Can you decipher the messages of the body?
“And one cannot begin to comprehend how filled up a therapy room can be by emotions: every inch every corner in that which we sit occupying the sadness, the anger, the pressure, the pain. Every inch and every corner filled up, except for the vessel that carries it originally, within the body of the client there is only a void; emptiness.”
Throughout my experience working as a psychotherapist under supervision I have encountered remarkable ways in which emotions have been expressed through various physiological representations in the body. Somatization refers to a tendency to experience and communicate somatic distress and symptoms unaccounted for by pathological findings, which are commonly attributed to physical illness. It has been a bewildering experience to observe that almost half of my clients over the course of therapy express bodily symptoms.
Why is this such a common phenomenon in society? Very early on society ´programs´ us to attribute body and mind as separate and dichotomous. The conflict between the developing “self” and “functioning self” us to become alienated from the “ authentic self”. Qualities of the authentic self include needs that the child requires from the environment to develop, which include basic needs and emotions such as curiosity, love, vulnerability and libido (sexual desire). The authentic self needs however, to become alienated and denied within us in order for the functioning self to take over. The survival mode allows us to function under pressure without taking into account our deepest desires, emotions and fantasies.
Consequently, to deny aspects of ourselves means to deny a part of ourselves, which many people can ignore over the course of several years. When a part of ourselves is denied, these aspects however still remain in our unconscious. Therefore, body tends to react in order to send us the message that the unconscious wants to share through awareness. When this message becomes conscious, then the individual is able to be whole including all its parts the: authentic self and the functioning self. Common ways in which the body can express itself when the “ authentic self” is denied includes: chest pain, fatigue, dizziness, headache, back pain, insomnia, abdominal pain, sweating, shortness of breath, vertigo. This also includes sexual disorders such as impotence, vaginismus and dyspareunia.
Body Awareness and Integration of the Self
During my experience working in the Sigmund Freud Outpatient Clinic I encountered frequently, how heightening body awareness can lead to the expression of the authentic self in various clients. I will describe a case of a young woman who experienced uncomfortable sweating in the body. The sweating would make her especially feel uncomfortable during social situations and around other people. The body part where the sweating was experienced, was often covered up, which increased the sweating. During the sessions we heightened awareness in this body part by focusing attention towards the body area and breathing. The client often described a “release” during these instances accompanied by a tingling throughout her entire body.
Over the process of therapy, she began to notice throughout the release of “tingling energy” and various emotions such as anger which surfaced, the messages which were being shared from the authentic self. The message from the authentic self expressed that she was “covered up” and “trapped” just as her body part had been experienced. She had ignored her own needs and emotions in order to be burdened by the needs of others, to function in her stressful job, while putting aside her own needs.
Furthermore, by “uncovering” the emotions in the body area she began to realise that the job she was doing wasn’t bringing happiness and fulfilment to her life, she began to feel her boundaries and to stand up for herself. To my clients great surprise her sweating was no longer the focus of her attention and her suffering reduced progressively as she changed various aspects of her life. The sweating was casually still present however the smells which has haunted her from the start became barley noticeable for her. The more the client began to live her authentic self, the more the symptom faded out of consciousness. She listened to the message that the body was trying to transmit to her.
We can separate our unconscious from our denied self by avoiding certain bodily sensations and movements. Our often body tenses in specific areas in order to prevent our sensations from communicating messages to our body about emotions and needs. We deny feeling the emotions of anger, sadness, love and empathy which in turn causes us to accumulate tension in the body. However, if we continue to live our lives commanded by the needs of others or what we believe the functional self wants, we will feel stuck and unsatisfied. As a result one avoids the natural impulses, needs and emotions.
How to increase body awareness?
There are several ways to increase body awareness, such as meditation and yoga which can be practiced from the comfort of one’s home. Studies have shown that practicing meditation for the course of 4 weeks increases emotion regulation and decreases the percentage of burn-out in adults. A useful tool of mindfulness is the body scan meditation. The body scan involves “scanning” ones awareness of the body on a micro level. This scanning heightens the sensations in major sections of the body from the tip of one’s toes to your eyebrows, while simultaneously concentrating the breathing.
Additionally, another technique called progressive muscle relaxation by Jacobson has shown success in heightening body awareness. This technique involves the tensing and releasing of different body parts progressively through all major muscle groups. This technique is performed with intervals of tensing for 5 seconds and the releasing of the tension for 10 seconds, combined with an active focus on the breath. This techniques is based on the idea which suggests that through relaxing the muscles and reducing stress in the body, our anxiety causing thoughts are reduced and as a result the mind becomes peaceful and calm.
For long-term reduction of somatic symptoms psychotherapy can be a powerful tool. Body-oriented methods such as psychodrama, gestalt therapy and integrative therapy are primordially focused on increasing body awareness in order to liberate and integrate the often denied self back into awareness and following one’s authentic needs and emotions.
To deny your body is to deny oneself, one’s wishes, one’s dreams and one’s desires. Everyday one has a constant reminder of our denial: a cramped shoulder, an uneasy stomach or a headache. Every day we have a choice either to deny the messages or to feel it, to explore it, to question it. The messages are written on our bodies, it is up to us to decipher them.
Scheve, C. V. (2019). Emotion, emotion concept. Retrieved February 5, 2019, from https://www.polsoz.fu-berlin.de/soziologie/arbeitsbereiche/emotionen/team/Professur/preprints/Emotion_emotion_concept.pdf
Warhel Asim Mohammed, Athanasios (Sakis) Pappous, Karthikeyan Muthumayandi & Dinkar Sharma (2018) The effect of mindfulness meditation on therapists’ body-awareness and burnout in different forms of practice, European Journal of Physiotherapy, 20:4, 213-224, DOI: 10.1080/21679169.2018.1452980
Kepner, James I., Körperprozesse - ein gestalttherapeutischer Ansatz, EHP, Köln 1999, S. 39-54
About the Author
Originally from Hamburg Germany, Ms. Stephanie Sattkowski moved around a lot as a child and is familiar with confronting changes and transformation in life. All of the obstacles she's been through made a positive impact on her attitude towards life and her work as a psychotherapist in training. Ms.Sattkowski speaks English, Spanish and German.
Gestalt Therapy helps clients focus on the present and understand what is really happening in their lives right now, rather than what they may perceive to be happening based on past experience. Instead of simply talking about past situations, clients are encouraged to experience them, perhaps through re-enactment. Through the gestalt process, clients learn to become more aware of how their own negative thought patterns and behaviors are blocking true self-awareness and making them unhappy.
Stephanie offers a free consultation to interested people.
For more information visit sattkowski-praxis.com