Sometimes clients come to therapy and find it hard to speak. They feel ‘if I’m not saying anything nothing is happening’. What they don’t realise is they communicate the second they come into the room. Their body tells their own story.
How we stand or sit, how we hold ourselves, where we scratch, where the tics and fidgets are, all tell the story of what happened to us, how we tried to protect ourselves and where that’s left us on the inside.
Our body is a living organism that pulses. This pulsing produces feelings and allows self-recognition. When we go through difficult experiences the startle reflex is triggered within our nervous system. This is our instinctive reflex to danger or potential threat. Our body reacts by contracting – our shoulders go up, our legs prepare to run or we freeze, our eyes sharpen. Our body comes out of this process as the danger passes and we return to the natural pulsing. Our body rebounds from this shock in some violent outburst such as crying, screaming or anger.
If the nature of the event is severe enough or on-going for long enough the startle reflex remains in place. The natural pulsing stops and the body remains braced. It becomes rigid. Our muscles then form around the startle. Our body becomes locked in defence, keeping the outside world out and the inside world in. Experiences such as deprivation, neglect, punishment and anxiety are felt bodily and result in our bodies becoming set.
This setting of the body is called ‘body armour’. With body armour in place we become disconnected from ourselves and our experience. Clients often speak about feeling like they are ‘in a bubble’ or have a sense of ‘floating’ or ‘unrealness’ about their lives. They are no longer in their bodies and the only place left to be is in their heads where everything is rationalised. One anxious thought chases the next and the anxiety spirals making us more and more disconnected from our bodies. Our bodies no longer speak as it is frozen and our life on the outsides mirrors what is happening on the inside, we are stuck.
Therapy is a process not unlike cooking. First of all our body has to thaw. If meat is cooked from frozen it doesn’t work. As we sit in therapy and trust begins to emerge our body is able to begin to release the tension it feels, it is thawing. This is happening regardless of what is being said or not said in therapy. At the start of therapy we tend to talk for the sake of talking, out of our own discomfort, out of our own disconnection. As we settle, we begin to talk from the part of ourselves that has been frozen. As that experience is processed and heard and acknowledged by both the therapist and the client the anxiety, anger and sadness of those experiences is felt and released. Our body is then free to return to its natural pulsing. Our body informs our mind and there is dialogue between them. We feel more connected to ourselves and the world. We can now allow our inside world out and the outside world in, fitting with the natural rhythm of life and our bodies.
Thmas Larkin is a counsellor and psychotherapist at Mind and Body Works. For more information on Thomas please click here