Dayna Sharp, LCSW
Feelings and Your Body
Did you know that your body holds your feelings? If you think about the last time you felt anxious, sad, angry or joyful, it's probably pretty obvious that we feel different sensations in different parts of our bodies when we feel different ways. For example, you might feel anger in your arms. Or sadness in your chest. Or anxiety in your neck, shoulders, and face. But in the history of therapy, there hasn't been much talk about feelings and the body--we have completely ignored the role of the body in healing and recovery!
Thanks to a recent wave of research, we now have evidence that the body plays a large role in our emotional experience, trauma and healing. In fact, there's one study that shows that across cultures, we feel different feelings in similar areas of our body. You can read that here. There is also research that increased bodily awareness (mindfulness) is associated with decreased rates of depression. Thanks to Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk and his work on Trauma, we also know that trauma is stored in the body, and that healing the emotions in the body is key to recovery (The Body Keeps The Score).
The idea is simple. If, as a child, you broke your ankle--even if it was treated--even as an adult, you may continue to have a vulnerability in that ankle. If you broke your ankle and it was never treated, your vulnerability may be even greater throughout your life, and you may even continue to experience pain in your ankle. The same is true for emotional wounds. Because we experience emotions as bodily sensations, if we are wounded even as kids, those wounds can stay with us throughout our lives--as a vulnerability and/or source of pain.
Healing the Body, Healing the Mind
The idea behind talk therapy is that in the context of a safe, trusting relationship, we can get to know ourselves, our inner experience and the self-understanding we gain can help us feel more comfortable with ourselves. We feel more in control, more safe, when we understand what we are feeling and where those feelings may come from. We can also validate our feelings and experience--which many people have never experienced before! Knowing that our feelings are "okay", and practicing compassion for ourselves is a main pathway to healing.
When we extend these practices to the body, we are able to understand ourselves more fully. If we feel heaviness in our chests, we know that's sadness. If we can validate that experience and practice compassion for ourselves, we grow and heal. If we feel warm and tight all over, our heart beating quickly and our stomach upset, we may recognize those experiences as anxiety. Instead of becoming more fearful, only worsening the symptoms, we know what's happening to us. We can validate our anxiety, take steps to relieve it, practice compassion with ourselves. Again, we grow and heal.
Recognizing Feelings in the Body
Both kids and adults can benefit from learning where in their bodies they experience feelings. The following activities can help you get started!
Body Mapping for Kids
Ask children to drawn a picture of themselves. Pick one feeling to start, maybe a feeling that they enjoy or feel comfortable with. Ask them if it reminds them of a color. Allow them to use that color to draw on the body where they experience that feeling.
When they've got that down, move to a feeling that's less comfortable. Ask them to do the same, drawing the feeling on the body with a color of their choosing. Let them know that it's normal to experience feelings in their bodies.
Body Scanning for Adults
Take a few minutes to do a "Body Scan". The most important aspect of the body scan is to begin by "anchoring" yourself with a grounding exercise (focusing on breath or noticing 3-4 objects around you) and to practice the scan with a sense of curiosity: simply, what is happening in my body. Try not to engage in judgement, and if you do, "reset" and try again. This is a short, 5 minute example:
Coping with Feelings in the Body
Now that you're able to recognize your emotional experience and its impact on your body, it's important to give it an out. This is where understanding and self-compassion come in. If you notice that you're feeling shaky in your arms, or tension in your shoulders from anxiety, give your arms a gentle, loving squeeze. If you notice pulsing in your hands possibly rooted in anger, shake your arms out. If you feel a heaviness in your chest, put your hands on your heart and give yourself some words of validation.
These are just a few ideas that can help you attend to your feelings and how they impact your body. Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help guide you deeper through this process.
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