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Dealing with the Past (Why Body Psychotherapy? - Part 4)

So far, I have discussed how body psychotherapy helps clients gain a greater awareness of present-moment experience (and why that matters!), and I’ve talked about how body psychotherapy can support clients develop internal resources (and why they matter!). In this post, I will discuss a third major benefit of 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

Isn’t the past…the past?

When something happens that causes us emotional pain, we often would rather just forget about it and move on. However, often, as much as we might try to forget, the past continues to impact us. Even if we aren’t conscious of a past event, the ways our body and mind reacted then shapes how they will react to similar (and sometimes not-so-similar) experiences in the present and future.

Let’s return to a situation I proposed in part 2 of this post: someone cuts in front of another person in line at the bank. Everyone would react at least slightly differently to this situation because we all have had different previous experiences that the brain and body may connect with this person cutting in line. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • Paul had been adored as an only child until age 5 only to feel neglected when his little brother came along. The person cutting at the bank may unconsciously trigger Paul’s past feelings of loss, anger, or sadness. At age 5, Paul regressed and expressed helplessness in order to try to get his parents’ attention. At the bank, Paul begins to feel powerless and small.

  • Collette was 15 when she was in line at a gas station with her father when someone burst through the front door with a gun, headed straight to the counter, and demanded money. Collette may respond to the person cutting at the bank with the same fear she experienced the day the gas station was robbed, years before.

Sheryl was continuously teased for the first part of third grade, and kids

often cut in front of her in the lunch line. However, a teacher noticed and intervened. Though Sheryl cried when her teacher first talked to her about this, her teacher encouraged her to cry, and then the teacher worked with the kids and parents to help Sheryl feel more accepted by her peers. Sheryl even began to have some compassion for the kids who had been teasing her. When the person cuts in front of her at the bank, she notices her initial sadness and frustration but feels strong. She becomes curious why the person is in such a hurry.

While Sheryl’s response may be more appealing to most of us, that does not mean that Paul’s and Collette’s reactions were ‘wrong.’ The fact is, we automatically respond to any situation based on a variety of factors, including the experiences from our past. However, feeling small or fearful may not be working anymore for Paul and Collette. They may want to experience strength like Sheryl’s and potentially more positive emotions when confronted with incidents like the one at the bank.

Integrating experiences

In the above example, Sheryl’s reaction showed resilience: she was able to notice her initial response of sadness and frustration, and yet she was able to be flexible in her response, tapping into her inner strength to be curious rather than upset. But why was Sheryl able to be resilient when Paul and Collette were not? Based on the past experiences described, it likely is not so surprising. The underlying explanation is a bit more complex.

When we are children and have a negative experience (or are exposed to ongoing feelings in response to not having particular needs met), we are unable to integrate the experience in the moment. This is also true when we have an overwhelming or traumatic experience (either as a child or an adult). In any of these instances, we can’t allow ourselves to have our emotions because they are too overwhelming, we can’t be present with our internal body sensations because they are too strong, we can’t make sense of what is happening in any logical terms, and can we can’t act in an effective way to make the situation right. In all ways, the situation feels out of our control. In the future, when we experience those events that our brain and body link to this past experience, all the old emotions and beliefs about ourselves can come flooding back. To cope, we go into reaction, and, again, we can feel like our reaction is out of our control.

However, when events become integrated, they become usable information. We can use them as references for making conscious choices in the present and future. Also, integration allows the emotions associated with the event to be felt and expressed. As a result, the emotions become diminished. In Sheryl’s case, the teacher was a supportive presence and invited Sheryl to feel her sadness and cry. Partly thanks to the teacher, Sheryl felt safe enough to have the experience, which allowed it to integrate and become usable information when she was cut in line at the bank.

Integrating in Psychotherapy

Luckily, even if we aren’t able to integrate an experience as it happens or soon after, we can still integrate it later on. Body psychotherapy provides a safe space to embark upon this process.

If you have read my previous posts in the “Why Body Psychotherapy?” series, you may be very familiar with the five core organizers of present experience*:

When we are integrating an experience, we are, on some level, in touch with all five of these organizers. When we are overwhelmed, we are shutting down access to any combination of these.

When we work to integrate an experience in therapy, we are creating a new relationship to the old memory. However, when we focus on just one or two of the five core organizers, as many therapies do, the work can be left incomplete. For example, cognitive therapy is going to focus almost solely on self-beliefs with the goal to change negative to positive. “I don’t deserve” becomes “I am deserving.” This is very important work. However, even if a client begins to believe “I am deserving,” when faced with new events that remind the brain of the past memory, the client’s body may react in the way it always has and the emotions may be nearly as strong as ever.

Body psychotherapy, however, works with all of the core organizers, allowing for a more complete integration of the experience. In my next post, I will offer a case study to show what body psychotherapy looks like in practice, from supporting internal resources to integrating past experiences.

*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.

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