The incredible ways our bodies help process hard emotions | The therapist is in

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Sometimes, our memories and experiences are too difficult to talk about in session. Therapy feels like it grinds to a halt, with so many topics we want to explore but not enough emotional safety to bring them up.

In my last column, I wrote about how therapy is a space of necessary discomfort — vulnerability, grief, anger and so many other emotions rise to the surface, and it can feel at first overwhelming to let them take up space. It may feel more familiar to withhold, prolonging the stress. 

“The therapist is in” is a new Seattle Times column about mental health written by Jordan Alam, a clinical social worker based in Seattle. These columns will have an anti-oppressive and trauma-informed lens.

Readers are welcome to email about their own mental health challenges, including those related to identity and social forces. Your message may be answered in a future column, though we won’t use it without getting your permission first.

But the goal is not to let all big feelings flood out either. If that happens too often, it can reinforce the sense that you’re out of control and that feelings themselves are frightening.

Instead, we want to flow back and forth between touching into those intense feelings and regrounding the nervous system. Sometimes I use the metaphor of the campfire — you want to get warm enough to be toasty, but not stick your hand in it.

It’s not a “thinking” process, I tell my clients. Talking only does part of the job. A body-based approach like somatics, which uses movement, breathing techniques and sometimes touch in conjunction with verbal reflection, can guide us in the oscillation between staying with emotion and returning to your body in the present moment. 

One of my first encounters with this approach was not in a traditional therapist’s office at all. It was a program run by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective in New York, where they offered a group that integrated writing, dance and body-based healing exercises drawn from somatic therapy. Called “Movement to Power,” it emerged in response to the fatal sexual assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi, India, in December 2012, as an accompaniment to protests calling for an end to violence against women.

We gathered as a room full of Asian and Asian American people who self-identified as having experienced some form of violence and practiced centering our bodies as the site of healing. It felt so different from most of the talk therapy spaces I have encountered and that, to me, was its brilliance. 

We were encouraged to pay close attention to how our bodies felt as they moved in the room and connected with other bodies through intentional touch on hands, feet and backs. We paid attention to our breath and got to spend time with parts of our own bodies that we don’t normally check in on. When was the last time you paid attention to what your little toes were feeling?

We were not required to share what we wrote down or what inspired the body movements we made, so processing ended up being mostly internal. We were not focused on gaining particular life skills or tools to manage emotion so, while structured, you could move at your own pace.

We came to the campfire surrounded by friends and had the agency to decide when it was too hot.

I take a lot of the wisdom from that program into my work with clients today. It stoked in me a deep curiosity to understand how stress and trauma get “stuck” in the body and made it easier to understand why people do surprising and sometimes counterintuitive actions when they feel retraumatized.

I also learned that a primarily nonspeaking session can still be effective.

Take an example of a somatics exercise on boundary-setting that I have done both as a client and therapist. When we have established enough trust that it won’t be immediately overwhelming, we get up from our seats and I as the practitioner will slowly walk toward you, often with arms extended, and keep advancing until you set the boundary by putting your own arms up in response. I will not touch you, but for those who struggle to set boundaries early and often, you might find yourself very close to me. 

We take note of what feelings come up. We try it again. This time perhaps you put your arms up while I am very far away, provoking a different body response.

Did it feel safer? Did you still feel connected to me? We use the body’s reactions to cue what needs practice in service of the larger goal — in this case, to be able to honor your own needs while still maintaining close relationships.

Somatics work is far more intricate than I can describe here, but the important kernel is this: When you feel overwhelmed by processing something verbally, consider slowing down and noticing what’s happening in your body. That in itself might feel like enough productive discomfort for the day.

You can always back away from the heat and come back to it later, from a different angle. That gentler approach honors that the body is a source of its own kind of wisdom — one that cannot be forced to change through talking alone.

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