In my last post, I described a situation in which paying attention to the five core organizers of present-moment experience could help create the ability to open up more choices from which to act in order to make decisions that contribute to positive outcomes. It sounds so easy, right?
Unfortunately, in reality, this is not always easy – and, in fact, more often than not, it’s not easy at all. Sometimes, we feel emotions that are so overwhelming that it’s almost impossible to think rationally and make decisions: we just react. Other times, we feel emotions that seem to have no cause and seem like they might never go away. In both cases, we might feel as though we are at the mercy of our emotions, and the idea of even entertaining other ways of behaving that might be different from what we are already doing seems simply out of our control.
In this post, I will discuss the second benefit of body psychotherapy of the three I offered part 2 of “Why Body Psychotherapy?”:
Gain greater awareness of your present-moment experience
Develop internal resources to help you manage difficult times
Process unresolved issues from the past
It is typically much easier to identify external resources, the things in our lives that can help calm us down or lift our moods: a favorite pet cuddling up with us, an inspiring book, a family member or friend. Internal resources, on the other hand, are less concrete. They live inside of us, and sometimes we need to actively engage in them to make them more accessible and effective.
The path of least resistance
As I discussed in my last post, the five core organizers of experience* are all interconnected and influence one another:
At the level of the body’s systems, they flow together in particular ways, often beyond our consciousness, and they can function as a system of automatic reaction. Like a well-worn path, it’s an easy way to travel. However, the destination might not be where we want to go. Take a simple example.
You are driving when you hear the sound of a car horn. The sound is picked up by your auditory system, your muscles automatically tighten, stress hormones are released into your blood stream, you feel anxious, and you think, “What did I do?” Your breathing becomes shallow, you continue to feel negative emotions, and your thoughts continue on the path or reinforcing negative self-beliefs (“I always screw up!”). Perhaps your stomach feels a little sick.
Perhaps when you hear a horn, this is not your actual path—yet we all have a path. Yours might not be interfering with your ability to feel good about yourself, both in your thoughts and in your body, as in the example above. However, most people I know have something simple that can send them down a path to negative thoughts and feelings. This can be an easy path to travel because, for many of us, it is a well-worn path. It is the path of least resistance.
Creating new paths
In these instances, we want to be able to rely on our resources to help us return to more positive thoughts and feelings. Our external resources might not be available, so we need to rely on the resources we can develop inside of us. With these resources, we can return to more positive states of being, both in our thoughts and feelings.
However, when we have many pathways that lead towards negative emotions, accessing positive states by using internal resources can be difficult. It takes practice and, sometimes, coaching and reinforcement. It can sometimes feel like cutting a new path through the jungle when there is another—much more used—path close by. In order to make the new path effective, if must be consciously chosen and traveled many times before it becomes second nature. Though it is hard work, remember: creating a new path is worth the effort because it leads to a different, more positive destination.
Internal resources may be simple, such as five-count breathing, a resource you can easily try right now:
Take a moment to be with whatever might be present for you right now. What kinds of thoughts are you having? Scan your body with your attention – what sensations do you feel? Take particular note of any tight or tense sensations you encounter.
Take a deep breath, counting to five throughout the entire inhalation.
Exhale slowly, again counting to five.
Repeat the breath 4 more times, each time counting to five on both the inhalation and exhalation.
Check back in with your body – what sensations do you notice now? How are your thoughts similar or different to what they were before the breathing?
You may notice that, overall, you feel a greater sense of calm. Maybe some of the tight feelings in your body have relaxed some. Maybe your thoughts are not so hurried or tending towards negativity. (Maybe very little change occurred, and that is okay. Again, it takes practice to be able to create and access new pathways towards positive states.)
This internal resource typically works well because, by breathing deeply, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, whose job it is to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and generally calm the automatic systems in your body. Thanks to the interplay between the five core organizers of your experience, as your body calms, your emotions change, and even the quality of your thoughts can shift as well.
Other internal resources may rely on the use of imagery, counter-acting negative thoughts, movement, focusing attention on body sensations, and intentionally creating or noticing different sensory experiences (such as purposefully rubbing our fingers over an interesting texture of clothing). Body psychotherapy’s focus on present-moment experience allows us to not only develop these internal resources, but also to begin to notice the earliest signs of stepping foot onto old, well-worn paths through the jungle (a tightening jaw, for example). With this information and our ability to notice it as it happens, we can choose to stop, take a moment to access our internal resources, and then choose the path that best fits the situation.
In my next post, I will discuss how body psychotherapy can also help process unresolved issues from the past, which can also help with diminishing the powerful negative reactions we sometimes have in present-moment experiences.
You may also want to revisit:
*For more on the five core organizers of present moment experience, check out the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.
Illustrations by Samanth Land. For inquiries regarding her work, please complete the On Solid Ground Counseling Service's contact form.