Use the Body’s Subtle Movements to Understand the Mind

Guest Blog Contributed By Emma Barton, MA, LMHC, BC-DMT, E-RYT

As a dance/movement therapist and yoga therapist, I use the body as a tool to help clients in recovery better understand their mind.  The mind can be tricky and particularly challenging when trying to cease addictive behaviors. To better understand this, let me share a pretty common example of how this happens.

Imagine you have just begun a diet, and you are trying to eliminate all sugary treats from your meals and snacks.  Then you learn that you have been invited to attend a small reunion with a bunch of friends that would normally not be a problem, but you know that these meetings always involve an enormous array of coffee, doughnuts and pastries.  So, you prepare yourself not to indulge through a process of self-talk.  On the day of the event, you feel prepared with the help of this internal cognitive conversation (and you also make sure to eat beforehand).

With your internal self-talk accompanying you, you are reminded to focus on other aspects of the experience.  You do well for about 15 minutes and then a friend you haven’t seen in ages invites you to the table so that he can grab something to eat.  You follow him and become even more aware of the inner voice firmly repeating your mantra: “don’t do it.” In this moment, something else happens and things begin to move very rapidly.  Despite your prior work to mentally prepare and the little cognitive reminders chanting, “don’t do it,” you quickly pick up a chocolate doughnut and gobble it up in lightening speed.

Emma-Barton-8-15-13If you are familiar with this phenomenon, then you may appreciate that just because you make a mental decision to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that your actions will follow suit.  Any addictive behavior we attempt to change via cognitive counsel alone stands the distinct possibility of relapse.  The example above represents a sequence of thoughts that neuroscience calls top-down processing.

The idea is that if we intellectually understand and commit ourselves to a planned course of action, then it should result in predictable behavior.  This might be true some of the time, but for a lot of people trapped in an addiction cycle, “understanding” the root of their addictive behavior—or even planning other behavior—does not necessarily result in cessation and/or sustained sobriety.  Let’s revisit the story to explore it further.

So, after eating the doughnut you feel tremendous guilt and decide that because your efforts failed you might as well eat two more.  When you get home, you notice the weight of shame and guilt you are feeling for not being able to exhibit better self-control.  In your head, you review the sequence of events that led up to your fall from grace and this time you check in with how your body responded each step of the way.  You notice that you felt pretty good about your convictions until your friend approached you.  You remember the internal self-talk as your friend led you to the table, but only now you recognize the physical experience of discomfort in your body.

Being in contact with this friend brought up a lot of feelings of insecurity.  As you reflect on the relationship and interaction with this friend, you notice the presence of specific sensations in your body.  Because you have been working with a dance/movement therapist for the past few months, you are quickly able to identify these physical sensations as ones that have surfaced before.  You recall subtle vibrations in your chest, tightness in your neck and shoulders, and that your stomach began to churn.

It all begins to make sense.  You realize that emotions were present in that interaction that you had previously ignored.  You felt awkward and uncomfortable in the relationship with your friend, which resulted in physical experiences of anxiety.  In the moment, you make a note of your experience to bring up in your next therapy session and then turn your focus to practice a movement meditation you learned earlier.  Through breath and movement, you are able to create a sensation of physical grounding that reduces residual feelings of anxiety.

Food is nourishment, but it can also seem to provide a physical sensation of grounding.  Recognizing this might have afforded our example a chance to avert disaster from the start.  Fortunately, the individual from the story was able to reflect on the experience and to understand how easy it was to be hijacked when focusing on cognitive processes alone.

The second part of the story represented the use of bottom-up processing: the process of noticing the role of sensation and feeling in our actions and then becoming aware of how these experiences impact our behavior and thoughts. Body-mind therapies, like dance/movement and yoga, focus on both top-down and bottom-up processes during a therapy session.  Behavior is action that results from movement of the body.

Learning to identify how thoughts, but also how subtle sensations and feelings, impact actions can only be done with the inclusion of the body.  Next time you head to the doughnut table, try to drop the mind chatter and instead check in with the body.  Slow down physically, breathe, and notice what else is going on… and let me know what happens next!