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Build resilience through body awareness between therapy sessions

Clients will often come to therapy hoping that they'll get an ‘ah ha’ moment in every session; that moment when everything finally clicks into place and makes sense. This does happen from time to time but often changes occur slowly and imperceptibly. Part of my job as a therapist is to track those changes and help my clients see them as they happen week by week; thus creating new patterns of behaviour and foundations upon which to build. This is particularly true when you are working somatically with the nervous system.

Depending on the client’s history, small, subtle changes may be all we are looking for, to begin with, but over time they can build upon each other and result in bigger shifts within the client's nervous system, worldview and sense of self. We don’t want these changes to be temporary so if we are not looking for those shifts between sessions, not acknowledging them when they happen and how we feel when they do, it makes the resolution of nervous system dysregulation harder and less sustainable. By making a conscious effort to notice changes, we are pressing the 'save' button on our physiological and mental integration as it happens.

It is well known in therapeutic circles that the sessions themselves, while productive, are often the catalyst for the real work that happens outside of the sessions. While it is true that with somatic experiencing you can have many transformative experiences within the session itself, it is often that this time is used to initiate a reorganisation of the nervous system around certain events. It is in the spaces between the sessions, the experiences with loved ones, colleagues and friends, the morning walk and a good sleep where the reorganisation happens and begins to bed down. To help this along, I will always encourage my clients to foster a consistent curiosity about the state of their nervous system. This helps to track subtle changes as they happen and to encourage a sense of welcome awareness around which the nervous system feels capable of change.

Having said that, it is important to note that there are many reasons why people will not want to risk being aware of their internal states inside of sessions, let alone outside of them without the safety of a therapist to guide them. There are times, if a client is still at a stage of being easily overwhelmed, when I will specifically tell people not to be too aware just yet, but to just trust that the mind and body are processing things in the background. If they need to shut the awareness down or use coping strategies and defences that have worked in the past, then they should do that. More capacity to hold difficult experiences will come in time. With practice and increased resilience, more awareness will become possible. How to safely begin becoming more somatically aware Whether you’re working with a somatic experiencing® practitioner or not, you can begin to be curious about how your emotions show up in your body; what the physiological experience is. You can do this by asking yourself this question as you go about your life in between your sessions. The question is simply this: How do I know?

  • I’m feeling sad: How do I know? (What sensations in my body tell me this?)

  • I’m feeling overwhelmed: How do I know?

  • I’m feeling frustrated: How do I know?

Going beyond the conceptual awareness of emotions like happiness, sadness or anger, and into the physiological experience initiates an integration of the nervous system and higher brain functions, linking how you perceive the sensations you feel in your body, to the sensations themselves. For example, if you were to say to me: “I feel really relieved”, I would ask you “How do you know?” Relieved, like any other emotion, is a concept we’ve designed to describe a set of physiological cues that we’ve since learned to ignore. Perhaps you feel lighter, your head is clearer. You have a sense of expansion in your chest or your breathing is deeper and less laboured. Giving your body the gift of a few seconds to allow the integration of concept with somatic reality will help your nervous system build resilience.

Growth in resilience is illustrated in the image below. Where the two black lines represent the top and bottom of our resilience window, the lines represent the stressors in our everyday lives. These things happen whether we are aware of them or not. More awareness of your internal states widens that window so that, while the stressors are no smaller or bigger, the container within which those stressors exist is now larger and more able to cope with them.

Like anything unfamiliar, it takes time to get used to and time to get good at, but using this simple tool is a good starting point to build your somatic awareness. Somatic experiencing® is a modality designed to work directly with the nervous system to build resilience and resolve trauma. Simple tools like the questions I've mentioned that can slowly build your somatic awareness are perfectly safe to do on your own. However, if you are easily overwhelmed and experiencing panic attacks, for example, it would be best to work with a trained Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner first to help you titrate your awareness in a safe and intentionally measured way.

If you'd like to know more about what happens in a Somatic Experiencing® session then you can read this blog post.

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