"Body is the outward manifestation in the physical space of the mind. It is now known that every cell has a memory. The memories of past injury are held in our bodies as warning signals of possible future dangers. In the cellular body the similarities between old injurious events and current events need only be slightly similar to trigger the whole somatic response analogous with the old injury including emotions and defensive patterns.”
(Christine Caldwell, Ph. D., Body Mind Conference Panel on The Biology of Our Psychology)
Awakening our body is a choice. In making this choice, we invite a deeper awareness of our emotions and sensations to emerge. In turn, we are able to have more authentic and fulfilling relationships with ourselves and others. Experiences like trust, truth, love, compassion, eroticism, hope, and an experience of somatic constancy and sense of self are experienced when our body is awake and engaged. Our body-voice is our inner compass, which intuitively guides our path. We must work to clear access to our somatic experiences and learn to trust them.
Although a choice, awakening our body is not easy because of life’s psychological and physical injuries. Most of us have learned to protect ourselves from future injury which causes body-mind holding patterns. These patterns inhibit the flow of energy, which impacts our body’s overall functioning. These holding patterns or ways we’ve learned to shut down can affect organ function, digestion, elimination, sexuality, and can even dull our sensory experiences. In order to release these body holding patterns we must identify and heal the psychological aspects associated with them. We also must learn to work with our own body. We can do this by partnering with our nervous system and becoming skilled at how to build up our internal energy and at comforting and soothing ourselves.
Unfortunately, we can’t think our way into somatic constancy and wellbeing. Processes such as reasoning, abstract thought, and even language use are housed in what we call the neocortex, or “rational brain.” This system is able to store memories as early as 2.5-3.5 years of age. Traditional talk therapy is therefore effective for understanding and reworking the narrative of our early experiences and how they impact adult functioning. That said, this portion of the brain is not where our deepest emotional processing occurs. The memory function of our limbic system, or “emotional brain,” most profoundly impacts our emotions and relationships. The memory function of this system develops in utero. The patterns impacting the limbic system are thus held deeply within our being. In short, our limbic memory is the root of our psychological programming– our inner blueprint for love– and can’t be altered through the linear mind. Access can be revealed through a combination of presence, breath and bodywork to help resolve and heal these body memories. Enter somatic therapy.
Often, those who seek therapeutic support have experiences of not having needs adequately met in childhood. This can lead to difficulties believing that there is an internal capacity for growth and change. Openness and attunement with both other beings and the self can feel impossible. Yet, there are ways to move out of old patterns and feelings of being unlovable and unworthy. Somatic therapy can be a vehicle towards sustainable experiences of vitality and awareness. What follows are some of the skills developed within somatic therapy. Future articles will more deeply touch on tools for supporting one’s self in moving towards these goals outside of session.
Developing an Embodied Sense of Self
Take a moment and imagine someone asks, who are you? Briefly close your eyes and allow your hand to move towards a point on your body. Once your hand has landed, take a deep breath in and say this is me. In this exercise, we are reminded that our sense of self is intimately intertwined with our physical body. Yet we spend most of the day disconnected from our somatic experience. This can manifest in simple ways, such as not using the restroom or eating for hours due to being distracted with work. It could also be more subtle. Reflect for a moment on how you might normally answer the question who are you? Chances are that stories of accomplishments or traumas arise easily. This is an example of relating to our mind, rather than our embodied sense of being.
Take a moment and reflect on where your hand landed in this exercise. Most people intuitively place their hand on their upper chest. This is where we feel our most tender feelings like our sense of wellbeing and love. It is also the place where we limit or expand our energy with breath. Without awareness, we often hold the breath and develop habitual chest tightness to try and limit feelings like hurt, fear, and stress. Somatic therapy provides tools for maintaining spaciousness within blocked parts of the self by first teaching us to recognize the unique holding patterns carried in our physical body. As these patterns are witnessed, they can gradually be transformed from places of tension to connection and wholeness. Over time, an embodied sense of self develops, often leading to greater feelings of connection and to the larger essence of life.
Movement Towards a Sustainable Sense of Wellbeing
A sense of wellbeing is not the same as a feeling of happiness. Happiness, like other emotions, are like the weather– they can change and be unpredictable. Emotions and other sensory states are not markers of wellbeing, but signals that guide us towards what needs to be tended to within the present moment. For example, feelings of rage or fear are often guiding us to intentionally work with old stories and patterns that are manifesting in the present moment. This also may require present moment action like being assertive and setting boundaries with someone you love.
Age tends to increase our sensitivity to emotions, which can be overwhelming. Without understanding how to effectively witness and relate to emotions, we tend to develop habitualized patterns and even become drawn to states of chaos or confusion. We must learn when our emotions are truly trustworthy.
This process is deeply complex for those who have experienced chronic emotional neglect and misattunement or physical/sexual trauma. Often these forms of abuse come with consistent messaging that the associated wounds are invalid or insignificant. Over time, individuals learn to shut the body-voice down and not listen to or trust feelings. For those of us with sexual trauma, there is typically a lingering feeling that the body is not a safe place. In all cases, feelings are remnants of these wounds triggered in the present, leading to cloudy judgment and poor or rigid boundaries. Resolving our trauma history is thus crucial for a life of emotional freedom and joyful embodiment.
As individuals learn to witness the emotion-body connection, they gradually discover that a sense of wellbeing is consistently available in our body. It shows up when our sense of self and wholeness is present, as though “someone is home” within us that we can count on. Somatic practices are powerful teachers in the journey towards maintaining a sense of wellbeing no matter what you feel emotionally. When we don’t take charge of our wellbeing, we are more likely to use others to fulfill our core needs which provides short term results and long term insecurity. The goal is - no matter what is going on outside of you, you learn to count on yourself to create a sense of wellbeing internally which lets you know that, despite everything, it is and will be okay.
Re-Calibrating Our “Speed Limits”
Working with emotional triggers often leads to an uncovering of the ways in which we block ourselves from feeling secure in ourselves and our relationships. Part of the somatic journey involves moving towards understanding and accepting that our comfort level with love, intimacy or any type of aliveness developed when we were young. We can think of these limitations as internal speed limits. These limits were formed by the beliefs and messages practiced by our family of origin. As an adult these processes become unconscious, but remain embodied. For example, you might find feelings of panic arising when someone expresses a big feeling. This indicates that there are some internal speed limits around emotional expression.
Take a moment and reflect. From one to ten on a minimum-maximum speed scale appraise your family’s speed limit for emotional expression, sexuality, etc. What experiences come to mind? How would you like the ratings to be different? To calibrate these levels as an adult you must first give yourself permission and know that you are going to feel uncomfortable each time you challenge or surpass your embodied limits. Discomfort is a sign of progress!
As the body is given permission to open, physical sensations and emotions may spontaneously arise. This could be a range of feelings from joy to grief. Feeling emotionally vulnerable, we may become momentarily frightened by our authenticity. If we can’t tolerate this, we may do or say something to shield us from our discovery and create a comfortable distance. Yet, this experience of truly being seen, of being unmasked, is what we crave and strive for.
Getting Started: Small Steps Towards Profound Change
The good news is we can begin to increase somatic awareness by simply noticing how the body is feeling. Each body has its own unique language and holding pattern. Here’s a journaling practice that can help you get started.
Write down where you experience anger in your body. How does it feel to be angry? What if you get really angry, what do you feel? What if you are mildly irritated? Do these feel differently? Now compare how anger feels differently from other emotions in your body. Think about what it is like to feel sad, scared, anxious, joyful, etc. Note how you feel these feelings in your body. Then compare them to what anger feels like.
Physical sensations include things like: heart rate, breathing (slow, fast, short, shallow), tension or tightness, temperature (warm or cold), tone of voice, sweating, nausea, tingling, dizziness, movements like fidgeting, and so on. Pay attention to every part of your body head to toe and look for the most subtle changes. When you are learning this language and reawakening your body the sensations may feel as small as a whisper but, they are exactly what you want to pay attention to!
When starting out, it can also be helpful to reflect on modalities that peak your own curiosity. There are an array of practices dating back centuries that seek to increase mind-body awareness. Working towards cultivating a mindset that includes the body is a journey unique to you. This is an opportunity to heal through exploration and play.
If you’d like to incorporate more somatic practices into your life or start therapy with a somatic oriented therapist here are some options:
The Alexander Technique
Structural Integration, including Rolfing
Integrative Body Psychotherapy
Somatic oriented psychotherapy is unique in that it combines techniques that increase body awareness while also working to rewrite unhelpful mental stories about trauma and its impact. A somatic therapist will assist you to develop an awareness of your body and its sensations, call upon emotional resources and expand your window of tolerance for both positive and negative emotions and body sensations. In somatic therapy you will learn to connect experiences of physical discomfort to stories of trauma and attachment healing.
In next month’s blog we will talk about self release techniques you can do at home to help work with and awaken your own body!
Author: Lindsay Rosser, LMFT #87065 - Lindsay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of WellBeings Therapy. She is a Certified EMDR and Integrative Body Psychotherapist who primarily works with adults who experienced complex trauma as child. For more on Lindsay you can read her bio.
Editor: Mckenna Coffey, Pre-Licensed Therapist - Mckenna is a pre-licensed provider who joined WellBeings during her graduate studies at the University of Southern California. She is an integrative therapist with a trauma-focused, identity affirming, and sex positive practice. For more on Mckenna you can read her bio.
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