Last Monday morning, I woke up after a restless night feeling rather anxious. I could feel almost a flat board through my middle. It was a very strong sensation. I knew I needed to get up soon and start getting ready for work so I didn’t have a lot of time to unpack it and work out what was going on. I decided to try Focusing (“a body-oriented process of self-awareness and emotional healing”), so I focused on the sensation and just said “hello” to it. To my surprise, it eased almost instantly. It didn’t completely go away but it eased to a more bearable level.
A couple of days later, I was late picking up my daughter from her first gymnastics class. She told me that she was really frightened and just about to cry when I arrived. She had heard a beeping sound and thought it was an emergency siren and that something had happened to me (a couple of weeks earlier, she had witnessed a man die after he dove off a rock into a pool and then all the emergency vehicles and CPR etc. so there is probably some residual trauma from that experience).
As she talked about being frightened, I asked her “Where do you feel that in your body?”. Immediately she answered that she could feel it in her chest. She then described the shape and texture of the feeling. She talked some more about me being late and the events prior to me picking her up (comforting another girl whose parent was also late, etc). After a while, I asked her if she could still feel the feeling in her chest, she said yes but that it was less. By the time we got home, the sensation had completely gone.
With many adults, when asked to describe what they are feeling in their body, they can’t answer. I’m getting better at finding sensations in my body that are related to my emotions but I find it very difficult to describe them. Apparently, we get better at it if we practice.
Every time I ask my kids where they feel something, they are immediately able to tell me where they feel it in their body and they can very clearly describe the sensation as well as the changes as they process whatever it is they are processing (positive as well as negative). For example, my son described a “warm happy glow” in his chest after he helped his sister.
Last night, my daughter had to have 6 stitches in her scalp after a friend’s teeth banged into her head on a trampoline. As she dealt with her fear leading up to having the stitches and afterwards in processing everything that had happened, she was able to describe the feeling in her body as she progressed from fear through to pride that she had got through and been brave and finally the feeling of love (a love heart that grew in size) from all the support and empathy she got from us and our friends.
So I guess as children, we are not taught to listen to our body’s messages about our feelings and in many families, children are taught to suppress their feelings. As an adult then, it takes time to reconnect and for our body (brain?) to start trusting that we really are listening to it. And again, it’s about empathic listening: not analysing, unravelling, or trying to change anything but just to “be” with the sensation and have an attitude of curiosity and compassion.
So this is my daily practice now. When I wake up every morning, before getting out of bed, I do a short body scan, asking if there is anything that wants my awareness or attention and then, even though most of the time I can’t describe the sensation, I just try to spend time with the sensation and notice it. As I go about my day, I’m noticing that I’m more quickly aware of my feelings in reaction to events (for example, disappointment at a change of plans). This is becoming more of a habit than my old habitual “blame” or “numbness” that I used to feel when triggered. I tended to have delayed reactions because it was so hard for me to let myself feel disappointment. Now I can notice I’m feeling disappointed and give myself some compassion (I’m feeling disappointed. I was really looking forward to ABC… etc).
Focusing was discovered in the 1960s when Professor Eugene Gendlin (Uni of Chicago) studied hundreds of recorded psychotherapy sessions to try to determine the factors that led to a course of psychotherapy treatment being successful. What he and his research team discovered was that the most powerful factor was whether the client mentioned what they were feeling in their body. If this was brought up in the first couple of sessions, the therapy outcome was successful, whereas if the client stayed in “story” and didn’t refer to any body sensations, it was more likely to be unsuccessful. Anyway, there is lots more to explore with focusing, but in the meantime, if you are interested, you can learn more at The Focusing Institute.