout.
So what has to shift? Okay, the handsome prince comes in on the white horse, gathers up the crying children, leaves a gourmet meal on the table along with a large glass of wine, and rides off into the sunset with the kids, the dirty laundry and the dishes. Don’t worry, he’ll return in the morning with everything clean, happy and well-cared for. This is my fantasy, right?
But what if my fantasy can’t be realized right this minute? You need some self-care and that’s not about getting a pedicure when the baby is crying, dinner is burning on the stove and your spouse reminds you that some mission-critical tasks is yet incomplete.
It is about taking note of how you are feeling. Take note. Notice what your body is telling you and then notice what your mind is saying to you. Decide where you will shift gears. Will you change your location, your thoughts, or your body response? You have control over all of these.
Notice your body. Are you tense in your shoulders, jaw, and hands? Can you feel energy rising up your back and pressure building that feels like you have to scream? Can you try jumping up and down, shaking your head and your hands like a wild person, discharging energy in a way that isn’t hurtful? Can you try that shift?
Notice your thinking. Are you having thoughts that tell you that you can’t do this, or that they shouldn’t be the way that they are, or that there is something wrong with you? Can you try just looking at those thoughts as if they are not yours? Can you shift gears and remind yourself that this is a moment, just a moment in time, and soon there will be a different moment?
Notice your location. Notice how your body and mind respond to the immediate stimulation. Is it possible to change your location for a moment or two? Can you step outside into winter’s cold, or put a door between you and the stressor, long enough for something to shift inside of you?
These are the baby steps of self-care in emergency situations.
From here, you have choices. When you are able to check in and see how you are feeling, rather than being rushed away with the stress of the situation, you are able to make decisions about your next step. What can you choose to do next that will support you? Can you decide to take a moment to turn off the stove, sit and take a breath? That is the beginning of self care.
You can make your self-soothing activities a lot more effective by doing one simple thing first.
Most people are a little more stressed and tense now, during the COVID crisis, than usual. Some people are a lot more distressed. Everywhere you look there are articles about how to calm yourself, how to soothe yourself and your children, and how to cope and take good care of yourself.
It is a good idea to manage our stress. When we are stressed, we are not our best selves. We are less able to make good decisions. We are less flexible in our thinking. We may be short of temper or spacey and dissociated. None of these will make self-isolating, physical distancing, or working from home any better.
We can do a lot to help calm ourselves. We can breathe more deeply, do relaxation or meditation, take a warm bath, read or do crafts. All of these can be soothing to the over-stressed nervous system.
However, you can make your self-soothing activities a lot more effective by doing one simple thing first.
Think about your body’s energy system. I’m not talking about some esoteric or cosmic energy. I am talking about that energy that you use to live. You take in food and turn it into energy that keeps your tissues healthy and growing, allows you to move and think and dance and run, even to sleep and regenerate. When you are stressed your body is recruiting your energy to be prepared for the emergency. Energy is tied up in keeping your muscles tense, your gut disrupted, your thoughts racing. Your energy is being used to be prepared.
In this case, you are prepared to fight or run away from a virus.
However, that is pretty useless. No amount of fighting is going to vanquish this foe. Running away isn’t possible either. The energy of preparation is caught up in your system keeping you stressed and distressed. This is a very real manifestation of energy being blocked from moving through your body. You can turn it into obsessive thinking, excessive news consumption, overeating, body tensions and rigidity, and irritability. It can erupt in bouts of rage or crying or excessive cleaning.
Calming that distress is needed. However, you need to free up some of this energy for your self-soothing, calming activities to work effectively. You need to create an opportunity for discharge.
Please note! I am offering these simple ways to discharge energy for you to use at your discretion. Please remember that everything isn’t useful or recommended for everyone. Be self-aware and monitor yourself as you practice. You can use these with kids, too, but remember that you’ll be monitoring yourself AND them.
Effective and easy ways to discharge
Shake Your Body
Shaking your body all over is a way to discharge energy that is simple, effective, and feels good.
Start from a grounded standing position. Stand up with both feet solidly on the ground. Feel your feet on the ground, and make sure you are standing solidly on both feet. Soften your knees, so that you can feel your whole leg from the sole of your foot up to your torso. You might need to bend and straighten your knees a few times before this is clear in your mind.
Think about your feet being deeply rooted in the earth. Just for a moment, imagine that your feet have grown a long, strong taproot connecting them way into the earth like an oak tree. Imagine that you are rooted so deeply that you may bend and sway in the wind, but you will never fall over.
From this deeply grounded place, start to shake your body. You can shake starting from your arms and shoulders, shaking your head, bouncing a little in your knees. Monitor yourself; you can do a little or a lot, and what works best for you will depend on you. Shake, shake, shake, and then shake some more. Notice any parts of you that want to shake and then shake them. Shake like you are in a big wind and then let the wind settle down into a small breeze, and finally, let your shaking come to stillness.
Check in with your body and mind. What did this discharge exercise do for you? Go to How the End Any Discharge Exercise, below. After this, move into your self-soothing and comforting activities.
Twist and Growl
Start from a grounded standing position. Stand up with both feet solidly on the ground. Feel your feet on the ground, and make sure you are standing solidly on both feet. Soften your knees, so that you can feel your whole leg from the sole of your foot up to your torso. You might need to bend and straighten your knees a few times before this is clear in your mind. (You might notice repetition here…that’s for a good reason. Being grounded helps us to discharge. Every discharge activity begins from being grounded.)
Holding a hand towel or dishtowel out in front of you, begin to twist it. Let your hands really work that towel. Hold it up at eye height, look right at it (or beyond it), and twist. Narrow your gaze and stick out your jaw. Maybe make a growling noise. Grrrr! Damn towel! Damn coronavirus! Damn working from home! Allow yourself to think and say whatever angry thoughts might come to mind. Damn stress!
What else could you do with that hand towel? Shift your feet so that one is ahead of the other, shift your grip on the towel so you are holding one end, and use the towel to hit a bed or couch. Really get into the swing of it, using your whole arm, and keeping your eyes and jaw focused outward. Try it with the other arm. What is that like for you?
Then drop the towel and shake out your arms, your jaw, your neck. Let everything shake.
See if your body wants to do another round. If you are finished, head to How to End Any Discharge Exercise.
Stompa Your Feet
Start from a grounded standing position. Feel your feet on the ground, and make sure you are standing solidly on both feet. Soften your knees, so that you can feel your whole leg from the sole of your foot up to your torso. You might need to bend and straighten your knees a few times before this is clear in your mind.
Now stamp one foot. Just smack it into the ground. Notice what that feels like.
Stamp the other foot and take a moment to notice what THAT feels like. Similar? Different?
Now try stamping your feet one after the other. Really PUSH those feet into the ground, feeling your legs all the way up.
Check in and see what your hands want to do. They might want to form into fists, or even if they don’t, you can try that. Stamp your feet and shake your fists.
Now take a moment to rest, breathe in and out, and notice what you are noticing in your body and in your mind.
This might be enough discharge for you. You can check in on yourself and notice. Does my body want a little more of this? If so, continue. You can always stop whenever you want to.
To continue with discharge, re-engage the stamping and fists. This time stick out your jaw and narrow your eyes. You can say or think something like, “I don’t like this!” *
Depending on your level of privacy and how this exercise is sitting in you, you can go to town. You can stamp and shake and shout as much as you like. You can also do it just a little to try it out. Either way is effective and you are in charge.
How To End Any Discharge Exercise; forward bend
This exercise allows your body to integrate and assimilate what has been happening, and gives your mind a chance to catch up. See if you are able to stay attuned to body sensations before letting thinking overwhelm your body experience.
You will stop, rest, breathe and take in your experience by doing the forward bend. Keeping your feet planted, allow your body to hang over, letting your head hang loose, arms not quite touching the ground, and breathe into your belly there. Stay in this position as long as it feels right. When you decide it is time to come up, push your feet into the floor and allow your spine to straighten very slowly with your head coming up last. This way you minimize the likelihood of getting dizzy.
Once you come back up to a standing position, take a few moments to notice how your body and mind are doing. You may be more agitated, or angry, or you may have uncovered some sadness, or you might notice a different lightness in your shoulders and arms. Whatever you notice is your body’s response to the exercise.
Now is a good time to engage your self-soothing activities. Try lying down on the floor and letting your body rest deeply. You can use your hands to gently stroke your face, shoulders and arms, saying soothing things, or you can just let yourself be. Notice how your body naturally lets down after discharge. You may feel the impulse to turn on your side and curl up; follow that impulse, watching your body’s response. This time is about settling in and settling down.
* An important postscript about vocalizing and verbalizing while doing discharge work
It is okay to make sounds or shout out words: this is a way of discharging energy. Stomp your feet, shake your fists, stick out your jaw and narrow your eyes and say the words you want to say about this situation.
People often struggle to say out loud some of the things that they are saying in their minds. They judge themselves for the words that they say. Vocalizing is a helpful way to discharge. Use your discretion if there are other people in your house.
What should you say? Well, only you know what is in your mind, but if you want to discharge, here are some tips.
Short, declarative statements work better than long explanations. (“Stop it!”) (“Get out!”)
Stretching out the sound helps you to breathe more deeply. (“Stooooooop!”)
A long, drawn-out, loud “Nooooooooo!” will make you breathe more deeply.
It is romance season, time to get your songs fired up, mark out your territory, make note of food sources, shift from seeds to insects for some.
This morning I stepped out on the front porch to breathe in the cold air, see the sunshine, and wonder about my day. The street is very quiet. The school across the street lies empty, of course, for the last ten days. The snow from yesterday was still quiet and solid; it was pretty cold.
Then I heard it: the insistent rapping, rapping, rapping of a woodpecker across the neighbourhood. It was probably a block or more away, but it was clear and persistent.
Spring is here. This is early spring here in our part of the Maritimes, whether there is a pandemic or not. There is strong, penetrating sunshine, crisp and still shocking cold, icy pavements, and birds eking out a meal from the insects that are embedded in trees whose sap is starting to run.
A little later, I took my coffee out to the back deck where the sun was strongest. Not clever enough to wear my jacket, I knew I’d only be out a few minutes, but it was enough. When I was able to still my mind, I could hear a mourning dove, probably two streets away. Then a gull, closer. Then I could tune in to some twittering in bushes near me. There was a veritable spring symphony going on out there.
Birds are back in business. It is romance season, time to get your songs fired up, mark out your territory, make note of food sources, shift from seeds to insects for some. They don’t know or care about what agitates me. They are intent, as always, on their own journeys, their own lives. The intensity of their biological drives to survive and to help their species survive, one mating season at a time.
I know that spring isn’t an inevitable thing. I know that our songbird stock is vastly small than a century ago. I know that climate change or a volcanic eruption or an asteroid hit could make all of this go away.
But I am also warmed and comforted and encouraged by the continuity of the birds, and the procession of the seasons, and the feeling that life itself is our best resource in hard times. Life has a way of asserting itself under all sorts of conditions. When I tune into the assertive voices of Life Going On, I can remember that I am part of that, too, and so are you.
EDITED to add: here is a lovely bit of Mozart with birdsong …and video
Here is a radical suggestion. Instead of DOING more, try doing less.
But not just any resting; try constructive rest.
If you are a high achiever, or someone who likes to Get Things Done, constructive rest might be just the ticket. You get to rest and allow your body and nervous system to downshift, and you are doing something constructive!
Do you do too much? Most of us do a lot; we care for family members, work at a job, do mundane chores like laundry, shopping, yard work. We may also take courses, do workouts, volunteer, have social relationships that require tending. We take online courses for self-improvement. We belong to clubs; we go to parent-teacher meetings. We are busy, all the time.
Our society values doing. Doing is highly regarded: people cannot imagine “doing nothing” and letting that be okay. Even vacations are highly organized events. If they are focused on relaxation, we say things like “I needed a vacation. I work really hard all year and this is when I take time off.” It is almost like we need to have an excuse to rest or relax or enjoy. Almost – dare I say it? – as if there is something wrong with wanting to have some free time. There is more social value in being tired from work than in being tired from playing.
We generally are pretty good at working too much, and pretty bad at taking time off.
Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, some of us are now required to take time off. We are being forced to do less because our activities have been curtailed, we are socially distancing or self-isolating and many people are not permitted to go to work. This can be a shock to our functioning if we are used to overworking, and we may find ourselves struggling to let go.
Beyond this enormous change in everyday life, there are many unknowns in our future. Even some of the things that we do know are pretty scary, like the nature of the illness caused by the virus. With all of this going on, it is likely that your body and mind might be overcharged or over-activated.
How can you tell?
Here are some ways to check in with yourself.
Notice if you are able to pay attention as you usually can. Distraction sometimes occurs as our nervous systems ramp up. Does it take you three tries to do something simple?
Notice your thoughts. Are you thinking more than usual? Are your thoughts louder than usual? Are they oriented to fearful topics, or stress-inducing ones? Do your thoughts feel like a rushing river, and you are rushing right along with it?
Check out your body tensions. Are you feeling tightness in your chest, your throat, your jaw? Is your lower back aching?
Any or all of these can be due to excess stress or to anxiety. Sometimes we don’t feel anxious, but our bodies are charged up in an unusual way. We may have trouble settling down, easing into relaxation or sleep, allowing our minds to quiet. Those things can tell us that our nervous systems are on alert, even if we don’t actively feel dread or fear.
Here is a radical suggestion. Instead of DOING more, try doing less.
But not just any resting; try constructive rest.
If you are a high achiever, or someone who likes to Get Things Done, constructive rest might be just the ticket. You get to rest and allow your body and nervous system to downshift, and you are doing something constructive! This practice has a lot of forbears, but I first learned of it in a wonderful book called BodyStories, by Andrea Olsen (https://www.amazon.ca/Bodystories-Experiential-Anatomy-Andrea-Olsen/dp/158465354X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=bodystories&qid=1584984957&sr=8-1).
How to practice constructive rest?
Find a quiet space (I know, that might be the hardest part of this exercise). You’ll want to be able to lie down on the floor, so find a carpeted space, or use a yoga or exercise mat or towel to soften a hard floor.
Lie down on your back. You can let your legs stretch out long, perhaps with a rolled-up towel under your knees to help them relax. Or you can rest the soles of your feet on the floor, allowing your knees to rock gently to the center and support each other. Turn the palms of your hands up and allow your body to just lie on this firm surface.
(Don’t rest like this lion; lie on your back. I put him in here because he looked pretty relaxed. And cute, if a large carnivore can be cute.)
Take this moment to notice where your body contacts the floor. Where do you notice the contact? It is likely at your hips, the back of your head, the soles of your feet, and parts of your back and arms. What do you notice, as you wait here for a moment?
Now bring your awareness to the very fact of the floor beneath you. Feel the support and firmness. The floor is connected to the ground, and the ground is the earth. The whole earth is there to support your body whenever you want it to. Is there any part of your body you could let down a little more? Let that happen.
Now notice your breath. You don’t have to change anything, or breathe more deeply. Just allow yourself to notice your breathing as you lie on the floor. Feel the breath enter your body. Feel the breath leave your body. Keep watching and noticing. What is happening in your breath as your body lets down?
Keep resting and watching your experience. If you can stay in constructive rest for five minutes, you’ll notice changes. If you can stay longer, you’ll notice more change.
Notice what you can allow to let go. Notice what parts want to keep holding on, even with your awareness and desire to let go. Consider all of your parts kindly; giving kind attention and curiosity to yourself. What will it be like if I can stay here a little longer? How do I feel about making a move to get up?
When you are finished resting, notice your awareness that you are finished. What is it like to feel ready to move on? Can you find the place or places in your body that are giving you that message? Before you move on, take a moment to assess what you got from this exercise.
There can be something profoundly satisfying in doing nothing and calling it constructive. Try it and let me know what you find out about yourself in the process.
Oh, and helping humanity? Whenever you can exhale and relax, the people around you can also exhale and relax. Keeping a centered, peaceful self helps everyone.
I know that it is very hard to be living in this world right now. It is hard to live with such uncertainty and such rapid change. It is stressful to think about the future and to think about the past. It can be difficult to live with other people who are feeling stressed and anxious.
While I am so grateful that we have tele-health options available for our sessions, I am also disappointed and a little angry that the choice whether to use tele-health was not mine to make. I can hold those two feelings, gratitude and disappointment, and notice that it is really possible to feel both.
When I think about what you may be experiencing in this turbulent time, I want to be able to help. The very real desire I have been feeling is about taking care. In my mind, I wanted to bake you some cookies….bring you a pot of soup…..offer connection and caring and a moment of peace.
However, I can’t do everything that I would wish I could do. I cannot see you in person, and I cannot bake cookies for you. However, what I can do is offer the telehealth visits, and I can also offer a message a couple of times each week. If you are interested in seeing those messages, you can head to my resurrected blog and sign up to get a notice by email when I have posted something new. This is a small gift to you, something else to help you get through these potentially difficult days while we adjust.
It isn’t cookies but it is something.
This is the Poetry of Therapy
I don’t know what force moves me to put these words on paper,
to choose words carefully in the sacred space
to check inside myself for the resonance I want to feel
before releasing them into the room (or onto the page).
And then – that most exquisite moment
When they land precisely as intended and the ripples and prickles on my skin confirm it,
Along with the expression on your face, the light in your eyes, and the resonance between us.
Sometimes a word, a phrase, or a moment of music is just right. You cannot predict it, you cannot engineer it, but you can feel into the experience and the great vault of language to locate a match.
When it floats to the surface, I check it. Really? Is this it?
I feel around in my chest or belly or throat
Is this the word? Let me see….I send it, gently, tentatively, into the air of the room
Where it drifts across on feelings
And lands with you. I watch with my eyes and my heart.
I see you change; your colour, your eyes, how you hold yourself, the very meaning you make of your place in the room.
When it works
the word expands the experience
When it works, it connects us.
When it works, it changes the world.