Attending to the body in psychotherapy


So often we live in our heads: thinking, planning, working things out, remembering, worrying, fearing. There can be a cacophony of voices up there vying for our attention and creating a chaotic backdrop to our day-to-day life. Sometimes this turns into full-on battles: we tell ourselves one thing, then the opposite thought bites back.

Whilst respecting the value and relevance of thoughts, the process of returning to our body can also help us find a way to an authentic voice. A busy stream of thoughts can sometimes be a clever strategy that we’ve developed to defend against tuning in to what we’re really feeling. And yet feeling – which might include feeling unpleasant or painful sensations that we’ve tried to bury away inside – can be extremely relieving, insightful and help us return to our natural state of connection to ourselves and the world. Eckhart Tolle says that “transformation is through the body and not away from it,”[1] and the therapeutic space can provide a safe container for this kind of work.

The body communicates

Our body tells us a lot. When we’re stressed, it’s the body that often first indicates this to us with headaches, stomach cramping, tension in the neck or shoulders or lower back pain, for example. When we see someone who looks deflated and is slumped in their chair, whose speech is slow and without energy, we can understand something about their emotional state. Another person whose eyes are bright and speech is fast and energetic – they might even jumble their words – is clearly feeling excitement.

The body holds emotions and often uses movement to channel and give them a form. Exploring the gestures we make in therapy can help us get more clarity around how we’re really feeling. A ‘shooing’ movement made with the hands, a clench of fists, a foot swinging can all reveal more about what we’re experiencing if we pay attention. For instance, we might find that we’re trying to dismiss a part of ourselves that we’d rather not identify with, or discover that we’d actually like to punch or kick someone or something because we feel angry.

Equally, we can experience emotions – joy, sadness, fear and anger – as physical as well as emotional and intellectual. Where in my body do I feel this sadness? Conversely, consciously tuning in to internal sensations, an area of tension, pulsing, throbbing or discomfort can be difficult and yet often reveals a precious emotion or memory that is simply asking for some attention.

Feeling disconnected

We might feel disconnected from our body, unable to pick up any sensations at all and feeling like we’re floating above ourselves. This might have been caused by deep shock or trauma at some point in our lives when we experienced an event that we couldn’t run away from or avoid. ‘Freezing’ occurred as a protective response to this threat, and can be gently thawed through the process of therapy. Being offered a safe space to talk and connect with the parts of our body that are frozen can allow the emotions of past experiences to be released. Letting go of what we’ve been holding onto can greatly reduce psychological and physical tension, and allow us to feel more connected.

The body and the personality as one

Our body is where we live during our time on this physical Earth and as such it holds many stories. The body is not separate from the mind; indeed dancers and therapists Leah Bartal and Nira Ne’eman describe the body as “the gateway to the personality”[2] and becoming more aware of our movements, feelings and inner sensations can help us make more sense of who we are. Listening to ourselves in this way can give us accurate information about our inner process, sometimes before we can put words on the experience. Bodily discomfort or painful sensations are often avoided or numbed by the conscious mind, leading to increased separation, yet psychotherapist Alexander Lowen noted: “The more you’re in touch with your body, the more you’re in touch with yourself.”[3]  Developing a relationship with our inner experience by tuning in to our body can support our self-awareness, helping us to emerge into ourselves more fully.

[1] E. Tolle, The Power of Now, (New World Library, 1999) p. 98
[2] L. Bartal, N. Ne’eman, The Metaphoric Body, (London, 1993) p. 19

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