Therapist Notes: movement as a therapy tool

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.

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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.

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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.

Embodied experience….or did I really fall off that cliff?

What’s that experience right before falling asleep? You know, the one where you are just starting to drop off and suddenly awaken with a jerk, feeling like you were falling through space? Yeah, that one.

What’s that experience right before falling asleep?  You know, the one where you are just starting to drop off and suddenly awaken with a jerk, feeling like you were falling through space?  Yeah, that one.

What do you make of that?   2014-08-13 12.23.56Being a scientific sort, I see the whole experience as some simple physiological reaction to the shift between waking and sleeping. But also being a wondering, curious sort, I can also imagine that I am falling between two worlds, really experiencing the liminal in a completely embodied way.  And that’s a much richer, more interesting, more human way to be with my own experience.

I have been thinking a lot about that word, embodied.   In a kind of cold, rational sense, everything we do and everything we are is, in fact, embodied….we ARE our bodies and that’s pretty much that.  But we live a lot in our minds, or perhaps another way to say that is we are often lost in memory or in future planning and often quite willing to experience our body sensations, feelings, and emotions in the most trivial or superficial of ways.  Sort of like when I want to scoff at my hypnagogic moment as a simple physiological phenomenon.

What makes us human beings is our capacity to make meaning out of our experiences.   And when we give that up, for example, if I don’t notice that my chest is tight and my heart beating a bit faster and my breathing becoming more shallow and my toes are curling up, then I give up seeing what meaning an event has for me.   The fact is, events HAVE meaning for us, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.   We MAKE meaning out of events and when we refused to notice the effect that meaning is having on our bodies, we miss out on a whole range of human experience.

Body psychotherapy helps us to tune in to what the body is experiencing so we can connect to the meanings we are making in our lives.   

In trauma, our bodies know the meaning that we have made of traumatic events even when our minds have shut those events out.  Our bodies re-enact the events, over and over, telling us the stories of  terror and struggle.  We ignore them, trying to overrule from the top down, telling ourselves a different story.   But the body isn’t convinced by words.  The body needs more than platitudes and positive thinking.  It needs to have us acknowledge the meaning that the original event had for us.   That original meaning could be distorted and unrealistic; it could be completely out of whack with the facts.   Particularly when the trauma comes from childhood, the story of necessity has a child’s eye perspective.   But simply switching perspective isn’t usually enough to make lasting change.  The embodied story has to be heard.  The memories have to be unearthed and opened up to fresh air and the stories heard with the compassion and kind curiosity that allows full expression.   Once those meanings are opened up, they become free to change.  The actual work of trauma therapy is allowing the body to bring the meaning of the traumatic event into the room.  Then the body and nervous system can heal themselves.

Embodied experience: tuning into the experience of being alive from the point of view of oneself as an organism….as a human being in a human body.   How do you know when you are “in your body?”   How do you know when you are no longer in touch with those moment-to-moment experiences?  Can you notice the shifts that happen?   Doing grounding exercise can make a difference.  Try this now….take a moment to notice whatever is present to you right now.  Notice the screen, any noises from electronics, any light impinging on you, your body standing or sitting or lying down.  Then stand up and bring your clear attention to the way that your feet connect to the floor.   Bend and straighten your legs a few times, each time pushing your feet deeper into the floor.   Imagine roots going deep into the earth to support you.  Then stop and re-assess….do you experience your body differently?   How much are the external stimuli impinging on you? How aware are you of thoughts and sensations?  Have you moved more “into” your body?   Have you increased your momentary awareness of your body experience?   What meanings do you ascribe to the experience you have just provided for yourself?

Certainly when I am in my bed and feel like I have fallen off a cliff, I have not actually fallen off a cliff.  In fact, I have never fallen off a cliff, so I am not even experiencing a memory.  But I have made a meaning (“falling off a cliff”) for the sensations I experience, and so to me I have fallen off cliffs many times as I drift off to sleep.   The experience is in the body;  the meaning is also in the body.

 

 

Wants, needs, desires, wishes, attachments…

Yesterday I posted about finding out what we really want.  I suggested that we don’t want objects or experiences, but we want the feelings that we think we’ll get from those objects or experiences.   I also suggested something that might be harder to swallow…that we can work our way through those wants and desires by practicing feeling a sense of enough in our bodies.

It is worth spending a little time on this whole concept and experience of “enough.”   I am a classic “never enough-er,” according to Jack Lee Rosenburg, founder of Integrative Body Psychotherapy.   I am a person who just doesn’t know how much is enough.  Correction….I WAS a person like that.   That was the way that I functioned in the world.

When I was a young adult, I attributed this characteristic to being raised in a home where alcohol was an influential factor.   Adult children of alcoholics often struggle with enough.  I found that I could not entertain without making more than twice enough food.  If I carefully planned out the food, I’d rush out at the last minute to buy more, certain that running out of food would be a disaster.   When I was a student, I could never figure out when a paper or project was finished.  I would keep working and working on it, until I had actually undermined the work I’d done.  I learned to procrastinate because then the time constraints would tell me that “this is enough…”  because I had to turn it in.

credit: http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing

In later life, I struggled with binge eating, and with binge exercising, running on an injury to the point of needing surgical repair.  I could not tell what was enough.  I never felt that I was enough in any situation, always over-preparing my classes when I was teaching at the university, always having to read more, and buy more books about any topic I need to study.  In fact, I had so many unread books at one time that I made a tidy sum selling them on Amazon.  (Not as much as I’d spent originally, of course.)

By almost any measure, it was clear that I could not tell what was enough.  I didn’t trust my own body experience to tell me what I needed, wanted, or when I was ready to stop.  I overworked, over-ate, over prepared, and over-thought just about everything in my life.

Through body-based therapy, meditation, journal work, and much attention to my own moment-by-moment experience,  I have found a better place for enough in my life.  I now make it a daily practice around eating, sitting in meditation, and in my work to ask myself if this is enough.   I have developed a couple of mantras that help, too.

Credit: http://robertballew.com/2010/11/making-peace-with-your-body/

Now that I can feel that sense of “enough” in my body, and I can trust it enough to take action around it, I don’t struggle nearly as much with the wants, desires, and wishes that used to plague me.   I know what is enough.   For most of my life, for most things in my life, I have enough.  I am enough.  There is enough.

In this moment, right here and now, the only moment that actually matters because it is the only moment that I am actually living, there is enough.

I am enough.

This is good enough.

And good enough is good enough.