Why I get you to move and breathe in your session: the neuroscience
Have you ever wondered why I invite you to move or breathe deeply in your session? Have you questioned how it makes you feel better? With my training in both body psychotherapy and dance-movement therapy (as well as the more conventional talking therapies), it makes perfect sense to me. However, a new client said to me the other day “I thought I’d try something a bit woo woo” which made me chuckle inside.
So in order to dispel the woo woo “I’m going to have to science the sh** out of this” as Matt Damon’s character said in The Martian. Read on to find out the neuroscience behind why I get you to move and breathe in your session:
Your brain experiences the world through your body
You experience the world around you via your body. Your sense of ‘self’ is informed by 3 things:
- Information you are taking in from the external environment from your 5 senses. This is called exteroception. Sound, images, sensations, smells and tastes are taken in via your sensory organs and processed by your brain. Am I safe? Is there a threat? Or is it an opportunity?
- Information about your internal environment (interoception). How do I feel at the moment? Am I feeling nauseous? What’s going on with my heart? Is it beating too fast? What’s going on with that tension in my throat? This is our internal ‘felt’ sense.
- Information about where your body is in space – spatial awareness – your posture and how your body is moving through your environment. This is called proprioception.
All these three things combine to inform how you are feeling. Am I safe? Am I sad? Am I powerless or am I empowered?
When you feel anxiety or depression you feel physical symptoms in your body as well as thoughts and emotions. Your body will respond to thoughts, whether there is actually something there in front of you, or just being thought about.
For example, with anxiety you may feel a racing heart, pressure in the centre of your chest, dizziness, and maybe even nausea. With depression you may feel a total lack of energy in your body and a desire to withdraw.
There is no separation between mind and body
Historically Western medicine has followed the philosophy that diseases of the mind are separate to diseases of the body. This all started with French philosopher René Descarts in the mid 1600’s. Eastern medicine takes a very different view and thankfully, 400 years later, we are now coming around to a more integrated view of the body and mind.
What affects your body affects your mind. And your thoughts and emotions affect how you hold your body. There is no separation between dis-ease of the mind and dis-ease of the body.
Your body remembers (not just your brain)
What we normally think of as memory (images, facts, figures) is what scientist call our ‘explicit memory’ and is dependent on written or oral language. But there is another kind of memory, the implicit memory which is unconscious. For example, remembering how to ride a bike (you don’t consciously get on and thinking to yourself, I put my right foot here and my left foot here and push… you just get on and do it automatically).
Both explicit and implicit memory are intricately linked to our sensory nervous system. How you stand, what you are touching, what you can smell, hear or see. So by changing how you stand and what you are doing with your body we might invoke old memories to surface from your subconscious.
Your somatic nervous system and the soft tissues of your body are like a storehouse of the history of your life.
We are creatures of habit and what we do every day becomes our reality
Your body ‘braces’ in preparation for a perceived threat and that over time this bracing can become habitual. Unconscious muscular contraction occurs over time and becomes a habitual, adaptive pattern in the body, leading to altered posture and movement.
By bringing awareness to posture and creating a movement that differs from the habitual patterns, we can help bring to consciousness any unconscious beliefs and withheld feelings, and start to lessen the contraction of your muscles.
To change your mind we need to move your body
To understand WHY you feel like you do we’ll be using the newest part of your brain (in evolutionary terms), the prefrontal cortex. We’ll talk and use mindfulness techniques.
But to make a CHANGE we need to engage both your mid-brain, the limbic system (which controls instinct and the basic emotions (pleasure, anger, fear) and drives (hunger, caring, sex, dominance), plus your brain stem (movement, breathing, touch).
We recalibrate your nervous system from the bottom up. To do that we use movement, breathing, music, vocal and physical expression.
“Top-down regulation involves strengthening the capacity of the watchtower (medial prefrontal cortex) to monitor your body’s sensations. Mindfulness meditation and yoga can help with this. Bottom-up regulation involves recalibrating the autonomic nervous system, (which as we have seen, originates in the brain stem). We can access the ANS through breath, movement or touch.” Bessel van der Kolk in ‘The Body Keeps the Score’.
Emotions are ‘felt’ in the body
It’s not just anxiety or depression that are felt in the body. All emotions are felt in the body. Scientists Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen at Aalto University in Finland have mapped where people feel emotions in their body:
Each emotion has a physical expression in the body
Did you know that each emotion has a posture or a gesture? Neurologist Antonio Damasio explains that each emotion has specific movements in the body:
- Externally visible movements e.g. in your body or facial muscles
- Internal movements of organs e.g. your heart racing
- Molecules in your body e.g. adrenalin released
Your body reacts to triggers in its environment unconsciously based on past experience, genes, and cultural factors.
We can use different postures or gestures to help you feel different emotions
If you’re feeling confused about what you are feeling, we can check into your body posture or gestures to help you understand.
But we can also change what you are feeling by altering your posture or movement. (Read the science behind this here).
Think of how you would hold your body if you were angry. You might stand and shake your fists, screwing up your face. Do you think it is possible to feel joy whilst you are in that posture? Try it!
What about if you stood with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, hands-on-hips, chest puffed out – the wonder woman/power posture. Could you feel week and powerless in that stance?
Check out this 30-second video of Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy explaining why standing in wonder woman pose for 2 minutes could change the way you feel:
Neuroscience tells us that by moving differently we can explore different emotions
“Exploration and practice of new and unfamiliar motor patterns can help the client to experience new unaccustomed feelings.” Tal Shafir “Using Movement to Regulate Emotion: Neurophysiological findings and their application in Psychotherapy”, Frontiers in Psychology 2016.
Just by changing your movement out of the habitual, it will allow previously withheld information to surface from your implicit or explicit memory.
Movement helps you to explore your inner reality. We find the authenticity of ourselves through movement: a sense of moving ourselves and being moved by the unconscious.
By increasing the range of movement in your body we increase the range of psychological or emotional possibilities in your life.
So there you have it….
I’ve explained the neuroscience behind why I get you to move and breathe in your session, but we’re all unique beings and there’s a lot we still don’t know or understand about the body and the mind. So maybe there’s a bit of woo woo in there anyway!
If you would like to learn more about the science behind what I do, I would suggest these books as a starter:
If you are interested in delving deeper into this I would recommend:
If you would like to ask me what somatic psychotherapy is all about, I offer a FREE 15 minute discovery session by phone for new clients.