Your Body is the Best Therapeutic Tool

Next up in our Psychoeducation Series (I just decided that’s what I’m calling the last two posts + this post + any other posts that share straight up clinical information), I’m here to help you see your body as your biggest asset when it comes to mental health.

But first let’s remind ourselves of a few things:

  • Guided Visualizations are one form of Experiential Interventions and are based in the creative, imaginative mind.
  • Mental health refers to the well-being of the abstract mind as influenced by individual experiences, specific environments, and the chemical makeup of the physical brain.
  • The brain is an organ in the human body. (Duh, but important.)

Your body, which is literally connected to your brain, which in turn houses your mind, is, in my experience-based opinion, the most underutilized therapeutic asset. Your body is the window into your mental health. Your body – every single part of it – is inextricably linked to your mental health.

How are you feeling as you read this? Is this a new idea to you? Maybe you’re familiar with the concept and it still feels uncomfortable to think of your body as an asset. It might be uncomfortable to frame your body as an asset because you’re a) used to thinking of it as an enemy or b) bracing for a weight loss/fitness pitch. I promise I know what the former feels like, and I DOUBLE promise I am not prepping you for the latter.

There are loads of reasons why it could be uncomfortable for you to hear that your body is an asset, a tool for good, a gift to you and the world. It’s okay if it’s uncomfortable. Again, I get it.

Let’s zoom in a bit and focus on this one specific idea: Your body is the best therapeutic tool. No matter how your body looks, it is the best therapeutic tool. No matter how it functions, your body is the best therapeutic tool. No matter how you feel about your body, it is the best therapeutic tool. No matter how I feel about your body, it is the best therapeutic tool. Here’s why.

Emotions form physically before they form cognitively. Our bodies know something emotional is happening before our brains create thoughts to describe the experience. Emotions are energy in motion (e-motion), after all. Energy is a physical phenomenon, one that can be measured and tracked, and, most importantly, one that can be felt, you guessed it, in your body.

Emotions show up energetically in our bodies, and yet so many of us try to think our way through emotions. We try to think the “right” thoughts or “make sense of” how we feel. We apply cognitive skills to a physical experience. Don’t get me wrong, cognitive and verbal processing can be very powerful. But that focus keep us in our heads and out of our bodies. And we need our bodies, we need to be present in our bodies, to experience the fullness of our emotional processing.

Using your body in therapy is hopefully starting to make some theoretical sense; let’s make some applicable sense of it, too. Our bodies are so precious, and our relationship with our bodies can often feel so tender and vulnerable, that it can be helpful to have a clear picture of what physical processing actually looks like in session. Read on for some examples.

Body Scan: This is a mindfulness meditation technique that centers the physical experience. Eyes closed and body still, scanning from one end of the body to the other from the inside out, noticing, without judgment or agenda, how each body part feels. Pausing gently on each joint, each organ, each fold, each crevice, to simply check-in and notice. This builds body intelligence and helps create the habit of checking in with the physical self.

Mindful Movement: Another mindfulness technique, mindful movement ranges from yoga to dancing to running to swaying. It doesn’t matter what the movement is (though in a therapy office, it’s usually chair yoga or light limb-shaking); what matters is the mindfulness part. Awareness of the body from the inside out, an internally-grounded perspective on how it feels to move and stretch and shake and sweat.

Grounding Techniques: When emotion floods our system, our bodies need to be reminded where they are. Grounding techniques help remind the body, through gentle pressure and deliberate stimulation, that they are in the present and not being dragged into the past or future, despite the psyche’s focus ahead or behind. Grounding techniques look like: pressing the balls of your feet gently into the ground then rocking back to put pressure on your heels; squeezing the arms or seat of your chair with your hands and fingers; looking around and naming what you see in your immediate surroundings; inhaling deeply and reporting what you smell; rubbing fabric or other material between your fingers and naming out loud the different textures you feel on your skin.

Breathwork: So much more than just breathing, breathwork refers to the deliberate, controlled breath. These breaths are structured to intentionally change your body’s physiology and therefore change your emotional state. These exercises range from box breathing (up for four counts, across for four counts, down for four counts, across for four counts, creating a box with your breaths) to deep panting. (Go here for lots of clearly-explained breathwork exercises.) In therapy, clients and therapists do these exercises together, with clients following the therapist’s lead. These exercises can be the vehicle for powerful emotional release and physical catharsis.

Tapping: Physically tapping your own body with your hands or fingers is a form of bilateral stimulation, a key component of eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing trauma therapy. Tapping is soothing in similar ways as grounding techniques are; it provides a sort of internal rocking, a back and forth motion that helps regulate the nervous system. Tapping is especially effective when paired with guided visualizations.

Viewing your body as an asset may be new to you in general, and viewing your body as an asset in therapy may feel weird. I recommend you give these exercises a try next time you’re in therapy and ask your therapist for help implementing them on your own. And, of course, I’m curious: Have you ever tried any of these techniques? How have they gone for you if you have?

For information on working with Caitlin, look no further.

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