Friday, May 30, 2014

What Does the Body Hold?

One of the reasons I have become committed to equine psychotherapy is the fact that it requires the use of the body, rather than simply talking. But, why is this so important? Well, most clients with eating disorders are very intelligent; they don't suffer from an inability to use their brains, even if their actions are not the most rational. The average eating disorder client can easily talk for an entire hour about all of their thoughts and beliefs, but can make it through that hour almost completely avoiding emotion. It's a challenge for us therapists, as our job is, you know, to talk. So, it's easy to get caught up in talking brain to brain, leaving out emotions, and the body.

And maybe this sounds kind of "woo-woo," but I think it is true that our bodies hold onto emotions. Think of how many physical ailments can be linked to emotions. Headaches and stomachaches are easily seen as sometimes being the result of emotions. I have become very interested in Peter Levine's work with trauma, and he is probably the foremost person to convince me that our bodies hold suppressed emotion.

In short, Levine argues that we can use animal models to understand human trauma. (Disclaimer: this is my interpretation of his writings.) Levine specifically uses whiplash injuries as one of his examples. He indicates that many people who experience low speed car accidents that result in whiplash report physical symptoms that surpass what one would expect from the low speed rear-ending. This is where he brings in animal models. He argues that animals, who can be under pretty constant threat from predators, don't demonstrate trauma. Now, I don't know if this was his example, or just what I ended up using as an example, but think of a deer in the headlights. It is frozen, but then bounds off into the woods. Well, apparently, if we were to follow that deer, we would eventually find it shaking in the woods. And, Levine indicates that this shaking is the release of the emotion from the body.

Now, back to the car accident. Humans get into a low speed car accident, and then get out, get their insurance, call the cops, call loved ones, etc., and the emotion they might be feeling gets blocked by this flurry of acting. His argument is that if we were to stand on the side of the road, and allow our bodies to release the emotion, we would be less likely to have the effects of trauma. I am confident this is dramatically oversimplifying his stance, but this is the basics. He has written a number of books on trauma, any of which would provide more in-depth information on this concept.

So, now, back to the clients with eating disorders. Not everyone with an eating disorder has a clearly definable trauma history; that is not my stance. But, eating disorders do serve to block emotion. Rather than feel about something, you focus on food in some way or another. That effectively blocks the emotion inside your body. Often emotions are numbed completely and clients will report really not feeling anything anymore. But it's still there. The extent of blocking varies from person to person, but I'm arguing that, in order to achieve recovery, and general psychological health, the emotion(s) must be released. There are many avenues for achieving this, sometimes even including simple talk therapy. But, if the emotions are NOT being released through talk therapy, it might be time to look for something to add to you therapy work. Dance therapy, yoga, art therapy, physical movement, and equine psychotherapy are all possibilities; and I'm sure there are many more I've not listed. But the bottom line is this: Release the emotion from your body. Trust it will not consume you. And, in fact, understand it is consuming you more when you block it than when you release it.

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