From my mid-20s onwards, the question ‘how do we feel?’ has been a fascination for me. How do we construct our experience? What are our beliefs and how does that affect our experience of our bodies? Volunteering with people with learning difficulties and then working full time in mental health radically changed my worldview.
After being a rubbish engineer and then systems analyst, for 8 years I worked in community care, day centres and latterly as an advocate for Mind in Camden supporting people to access mental health services. I learnt a lot about how people are marginalised and have power stripped away from them for somehow being perceived as ‘less than’.
My experience of yoga opened the possibility of changing mental health through presence and orienting to the body, rather than talking treatments. The fascination with embodiment has continued for the last two plus decades.
The core question became: how does changing the body change how we think, feel and remember?
I started to study emotions, stress, pain and trauma. I trained as a chiropractor and the core of my work and my practice became learning how to be more skillful at feeling.
The more I learned about bodywork, and the science of pain, the more I began to understand that pain is a complex emotional event. Yes, the structure of our bodies makes a contribution to our pain experience, but it’s not the most important contribution. There are so many other important things happening in people’s lives:
– The meaning they attach to it
– The story they have about it
– The resources they have access to
– Their previous experience of trauma
– Their level of stress
– Perhaps even their faith.
All of these things affect how people assess the feelings of pain inside them.
That’s why it’s important to be careful as practitioners about thinking we can diagnose somebody simply by touching their body and exploring the physical structures are working, or not working.
The great thing is that, even though it’s hard to really know what someone is really experiencing, we can learn to feel the inside of ourselves much more clearly.
Interoception is a lovely new science-y word to describe our experience of the inside of our bodies. It can be thought of as ‘inward touch’ to meet the slow background tone of the body. A leading scientist in this field – Bud Graig says that we can “train our ability to feel” and this has enormous consequences – it gives us more choices around emotions, pain and suffering.
Through meditative awareness and training our capability for inner feeling, we can learn to have a greater understanding and a greater range of language and choices around what we feel.
For example, if you’ve been told you have back pain because you’re old, or because you back is out of alignment, we can teach people to have different responses to the alarming, tight feeling in their back, and help them learn it’s probably not because you’re old, or because things are out of line. It’s possibly an alarm signal, and you can learn how to become more resilient to responding to that feeling.
I now feel passionate about client-led work. I can’t tell you whether what you’re feeling is true or not true, but I can help you shape a new narrative, and I can help you take away some of the fear that’s often associated with pain:
– The fear of moving
– The fear that it’s going to change
– The fear that you’re going to be stuck in these feelings
– The fear that you’re a broken machine
These narratives are stories that we can explore. “Tell me your story” is a really great way to start a clinical session.
The story might be that your grandmother has back pain and your mother had back pain, and therefore you have back pain.
Instead of doing a few tests and responding ‘you’ve got a lax ligament here, and that’s why you’re in pain”, which is what I used to do as a chiropractor, now I prefer to work with the narrative:
‘You’re not your mother, and you’re not your grandmother’.
This might change the way you experience the alarming sensation in your back, and your fear of getting old. Instead of imposing a diagnosis, we can create a new story, a new meaning and a new framework around what pain is, or isn’t.
Pain emerges when your brain decides that something is unsafe. At the heart of pain is a decision made inside you, by the threat detection system and the immune system which says ‘something isn’t right here’. The brain decides how much danger it thinks there is, and pain is an alarm signal to tell you to do something different.
There are interesting connections with trauma here. Trauma is also about what happens when your threat detection systems decide you’re unsafe. In response the body either speeds up to try to survive ‘fight or flight’’, or there’s a collapse, a shutdown or a dissociation.
Safety is the fundamental question that a human being is always trying to answer. Pain is a possible response to something that is perceived as unsafe, as is speeding up or shutting down. They are all outputs to protect, in response to a perceived lack of safety.
This is why finding safety is so key.
Anything that helps you feel safe is a resource that promotes health. Safety includes anything that’s resourcing:
– Behaviours that help you look after yourself
– anything that helps you feel in control
– anything that gives you a sense of agency
– memories of safe times
You can also build safety in a fantasy world – for example, I have clients who build an image in their minds of a safe place – and then we can bring that sense of safety into your body in the present moment.
Trauma-releasing exercise are an excellent practice to learn when it comes to finding safety in the body. I’ve recently taken my TRE trainings online, so they’re available from anywhere in the world.
Online TRE Intro day: Sep 20th
Online TRE Module 1: Aug 25-26th, Sep 12-13
Online TRE Module 2: Aug 5-6, Oct 27-28
Online TRE Module 3: Oct 10-11, Nov 26-27