Updated: Jul 4, 2019
If you will indulge me…Take your right hand and begin massaging your left index finger. Start out gently and slowly use more force so that you are pushing the muscle into the bone. Pay close attention to what you notice. Do this for a minute or so and then feel into that massaged index finger. Does it feel different from the other fingers? Are you able to feel it more from the inside than the others? Does it feel more alive?
The fun in writing your own blog is getting to unapologetically defend your bias and guide others in exercises of your choice.
Not "Talk Therapy"
Psychotherapy has accrued many nicknames, perhaps none more famous than “talk therapy.” Such an association can lead some to believe that talking our way through our problems is the main therapeutic path. Somatic psychotherapy (the apple of my biased eye) offers an alternative view. What if talking merely serves as a pathway to a far richer experiential territory? After all, there is much more to a given moment than the words we use to describe it. What if our cognitive interpretation is not the most trustworthy source of information or efficient resource for renegotiating our unwanted symptoms?
Let us assume for a moment that we are animals—because we are. Animals, as most of us have seen, have thoroughly well-adapted self-protective instincts. Witness your dog’s automatic response to a barely audible sound coming from the bushes, or your cat’s lightning quick reaction to the dog’s sudden barking fit. Their bodies have developed to react extremely efficiently in the face of danger as part of nature’s most compelling force: survival. In this respect, we have a body not altogether different from my feline companion Sophy or the highly alert deer grazing in the pasture. In times of stress or threat, we know our brain operates in such a way as to react more quickly than our conceptual capacities ever could.
This speedy reaction—such as when you pull your hand back from the stove half a second before you even know you are getting burned—is called the “low path” (Siegel, 2009), because you are utilizing the lower areas of the brain—the limbic system and brain stem. This is technically able to happen because the part of our brain which takes in sensory information (the thalamus) is significantly closer to the part of our brain that sounds the alarm (the amygdala) than the part of our brain that sorts all information rationally (the frontal cortex).
Biologically, this is a great design. If we had to wait for our rational mind to tell us to flee from the tiger or to turn the wheel of the car suddenly, it might be too late. Socially, however, this “low road” does not serve us. Many outstanding psychologists, biologists, and medical doctors have dedicated their life to exploring and explaining the way our animal body contributes to and shapes our psyche (Levine, 2010; Porges, 2011; Chitty, 2013; Van der Kolk, 2014).
Social beings, for better or worse.
As inherently social beings, any slighting (or downright horrific) behavior activates the same defensive response in our nervous system that is firing when a gazelle spots a tiger across the plain. This response churns vast amounts of energy inside our bodies that would usually be used for fighting or fleeing.
But when we are an infant reacting to neglect, or a five year old succumbing to a sexually abusive kindergarten teacher, or a twelve year old dealing with social exclusion, we do not usually have a way of discharging this energy, especially when such a threat is recurring or constant. Even as adults enduring petty stressors such as traffic lights and an overbearing supervisor, we have lost our animalistic ability to discharge the defensive energy and move on.
What then do we do with this charge? We store it in our body in unhealthy ways, come up with complex behaviors to manage storing such a burden, and develop elaborate stories about ourselves based on the management behaviors (Kain & Terrell, 2018). Thus, pathology is created.
This cycle, although longitudinally dysfunctional, is immediately adaptive. An infant unable to process the immense charge associated with life-threatening abandonment due to an underdeveloped nervous system is wise to dissociate. And the five-year-old boy unable to stop a full-grown man from molesting him can temporarily benefit from holding the charge in his gut and convincing himself that he deserved such treatment instead of facing the age-inappropriate realization that such atrocity occurs in the world he is just getting to know.
This adaptive process happens to an extreme degree in such traumatic circumstances, and to a lesser degree in less dramatic ones, but instinctual protective responses are going on most of the time for most of us.
Cue somatic psychotherapy. Wilhelm Reich (a doctor and psychoanalyst trained by Sigmund Freud) coined the phrase “character armor.” He observed that our way of relating to the world is typically developed in the first few years of our lives and shows its form in our physical body as well as our psyche. Such “armoring” could even be located to specific parts of the body as intense and chronic musculature holding patterns, numbness, or constant over- or under- activation (Reich, 1933).
Way ahead of his time, we now have infinitely more refined research on the nervous system and the body’s way of harboring survival neuroses. In somatic psychotherapy, we work with internal bodily awareness, known as interoception, to locate the armoring, dispel the survival charge, and unwind the management behaviors and stories that accompany them, thus returning the nervous system to a regulated state and freeing the psyche from such an intense bind.
“Talk therapy” alone is simply not enough to do this. Most psychotherapy performed nowadays is concerned mainly with restructuring thought patterns and changing behaviors. But understanding that many of our hurtful behaviors and thought patterns are more often than not driven by nervous system charge unhealthily diverted from instinctual drives makes the notion of changing thoughts and behaviors without addressing these bodily responses seem almost silly. It would be like trying to rid your yard of grass by cutting it.
Your body knows.
There are many types of therapy, and some not aimed directly at the body end up accessing it. This is great news, and a therapist who operates outside the realm of somatic therapy is all the wiser to understand the bodily signs when they emerge indirectly. I have personally found, however, as a client and therapist, that working with them deliberately tends to be more efficient, more holistic, and ultimately bears a tremendous gift which other forms of therapy might not unearth: “the Living and Knowing Body” (Levine, 2014).
Dr. Peter Levine reminds us that such is the profound result that often comes as an unexpected side effect to doing somatic psychotherapy. The finger massage and the increased sensation in it, is the tiniest of glimpses into this phenomenon. Through doing this type of therapy and working this way with the whole body over long periods of time, we awaken a living, vibrant force in our body giving us greater access to life’s subtleties, and to joy. A sweet, and hard-earned deal.