Learning From The Body In Real Time


Learning From the Body in Real Time means tuning into the physical sensations that are the visceral manifestations of primary emotions (anger, fear, sadness, surprise, happiness, disgust). These physical sensations are our first signals as to how we feel about something that is occurring. They are designed to give us immediate and vital information about whether our environment is safe and healthy or unsafe and threatening to our wellbeing. In people who have not had traumatic experiences these sensations tend to be a good compass to use when navigating the world. In people who have had trauma, the compass may be in need of recalibration. Regardless of whether one's compass is well calibrated or not, tuning into the physical sensations created by primary emotions is needed for insight into the self, healing when necessary, and navigation throughout the world. 

When working with clients I utilize a bi-directional approach to healing and growth: bottom-up (from the physical sensations to thoughts and actions) and top-down (from thoughts and actions to visceral feelings) (Heller & Lapierre). Clients at both ends of the spectrum of health, such as coaching clients who are seeing me to improve their lives and work, to psychotherapy clients dealing with the heaviest of grief or trauma, benefit from this bi-directional method.

Frequently people coming to psychotherapy or coaching for the first time expecting the top-down approach in which one comes to understand the self through deeper insight into feelings, thoughts, history, and current relationships. Often people also expect to learn behavioral strategies such as those involved in being more effective at work or in relationships, and how to cope better with stress and life's trials. While these are all aspects of the therapeutic process, within the integrative approach I use, they are not the level at which the most fundamental and lasting change and insight occurs. 

Fundamental change occurs at a primal experiential level. Physically, this is due in large part to structures deep within the brain that together are called the limbic system. We share these brain structures with all mammals. The limbic system governs primary emotions, anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise, the feelings that we have as an automatic and immediate response to things that happen to and around us. These emotions are felt in a visceral manner and does not register as thoughts until they process through the part of the brain (cerebral cortex) that produces conscious thought and creates nuance and complexity in emotions. Simply put, primary emotions are felt as physical sensations before we have a chance to process them in the thinking brain thereby creating more complex emotions. 

It is because of the limbic system that a bottom-up approach needs to be integrated into the therapeutic process. During a therapy session primary emotions are activated by many factors. The content of the discussion, the in-the-moment experience of the relationship with the therapist, or an environmental factor may trigger a primary emotion via the limbic system. Often the experience of visceral primary emotions are unpleasant and we quickly turn them into thoughts and behaviors in order not to have to feel the discomfort they cause. In doing so we may ingrain bad habits designed to get rid of discomfort rather than deal with reality, miss vital information about the world around us and how we feel about it, and forgo the opportunity to recalibrate a misaligned compass. 

In the therapy session a bottom-up sensation-based approach means taking time periodically throughout the session to focus inwardly, track sensation in the body, and mindfully connect the sensation to the trigger that caused it. This mindful awareness of emotional sensation deepens and grounds top-down insights.

Integration of top-down and bottom-up awareness are what allow for an accurate and effective navigation system. A well-attuned awareness of visceral primary emotions provides an accurate compass while insight and clear understanding of effective behavior and thought provide the details of the map.  

For an experiment with attuning to primary emotions try the following:

1) Take deep full breaths. Inhale fully and pause then exhale fully and pause again before the next breath. Do this for 10 breath cycles.

2) Let your breath return to a normal pace and begin to scan the body. Notice sensation occurring inside of you that is not due to an identifiable external cause. 

3) Watch this sensation and notice any tendency to try to push it down or away. Notice how thought intervenes and tries to move your mind away from it.

4) After becoming very familiar with this sensation, stop and think about times in your life that you remember having it. Look for the sensation throughout your day or week and notice the things that bring it on.

5) After you have observed the sensation and its triggers for a while, see if you can name the emotion that is associated with it. If this is hard, remember the primary emotions: anger, fear, surprise, happiness, sadness, and disgust.

If you find this exceedingly hard to do, or become very upset or panicked while tracking your emotional sensations, it may be a good idea to find a therapist to talk to.

Healing Developmental Trauma. Laurence Heller, PhD & Aline Lapierre, (2012)