Helping people with anxiety has traditionally been seen as the territory of mental health professionals. Anxiety is most commonly framed as a psychological problem. My clinical experience for over 20 years has been that by safely connecting to the body, people become less anxious.
Embodiment is a key tool to slow down feelings of anxiety and panic.
This is what inspired me to write “Anxiety Is Really Strange”. I wanted to create a resource that responded to the questions; ‘what is an emotion? And ‘how do we feel?’ through an embodiment lens.
I’m a bodyworker, that’s an important identity for me. I’ve been fortunate to train in many modalities: chiropractic, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and TRE (Trauma Releasing Exercises). I’ve also done lots of yoga, meditation, skiing and more recently, running. I’m deeply curious about how minds and bodies interact and passionate about working through the body to promote health, not just physical health but emotional and mental health as well.
I do not think these things are ever separate.
Many people assume feeling our body is natural and easy. It’s not. It takes a lot of practice and skill to connect to our bodies. We can easily slip into habits and fantasies when we perceive the inner world of sensations.
There is now lots of great science on the value of exploring feelings. The work of Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017) powerfully explores how emotions are made. Her ‘constructed emotion’ model, rooted in decades of research, pulls together lots of great neuroscience and philosophy. Reading Barrett gave me a renewed confidence that the business of feeling, however tricky, is central to health.
The inability to consistently map the internal state of the body is linked to persistent pain, anxiety states and being stuck in trauma responses.
It’s useful to differentiate basic body phenomena; physiological shifts in chemicals, nervous system reflexes, muscular tension patterns, and behaviours, from the complex processes of consciousness. Emotions, memories and thought all co-emerge, created by our flexible brains, as we extract meaning from body events.
In response to a stimulus, our body gears up for action, often defaulting to simple protective reflexes such as fight-or-flight or freeze. Our brain attempts to quickly and efficiently predict what is happening. Feelings are a bridge between physical body properties and complex emotions. We use our past experiences to continually create memories, emotions, and meaning from our internal feelings.
To successfully work with anxiety it is useful to become skillful at managing events in the body. For sure, we need to do simple things to ensure our resources are not overwhelmed – try to eat well, socialise, sleep and de-stress. But, we can also learn to reframe our responses to the protective reflexes that can hijack our functioning.
This was best summed up by Viktor Frankl in 1946:
‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’
Feelings are important and are the foundation of knowledge and perception. By learning how to feel we can self-regulate seemingly out of control processes in the body. Some things feel right or, too often, feels way wrong.
But, ultimately, it is only a feeling and it’s possible to re-train our response.
We can learn to not get lost and stuck in protective reflexes and generate a window of opportunity to come out of anxiety.
Next month I’m hosting an intro day to explore how relational touch can help people engage their bodies to feel emotional balance. It will also serve as an introduction to the Body Intelligence Craniosacral training, starting March 18th in London. You can register here.
Upcoming 2020 Events:
February 15th: Intro to Relational Touch, London
February 16th: Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) Introductory Day: London
March 9th: Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) Introductory Day: London ()
Mar 18th: Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy – 2-year practitioner course, London
April 22nd: Trauma Releasing Exercises Module 1: London
- Barrett LF (2017) How Emotions Are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain. London: Macmillan
- Frankl V (1946) Man’s Search For Meaning. 1985 edition, Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster Inc, New York.
- Haines S (2018) Anxiety Is Really Strange. Singing Dragon, JKP.