NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Experiential Therapy: Learning to Sense Emotions in Your Body As Part of Trauma Therapy

One aspect of experiential psychotherapy that's different from regular talk therapy is sensing emotions in the body.  Sensing emotions in the body helps to deepen the work, get to unconscious emotions, and keeps the work in therapy from being just intellectual.  But some clients have difficulty sensing their emotions, especially if they have experienced significant trauma.  So, as part of the preparation phase of trauma therapy, the trauma therapist helps the client to learn to sense their emotions (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into Unconscious Mind and What's the Difference Between "Top-Down" and "Bottom-Up" Approaches to Trauma Therapy?).

Experiential Therapy: Learning to Sense Emotions in Your Body as Part of Trauma Therapy 

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Learning to Sense Emotions the Body:
The following fictional clinical vignette shows how a client in experiential therapy can learn to sense emotions in the body:

After numerous experiences of trying to work through unresolved childhood trauma in regular talk therapy, Ellen decided to try experiential therapy.

Ellen's psychotherapist provided her with psychoeducation about the different types of experiential therapy, including EMDR therapy, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis, and how each of them used the mind-body connection as part of the healing process.

As part of the preparation phase of trauma therapy, Ellen's therapist asked her to talk about 10 memories where she felt good about herself.  As she thought about it, Ellen had no problem coming up with the 10 memories from all different times in her life where she felt good about herself.  But as she and her psychotherapist went over each memory and her therapist asked her what emotions she felt in her body, Ellen was unable to identify the emotions or where she felt these emotions in her body.

Based on Ellen's traumatic history, as part of her defense mechanisms to protect herself when she was growing up, she learned to numb her emotions.  Unfortunately, as she discovered in her therapy, she not only numbed her anger, fear and sadness, she also numbed her positive emotions.  As a result, she wasn't sure what she felt.

Since experiential psychotherapy is based on being able to identify and experience emotions, Ellen's psychotherapist helped her to begin to sense her emotions in her body by starting with non-threatening situations.

For instance, Ellen had a puppy that she was very attached to from the day that she got him.  Whenever she held her puppy, she could feel how much she loved him and the puppy's unconditional love for her.

Using Ellen's experience with her puppy, Ellen's therapist asked her to close her eyes and imagine that she was holding her puppy.  Then, she asked Ellen to tell her what emotions came up for her and if she was aware of where she felt these emotions in her body.

Ellen had no problem imaging herself holding her puppy and sensing her emotions.  She told her therapist that she felt tremendous love for her puppy, and she felt protective of him.  She could also sense how affectionate her puppy was when he cuddled with her.  When she thought about where she felt her emotions for her puppy, she said she felt them radiating in her chest near her heart.

Over time, as Ellen and her therapist continued to work on other non-threatening experiences where she felt comfortable, she got better at identifying more emotions and sensing where she felt these emotions in her body.

After they had worked on a number of similar experiences, Ellen was ready to work on the 10 positive memories where she felt good about herself as part of the preparation phase of trauma therapy.

But Ellen was concerned that she might be unable to experience the negative emotions associated with her unresolved childhood trauma.  So, her psychotherapist recommended that they start by working on less threatening negative emotions.

She asked Ellen to come up with several memories that were mildly unpleasant.  She suggested that Ellen come up with memories that, on a scale of 0-10 (with 0 being no disturbance and 10 being the most disturbance Ellen could imagine) that were a 3 or 4 on that scale.

In response, Ellen came up with a memory of feeling mildly annoyed when she had to wait on line at the grocery store.  She was able to sense her annoyance and, on a scale of 0-10, she thought that memory was a 3.  Sensing where she felt the annoyance in her body was more difficult.

Her psychotherapist helped Ellen by suggesting that Ellen sense in her body to see where she was holding onto tension.  She also recommended that Ellen first focus on the area between her throat and her gut.  It took Ellen a while before she was able to detect that she felt mild tension in her upper stomach when she thought about that memory.

After they worked on a number of memories that were a 3 or 4, they gradually worked up to memories that were a 5 or a 6 in terms of how disturbing they were.

One such memory was when Ellen and her puppy ran into her neighbor in the elevator, and the neighbor complained that she didn't think the building management should allow dogs in the building because she was allergic to dogs.  Ellen told her therapist that she tried to be pleasant to her neighbor, who was being unpleasant to her, but she felt annoyed with her neighbor.

When Ellen re-experienced that memory and sensed into her body, she felt a constriction in her throat.  She told her therapist that she thought the constriction in her throat was probably related to wanting to argue with her neighbor but holding back.

Gradually, Ellen and her psychotherapist continued to work on increasingly difficult memories to help Ellen to identify and sense the emotions related to these memories in her body.  She was also expanding her window of tolerance for unpleasant emotions.

Experiential Therapy: Learning to Sense Emotions in Your Body As Part of Trauma Therapy

After a while, Ellen felt comfortable enough to be able to handle the difficult emotions that were associated with her unresolved childhood memories, and she and her psychotherapist used EMDR therapy to do trauma therapy (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Experiential psychotherapy involves identifying emotions and sensing where these emotions are in the body.  This deepens the work and keeps the therapy from being just an intellectual exercise.  It also helps to get to underlying emotions.

Many people, who have unresolved trauma, are unable to identify and sense emotions in the body related to traumatic memories.  This is due to the protective nature of the defense mechanisms they used as children, including emotional numbing, which was useful at the time to keep them from being overwhelmed, but isn't useful as an adult.

Usually, the more traumatic the memories are and the more defended these individuals had to be at the time, the more difficult it is to identify emotions and to be aware of the body.

As part of the preparation phase of trauma therapy, a trauma therapist can help clients to begin to identify non-threatening emotions, at first, as they gradually work their way to more challenging emotions.

By being aware of emotions in the body related to traumatic memories, clients in experiential psychotherapy are better equipped to gradually work through these difficult emotions to resolve the trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Unresolved traumatic experiences will remain a part of your experience to be triggered at any time.

Getting help from an experienced trauma therapist can free you from your traumatic experiences, so you can live a more fulfilling life (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than suffering on your own, you owe it to yourself to get the help that you need.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome their traumatic experiences.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.