Intro to Body-Oriented Therapy: Part 2 What Actually Happens?
Updated: May 8
I'm setting out to answer two really big questions about holistic body-oriented therapy: why do we need it and what does it actually look like? (Hint: it's not just rolling around in essential oils for an hour.)
I've found that one of the biggest barriers to people seeking therapy that incorporates the body is that it feels weird and mysterious. It makes sense- showing up to therapy is already incredibly vulnerable and courageous. Many people don't want to add the uncertainty of "is my therapist going to make me, like, do some weird dance or something?" So, I'd like to demystify the process a bit!
I feel I need to add a disclaimer that that this will inherently be a MASSIVE oversimplification. Therapy is infinitely more complex and nebulous than can be defined in a short blog post! In fact, I believe that in order for the process to work it has to be organic and spontaneous. This is just a brief glimpse into some of what goes on in my body-oriented therapy sessions.
Beginning Stages of Therapy
One of the first goals of body-oriented therapy is to strengthen the body's natural resources for regulation. I'll often ask clients to recall a time when they've felt strong, grounded, or content, and then we track what goes on in their body as they recall the memory. Maybe their breath deepens, their feet plant into the ground, or their hands come to their heart as they smile. These are all wonderful somatic resources that we can harness in order to support regulation and make difficult emotions a little easier to hold.
I'll often help my clients build body awareness and healthy ways of interacting with their experience. For example, if a client is describing the horrible breakup they just went through and how sad they feel, I'll direct them to notice what the sadness feels like in their body, maybe a heavy sinking feeling in the chest. We might then practice using a somatic resource, like mindful breathing or relaxing the shoulders, and see how that affects the sinking feeling in the chest. Sometimes we might simply need to notice the emotional pain and breathe some compassion into it. For clients who are interested in integrating yoga into the therapy process, I might lead us through some gentle yoga movements. If someone is looking to manage anxiety, we'll get really curious about movements and postures that feel grounding for them. If someone is struggling with fatigue, we might look for movements and postures that restore energy.
I talk with my clients quite a bit about the nervous system. As my clients’ body awareness skills grow, we can thoroughly explore how their nervous system holds their trauma responses, anxiety, and depression. We can explore what their nervous system needs in order to spend more time in a state that allows for both relaxation and vitality. The overarching theme here is being curious about what the body is telling us and what it needs in order to regulate.
Later States of Therapy
When we're at a point of being ready for more in-depth processing of trauma or overwhelming emotion, we again look to the body for guidance. Now we're not only looking for resources, but also for survival defenses that got "stuck" and needs that were left unresolved.
Perhaps when a client talks about the car accident they experienced, we notice that their arms tense up and their palms press away from their body. I would direct them to mindfully follow through with this movement, as it may be key to the client completing a protective instinct that they weren't able to actually complete when the car accident happened. In doing so, we allow the body to finally release the frozen instinct. Oftentimes other, deeper emotions will emerge and we’ll process these in manageable slices so as not to cause overwhelm. I’ll guide my client to use the somatic resources that we built earlier on in therapy in order to stay grounded throughout this process.
The last goal of therapy is perhaps the most fun. As we build up nervous system regulation and release what needs to be released, we open up the opportunity to build something new. This is where I get to help my clients establish new patterns that better reflect who they want to be and how they want to move through the world.