I look up to find fields of purple and blue wildflowers in every direction, and gasp with delight. I’ve never seen a place like this before. I feel the rush of cool air blow past me. My breath is leveling out, going from fast and shallow to deep and smooth as I make my final ascent to the top of the mountain. The sun is warming my skin. There are other hikers around, but still plenty of space for me to feel like I’ve got the whole mountain range to myself. I feel so strong in my body, like I’m capable of anything. I toss my backpack down and feel my shoulders expand with a sense of accomplishment. My arms swing side to side to release the tension from carrying my pack. It feels good to grow big and take up space, to take in the vastness of my surroundings. I spin around to see the panoramic views and am overcome with a sense of calm and deep peace. The worries of my daily city life seem so far away. Here, I am in a little slice of natural paradise. I take a seat, close my eyes, and inhale all of this. I am deliberate about focusing on all these parts of my experience. I want to create a detailed memory I can recall later.
That hike to Shrine Pass in Vail, Colorado is now my designated “peaceful place”. It has helped me fall asleep numerous nights when I had a horrible bought of insomnia. Focusing on the felt sense of this memory when I lay down for bed refocuses my nervous system on the deep peace in my body that day, and helps me access it once again.
I’m sharing this because June marks my 4th year as an employee for a Denver community mental health agency, and it’s been quite the ride. I feel like my professional journey could be its own blog post. But for today, I’m focusing on one major aspect of how I’ve come to work with people, and myself. Nowadays, when I meet with a client for the first time, I explain that I’m going to be including somatic focused interventions. I share that, because our minds and bodies are so closely connected, we’re going to explore how their body responds to emotional experiences. Client’s ears tend to perk up when I share that I believe this approach is more useful than traditional talk therapy. What gets my clients excited is that, for many of them, they’ve been through traditional talk therapy before, with little to no improvement.
You don’t need to be seeking therapy to apply these tools. In a culture where we tend to be so disconnected from our physical being, I think we could all benefit from increased body based awareness.
Here is an overview of my favorite somatic tricks:
- Focusing on our breath ~ If you practice yoga or meditation, you already know the benefit of coming back to the breath. As the one thing that we can count on in any situation, this is a quick way to refocus the mind on the present moment. Once we connect to our life force, we can manipulate the breath to suit our needs with things like longer exhales, pausing between inhaling and exhaling, or simply labeling what’s happening as “breathing in, breathing out”. Try this next time you’re feeling flustered.
- Grounding ~ Using your senses, you can reposition yourself back to your physical environment when the mind takes you spinning into the past or future. If you’re someone who finds themselves physically disconnected often, try compiling several small objects that you can easily reference. I recommend at least one object per sense, so something you can see (a calming picture, a poem or lyrics you enjoy), something you can smell (essential oils or scented lotion), something you can taste (a mint or piece of gum), something you can touch (a small rock or a soft fabric), something you can hear (a CD or other little noise maker). You can also just focus on the weight of your body as it is supported in a chair or the by the ground.
- Getting Curious ~ Many of us feel can feel nervous in our stomach, our heart can race, our palms can get sweaty. We recognize the physical symptoms of things like anxiety, panic, and stress. However, when I ask clients where they are feeling an emotion like anger or sadness in their body, this can sometimes feel foreign. With curious exploration, they can tell me the physical location, the size, shape, and perhaps even the color they associate with it. This opens us up to a whole wealth of understanding about how our bodies store, and release, emotions. Similarly, when we focus on a place of tension or relaxation in the body, we gain insight as to our emotional experience.
- Bilateral Stimulation ~ What really helped me keep a clear sense of my hike was that I “installed” the memory into myself. With the use of bilateral stimulation (activating both sides of the brain through self-tapping), memories are strengthened as they are stored. A fantastic book that anyone can pick up is called Tapping In. This book is full of bilateral stimulation exercises that work for all kinds of issues. I highly recommend this book to clients as a tool to use outside of our work together.
- Out of Your Head, Into Your Heart ~ I love using affirmations, intention setting, and gratitude journaling. These tools keep me focused on my goals and clear emotional space. What I’ve noticed, though, is that it can be easy to keep these things at surface level. Just thinking about how we want to feel doesn’t do a lot of good. We’ve got to actually feel our feelings. Radical idea, I know :). For example, if you are gratitude journaling, rather than just writing, “good conversation with my boyfriend today”, you might write, “good conversation with my boyfriend today. I felt heard, supported, and loved”. Allow yourself to access those deeper levels within. It will strengthen your use of these tools, and builds insight.
These tools are really the tip of the iceberg for somatic based interventions, but I encourage you to start playing around with what works for you. This kind of increased awareness is key for more quickly and effectively moving through emotional turmoil. A perfect example was one day last week. I got emotionally triggered by a couple things at work, but didn’t have time to really sort through it. I got home from work and felt fatigued. I knew this headache was a cue from my body to address what was bothering me emotionally. I gave myself the space to really listen from within, work through it, and move on. If I had ignored that fatigued sensation, or chalked it up to just needing to drink more water, I would have missed an opportunity to release and restore on a deeper level.
Have you tried any of these ideas? What works for you? Drop me a comment and let me know!