the felt sense: psychotherapy’s best-kept secret
When we have trauma in our past, it can cause us to start running from our inner experiences. Rather than relive the pain, we reach for anything that can distract us and take us out of ourselves. For some of us, this might mean throwing ourselves into our work or zoning out on social media. Others find escape in addictive behaviors like drinking or drug use.
While some distractions are more harmful than others, the end result is the same: we become estranged from ourselves and our emotions. It might feel like we’re protecting ourselves, but in reality, it’s a form of avoidance that hurts our ability to effectively cope with unpleasant feelings or situations. As we become less able to meet our own needs, we may come to a breaking point and yearn for change, but it doesn’t come easily or naturally.
The disconnect caused by relying on distractions and turning too far outward can be repaired by looking inward once again. Experiential therapy can help you do this by teaching you how to access your emotions and be with them while staying grounded in the present moment. With practice, you’ll be able to come to terms with your trauma and the physical sensations that accompany it without feeling overwhelmed. Then, the healing can begin.
But for this to occur, first we must first tap into one of psychotherapy’s best-kept secrets: a peaceful, inner body “knowing” that presents itself to us if we give it space to develop. It’s rooted in the mind-body connection and can guide you to a deep, compassionate awareness of yourself so you can quickly get to the root of what’s troubling you.
exploring the mind-body connection
The body is an archive that holds all of our past experiences within it, including our memories, emotions, actions and reactions — even those that we’ve blocked out. It contains an awareness that encompasses everything we think and feel about something all at once that we can tune into and nurture to foster a deeper connection with ourselves.
This bodily knowing is called a felt sense, and it’s a somatic experience that is more than what the mind can grasp by itself. In a way, it’s like a physical manifestation of our emotions that arises from increased awareness of the mind-body connection. Consider the butterflies you get in your stomach before a date and where that feeling resides within you. Or the inner sensations experienced when thinking of an acquaintance compared to someone you love.
Some people have an innately strong relationship with the felt sense, but others have cut themselves off from it as a defense against pain or trauma. Learning to tap into it again and letting it take shape can help us heal in a deep and meaningful way. As we probe into our bodies using our felt sense and recognize the physical sensations and emotions that get entangled with traumatic events, we can begin to diffuse, resolve and release them.
“A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time—encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail. Think of it as a taste, if you like, or a great musical chord that makes you feel a powerful impact, a big round unclear feeling.”
tapping into your felt sense
Imagine that you’re about to give a big speech, and you’re feeling nervous. To calm yourself, you take a deep breath and travel inward, focusing on the sensations in your body at this moment. You notice that your heart is pounding. As you sit with that feeling, it becomes clearer and more descriptive: it’s like a hand is wrapped around your chest.
But it also feels as if something else is nagging at you. After another pause, the word ‘dread’ comes into focus. So you stay with this bodily sense and see if it has anything else to say, if it can shed some light on why this speech is making you feel this way. You realize it’s because you’re afraid of being judged and worried that you won’t be good enough.
Now, you can ask this sensation — this felt sense — what it needs and how you can resolve these feelings. Dive beneath your thoughts and listen to your body. A solution might appear, such as: remember how much you’ve practiced, take another deep breath and trust in yourself. When you get a response, notice if anything within you shifts. You might feel like a weight has been lifted or that a new path forward has been opened.
This is how we can use our felt sense to better understand ourselves and what lies beneath the surface of our thoughts and emotions. Paying attention to it can cause something we hold deep inside to become unstuck and make it easier to process unresolved trauma. Recognizing that a felt sense of dread, for example, is linked to a fear of judgment or low self-esteem, can help you identify events or issues in your past from which it stems. Then, you can gain internal insights that allow you to address it more readily in the future.
Experiential therapies such as somatic therapy, psychodrama, intervention through art and even outdoor therapy aim to connect us to our felt sense and understand the nuances that underlie our emotions. By tuning into what the body already knows, we can discover a rich inner realm that helps us heal and enact positive, lasting changes in our lives.
“What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people … think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change.”
experiential therapies at choice house
At Choice House, we incorporate a number of experiential therapies into our treatment plans that draw heavily on the concept of felt sense. By helping clients focus inward and develop greater bodily awareness, we’re able to “turn down” the intensity of the traumatic feelings or memories so they can begin to process the emotional experience and change the way it’s stored within them. Some of the modalities we use include somatic therapy, psychodrama and intervention through art, but we also utilize the healing power of nature with outdoor therapies.
Somatic therapy invites us to reflect on our inner experiencing and explore the mind-body connection to better recognize, cope with and let go of the wounds caused by trauma. By using a “bottom-up” approach to tap into the sensations of the body and become aware of how trauma is stored within us, somatic therapy can help us work through painful emotions or memories and alleviate both physical and psychological symptoms associated with them.
Psychodrama recreates a felt sense associated with a traumatic event or memory through role play. It explores real-life situations of the past and acts them out in present time, using techniques such as mirroring, doubling and role reversal to gain new insights. Psychodrama allows us greater access to the bodily felt meaning of a situation and helps us get creative in approaching, solving and evaluating past relationships, incidents or problems.
intervention through art
Art therapy can help us better communicate our experiences, memories and emotions. It can also help us process and recognize our felt sense, which isn’t always easy to articulate or put into words. By using creative, artistic processes, we’re able to express our inner selves and the complex, abstract and often non-linear sensations experienced within the body.
Most therapies that focus on the felt sense are performed indoors, but nature has a powerful ability to keep us grounded and become more aware of the mind-body connection. Spending time outdoors helps us stay present in the moment and provides a quiet space for contemplation, where we can learn to read and understand our inner sensations. Being in nature also invites us to “be with” ourselves and promotes greater emotional insight.
learn what the body already knows
The body is intuitive, insightful and wise. Often, it knows much more than what our minds are consciously aware of. It can give us a vague “gut feeling” or sense about things that we can use to better understand our own experiences and emotions.
At Choice House, we’ve seen time and again how ultimate change and healing can come from focusing on the mind-body connection, so we provide a range of experiential therapies that foster a deeper inner awareness to help people let go of trauma and build a happier, healthier lifestyle. To learn more about our techniques and how they can help you or a loved one overcome substance abuse or mental health problems, don’t hesitate to contact us today.
Located in Boulder, Colorado, we take advantage of everything the Rocky Mountains have to offer to give men a real chance at developing the tools needed for lasting recovery. Click here to contact us online or call our admissions team at 303-578-4765 to get started.