Sometimes when I ask a client what they’re feeling, they’ll respond with a thought.
“I can’t believe what a jerk my boss is,” or “My partner seems to think the dishes get done by themselves.”
It’s easy to understand why. Most of us do not grow up learning an extensive, emotional vocabulary. Further, we are often unaware or out of touch with the sensations our bodies produce when we feel things. Our bodies hold a rich cache of information about our emotional life. This then influences the statements that our minds generate about what we feel at any given time.
We have common phrases to describe this physiological process, such as “butterflies in my stomach”, “gut reaction”, and “warm all over”. Yet, we sometimes aren’t able to sense where and how emotions show up in our bodies.
Part of the work of a somatic therapist is helping people learn to connect with the “felt sense” of what they’re experiencing, or their gut. This involves paying attention to the cues elicited by the body.
Why is this important?
Connecting to your Gut
“When we regard ourselves only through the lens of our thoughts, we have a limited view of who we are,” says Katie Zale, a social work therapist at the Viva Center.
“In addition,” she explains, “our thoughts can tell us to dismiss, avoid or stuff down what we’re feeling. This ultimately compounds our distress.”
“To heal the mind, we need to experience the emotions that go with our stories, and those are located in the body, says Hilary Jacobs Hendel. This New York-based psychotherapist is the creator of the Change Triangle, a mental health tool for helping people reconnect with core emotions.
Hendel believes “we do not have to choose between our thoughts and our emotions … we can become aware of both and understand how thoughts and emotions work together to help us feel better, or worse.”
Tools for Connection
One of the ways Zale works with clients to strengthen the connection with the gut is through the use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT encourages us to embrace our thoughts and feelings, no matter how uncomfortable. From there, we can become more psychologically flexible and able to choose how we respond to our feelings.
For example, we might feel extremely nervous before giving a big presentation at work. Our stomach feels tight, our chest feels constricted, and our thoughts tell us that because we feel this way, we’re going to do a poor job. If these sensations become stronger, we might call in sick because we’re convinced we won’t be able to perform.
Yet, if we can allow the sensations to be present, and rewrite the story we have about them, we may come to realize that we can feel them and continue to function. Over time, we might even learn to expect them, and know that they aren’t to be feared or avoided.
Zale offers this article to learn exercises for tuning into your body and beginning to learn its language.
“When we can feel strong sensations and have a neutral or even welcoming response to them, “says Zale,” so much more is possible.”
Interested in learning more about somatic therapy and how it might benefit you? Contact us at email@example.com to learn more. In addition, you can find a wealth of free resources for support via the Resilient Brain Project.
Katie Zale, LICSW is a clinician at The Viva Center. With a person-centered, client-led approach, she works with clients experiencing anxiety, depression, life transitions and eating disorders. She especially enjoys working with young adults to examine and grow beyond perfectionism and rigidity.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “Art Therapy as Trauma Treatment: The Power of Nonverbal Expression” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management“