What if focusing on your body, not just your mind, could alleviate depression, anxiety, and trauma? How would that change the way you would seek treatment?
Research continues to highlight the importance of a holistic approach to the treatment of these all-too-common issues to include somatic (body-focused) treatments.
The mind-body connection is vital, but often, when there is a problem like stress, anxiety, depression, or trauma (e.g., PTSD), the issue is thought to be housed solely in the brain/mind; therefore, the solution is thought to be drugs and talk therapy that focus on the neurochemistry and belief systems of the brain/mind. That is an incomplete answer; the rest of the answer requires a focus on the body. Therapies that access and connect the mind and body tap into the areas of the brain where the trauma and stress get stuck.
Here’s a practical example of how the mind and body are connected in experiencing an issue and in resolving it:
Jen has an interaction with a difficult co-worker. Her co-worker would not listen to or consider anything Jen was saying. The co-worker interrupted Jen’s explanations, became argumentative very quickly, and called Jen a few inappropriate names. Jen didn't react during the meeting, and when Jen left the meeting with her co-worker, she was beyond frustrated. She was fired up, stressed, and angry.
Jen’s natural, immediate impulse was to:
A) Calmly sit down and talk to a friend about the experience
B) Move! Go for a walk, hit or throw something, etc.
And the answer is???? Most likely, it would be B. Move! Go for a walk or run, hit or throw something, etc. The body knows how to take care of itself if we just allow it to do so; the body knows that movement can help to appropriately process the stressful and frustrating emotions.
For another obvious example…take a look at a toddler. When they are upset about something, what do they do? They throw a whopper of a tantrum chock full of kicking, screaming, crying, spinning on the floor, etc. If the child is left to feel his emotions, he comes out of the tantrum easily; his breathing returns to normal; and he resumes playing with his blocks and cars. Now, if we "smart" adults intervene and try to rationally talk to the child to calm them down, distract, bribe, or punish them, the child does not get to resolve the distress and release the emotion, and the frustration hang-over and associated whining can last much longer!
The moral of this story is that we can resolve or not even accumulate stressful, anxious, and depressed feelings if we allowed ourselves to feel and process our emotions in coordination with our body. Remember the mind and body are connected!
So, what does this mean for you?
If you are feeling stressed and anxious as a result of a situation, moving your body can help you move through and feel the emotion. If you are suffering from depression, anxiety, and/or trauma, you can start unlocking those emotions by getting in touch with your body. There are many, many ways to do this. Here are a few of my favorites…
1. Breathing. The first thing that I do with my clients, often even before we review intake information, is to practice a breathing exercise to get grounded in our bodies. This induces the parasympathetic response and allows the client to access more of the thoughts, ideas, and feelings he or she is wanting or needing to express. Breathing is such a powerful tool. Seriously. If breathing were patent-able and profitable, it would be prescribed way more often that Prozac, Ambien, and Zoloft combined! I believe that the hesitancy to utilize breathing techniques is their inherent simplicity. How could something like breathing be the first stop to most all methods of mind-body healing?? That was a rhetorical question, but because I’m so passionate about this, I'll offer an answer…breathing is the ultimate life force and the switch for turning off the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) and turning on the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system).
2. Yoga. Yoga actually means “To yoke,”…to join the breath and body, so it is natural that yoga would be useful for moving emotions through and out of the body. In an interview with Krista Tippett, host of of On Being, psychiatrist, trauma expert, and professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, Vessel van der Kolk discussed the value in incorporating yoga into the routines of his trauma patients, noting that it helped patients reconnect with their body.
3. Eye-movement therapies. EMDR and ART are two therapies shown to help with trauma through using the eye-movements to access the stored memories and grounding and pairing those memories to sensations in the body for very favorable outcomes. The body of research continues to expand to better understand the precise mechanisms by which eye-movement based therapies work.
4. Tai chi. Tai chi is an ancient practice of channeling the energy of the body and environment through slow, deliberate movement. This is more challenging initially than you may think, but practicing it brings much peace and again, helps to move negative energy and restore calmness to the individual.. Check out this site for more information.
5. Rolfing. This is a practice that helps restore natural, healthy posture after stress and too much time hunched over at the computer start a domino effect that sends most every part of our body out of alignment. I've heard a lot of amazing (and semi-painful) things about rolfing, and in an effort to restore my own posture after holding stress in my body on top of injuries that probably never healed appropriately, I'm trying rolfing next week and will report back on my experience.
6. Walking. This one is easy, requires no training, and can be done basically anytime by anyone. Walking can be helpful for the basic movement benefits following a stressful event, and it can also be practiced with mindful intention. Walking is a great stress-reliever and a preventive strategy against the negative interpretations of stress, too. I sometimes hold walking meetings with colleagues and select clients to aid in the expression of emotion, enhancement of creativity, and facilitation of discussion.
Holistic therapy, like I practice with my clients, incorporates breathing techniques and prescribes exercise and other movement to optimize functioning and reduce stress! If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of anxiety, stress, and/or depression and are looking for a mind-body approach or haven’t been helped by a purely mind/brain approach, consider sharing this article with them and try out a holistic therapist or include a somatic approach as an adjunct to traditional min/brain-focused treatments. If you have used somatic therapies in treatment of stress issues, let me know in the comments below.