Therapy has no doubt developed and grown significantly since its beginning stages. While many of the original theories and practices are still in place, like any new discovery, counseling has developed with time. In recent years, one of the most significant developments to be incorporated into therapy is the recognition of the role of movement and body-awareness in the healing process.
The Body-Mind Connection
Many traditional therapists and clients may wonder why the body is important in this process. This question is answered by Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score. His work addresses the necessity of including our bodies in the work that we do with our minds. David Emerson has partnered with van der Kolk in order to explore the different ways in which movement can be beneficial for mental health. Together they have shown that there are three main domains in the counseling world that are contributing to our discovery of the use of the body and movement in counseling. Trauma theory, attachment theory, and neuroscience are among the foremost areas in the psychological world that are beginning to focus on the importance of engaging the body physically, alongside talk therapy. In this article, I provide a brief overview of why each of these fields is recognizing the importance of physical healing.
Trauma not only affects a person psychologically, but also physiologically. Our bodies were created with fascinating neurons, chemicals, and hormones. When we experience trauma, our bodies respond in the way that they were meant to in order for us to survive – with a fight, flight, or freeze response. In a fight response, our body reacts with a surge of stress hormones that give it strength to fight off danger. A flight response pumps blood into our extremities to enable them to flee a dangerous situation. And in a freeze response, our body and its neurons will go temporarily offline in order to preserve our life from overwhelming situations. Different people will experience a different survival response in different situations, but something significant occurs in the body, irrespective of the response. Although trauma may comprise a single event, or may include a series of events with a beginning and an end, the physiological effects of trauma are often carried throughout our lives. When we engage the body in therapy, we allow our body to re-release the hormones and neurons that were ignited in the midst of trauma. By re-engaging these physical responses in a safe space, we allow the body to properly distribute and dissolve these responses so that we no longer have to live in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze long after the danger has passed.
Attachment theory developed by observing children and their primary caregivers. Its hypothesis is that a child who experiences emotional and physical attunement to their needs will develop a “secure-attachment.” However, when children live in an unpredictable environment or experience many stressful situations that erode their assurance of their needs being met, they can develop an “insecure-attachment.” Much of the secure or insecure attachment styles are a visceral response to a child’s felt experience. When a child has experienced traumatic situations for a long time, their body tells them that there are no relationships that they can depend on. As a result, they may begin to function out of an insecure attachment. Being aware of the body and what it is communicating in the therapy room can create or re-create a sense of secure attachment for the individual. This is a visceral experience that goes beyond simply talking. It occurs when the therapist shows attunement and awareness of the client’s physical and emotional needs by mirroring physical movements or postures, or simply by verbalizing their own awareness of how the client is expressing their current state physically.
Neuroscience is similar to trauma theory in that it shows the significance of the body’s inclusion in the healing process. When we study the brain in neuroscience, we can see on monitors how the brain responds under stress or trauma. Often the whole brain is either surging during a trauma (hyperarousal), or else the brain has gone completely offline (hypoarousal). In talk therapy an individual only engages a small part of the front of their brain, but when they are physically involved in the process this allows the rest of the brain to also participate. In this way, healing can occur in all parts of the brain that were affected in the midst of the trauma.
Christian Counseling to Engage the Body in Healing
Physical movement and body-awareness has been shown to enhance and complement talk therapy. Often trauma causes the logical, linguistic side of the brain to go offline so that the body can focus on survival. This means that reintegrating the mind-body connection can involve a long journey. But, as a Christian counselor, I have witnessed how this is definitely a worthwhile process.
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