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Why we should listen more to our bodies and less to our minds

When Catriona works with people, whether that’s face-to-face or through Skype or Zoom, the way she works stays the same. With some people, she is teaching those who are completely new to any aspect of body work how to tune in and be aware of what’s happening inside them. With other people, she’s tracking along with them, all the sensations they are currently feeling and then noticing if anything changes when they do something that either helps them or doesn’t help them.

No matter where people are on their journey the same things come up, just in different ways. The thing that Catriona does with everyone is teach them to listen and to not interpret with just their heads and thoughts. The reason for this is, for example, when we notice a tightness in our chest, most people will name it ‘anxiety’, ‘panic’, ‘fear’ etc, that then automatically sets off a narrative about what’s wrong, or what might happen, which in turn increases the anxiety or panic. It then goes round in an increasing cycle. When we label a feeling in our stomach ‘dread’, ‘disgust’, or ‘overwhelm’, then we believe it and will act accordingly, we’ll look for things going on in our lives that could be the reason, and might end up attributing blame to the wrong thing. If we can’t find anything however, we berate ourselves with a lot of negative thoughts, none of which is helpful or settling.

These sensations coming up in our body may well be a response to stress, or something that we are dreading, but it doesn’t help us to manage these responses if we totally believe what our head is telling us. If we can start to separate the two things and say things instead like, ‘there is a tightness in my chest, is it a gripping tightness, or a pulsing tightness? Is it like a weight on my chest, or constriction inside?’ We can then try to notice what effect it has on the way we breath, as we can get more information. Is it harder on the in-breath or on the out-breath? Does it make it hard to move the shoulders or the upper arms?

How Catriona does this with clients

Asking these kind of questions allows Catriona to then ask the person what they notice about their response to this body sensation, do they feel reluctant or fearful of the sensation? Are they scared they might make it worse? Are they dismissive of it? Sometimes the answer comes from the things she’s told, or sometimes from the things she observes. If our heads are nervous about the body being the focus, the person might suddenly remember something they wanted to tell Catriona and try to divert away from the body. Sometimes they just notice how much they don’t want to do the body work.

All of these responses tell us a lot about the relationship we have to any sensation we feel and the way we will automatically deal with it. This is also very revealing about the relationship we have with ourselves. Our heads will often put up quite a battle, saying things like, ‘I’m feeling worse’, ‘this is silly’, ‘I have lots to talk about, this isn’t real work’, ‘talking is the only way to figure things out’. Its Catriona’s job to gently allow the body to have a voice, to be able to tell its story, which will be very different to the story told by the head. She lets people know that their head will get some understanding and that things will make sense, but that can only happen when we let the body communicate. If the head could have figured this out, it probably would have done so by now.

How we can manage sensations with the body

Once we have this information we can begin to work with the sensation coming up and keep the head, and any interpretation of what is actually happening, out of the present-moment experience. We can try different resources to see what ones might help the sensation settle. For example, any tightness will soon let you know if applying pressure helps or doesn’t, because you will feel the result. The heads response to feeling tightness is to usually stretch it out, or to just rub it. If the head has labelled the tightness as ‘panic’, then when stretching or rubbing doesn’t help, we really do start to panic, thinking ‘nothing works’, ‘what am I going to do?’. Or even, ‘I’m going to die’, and the chest will be so tight that no breath can get in or out, resulting in all our blood rushing to our internal organs and our brain going offline. If however, we try to just feel the tightness, noticing the physical properties of it and how it’s affecting us, we can actually see what might help. Tightness can sometimes be relieved by applying pressure, or feeling strength by tensing our muscles. Sometimes it just needs you to hold it with your hand or arm, or to use heat on it. Sometimes working with a different part of the body helps, for example, the stomach or legs can be a good resource and may relieve any tightness. We only know what works by allowing the body to tell us and keep the head out of the naming process.

In Catriona’s first year and a half of training, for the whole trauma module they were taught to put all the thoughts to one side and only listen to the body. In the second training, developmental work, they were shocked at the first demonstration which included the question ‘what thoughts go with that sensation?’. The wise and wonderful trainers knew that if they allowed everyone to think at the beginning of the training, then they would solely rely on that. The only way that they could retrain everyone to listen and to understand the language of the body, was to listen only to the body, with nothing else getting in the way. This is the work Catriona continues to do with all of her clients, and this is the message that she wants to pass on to anyone who would like to hear it.

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How past experiences can still affect us today

It’s been an established fact by a lot of therapeutic modalities that our past experiences can have a profound effect on the way that we behave, react and relate to others, in relationships. A lot of talking therapies require clients to dig deep into their past to try and explain their present day symptoms or behaviours. This can be helpful for a lot of people and can also assist with making sense of things happening to them right now. However, it’s not always that simple, and it isn’t a good option for people who have no memory of their experiences. A lot of Catriona’s clients have little to no memory of their childhood, their recall can be sketchy or even non-existent. All they are aware of is their repeating patterns of behaviour, or that their reactions to things or people seem to make no sense. They usually find that these behaviours are really hard to change. They aren’t aware of how their past experiences are affecting their lives today.

When Catriona is working with clients, whatever behaviours they are exploring, whether it’s eating patterns, obsessive traits, anxiety about certain things, she always views them with an acceptance. Accepting that at some point in the clients lives, this behaviour was a solution to a problem and it made sense back then. Therefore, if that was a solution, we can then be curious about what it was a solution for. If you have grown up in an environment which was unpredictable or volatile, then a good solution will have been to shrink yourself and be as quiet, still, and invisible as possible. It may have even been the best solution to freeze and be completely still, or to dissociate. These responses don’t then simply disappear when you change your environment or when you grow up, as our coping mechanisms can follow us and play out wherever we go. If it feels like these coping mechanisms or behaviours are no longer needed but still keep happening, they change from being a solution, to something that actually gets in the way or causes problems.

The freeze response might show up again in the present day at any sign of potential conflict, or in a situation that you would have perceived as threatening when you were much younger. Clients will notice that their breathing gets tight and shallow, or they may be unable to move or think about what to do, or even speak to ask for help. They may be completely oblivious to the trigger that’s just come up and just come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. These responses can then very easily get misdiagnosed, or treated with the wrong medication, resulting in no understanding about what’s happening to them and no improvement in their condition.

It’s very hard to just stop behaviours if they are hard-wired into our survival system, even if we can have some success, it usually takes a huge amount of effort. It feels like an ongoing, never-ending battle, which can be exhausting and demoralising.

However, sometimes when we grow up, go to uni, get a job, meet new friends, or get into relationships, these behaviours and coping mechanisms can start to fade and sometimes even stop. But if we then have a new traumatic experience or something happens in our life that reduces our resilience, or triggers any past events, then these behaviours can suddenly reappear. When this happens to us, we always blame it on what’s going in the present and we often don’t recognise that something from our past might have been triggered, as there isn’t always an obvious connection between the two.

A light bulb in hands representing energy levels

The great thing about working with the body, is that your body will tell your story. When you can learn to notice and track what your body is doing, you can then question why a certain behaviour might have been a really good response in the past. You can then begin to make links to the present and try to make sense of what’s happening to you. Once you can do that, you can explore different resources to find a new solution which allows the body to have a new present-moment experience. If you are in a freeze response, then you can find something that will help you to unfreeze, in a new, safe way. That way, when the past triggers you again, you will recognise the early signs of the trigger, as they will be consistent, and you can then resource yourself so you don’t freeze or shut down. This allows you to be in control and not let past events take over what is happening right now.

Just because you don’t know why you might react in certain ways, we can always assume that there was once a good reason for this, and it was a solution at the time. If you tend to get overly anxious, or you have panic attacks, then you can find some resources to help your breathing and then use them before the anxiety gets a chance to build. This way you can heal from the past without having to go over all the details of what happened to you.

Our past will always be there but the influence it has over us can be massively reduced and we can heal from the past experiences that have happened to us.

Our Body Work Course is a really way to start understanding your body and connections to your past experiences, we put it together to help you learn to understand the different behaviours and messages from your body, to help put you back in control of yourself. You can check out the course here, or send us any questions you may have here.