Counsellor Whitton

Body Map - Sensory-motor Therapy

As a counsellor, I am often called upon to help people reconcile problems of the mind (counsellor Whitton). Clients bring difficulties related to 'irrational thoughts', 'excessive worrying', 'over-thinking' or obsessive 'preoccupations'. They may even be good at talking about their emotions, but find it hard to connect to them. What I often find is clients are unaware of is how anxiety in the mind, begins with stress in the body. Clients may be surprised to learn,  anxiety is created by an interaction between our thoughts, emotions, sensations and stress stimuli detected by the five senses.

Clients may seek valid reasons for the causes behind their anxiety - such as a triggering event, or a hostile encounter with a friend. But they do this without realising that there isn't always a rational explanation. Long before their conscious thoughts kick-in, the 'emotional-brain' has triggered a cascade of unconscious responses that put the body and brain into high alert. Rather than irrational thoughts alone, cumulative physical stress and faulty survival strategies can be what is causing the problem.

Not in the mind or body, but both:

This may be difficult to believe, but we are animals first and the unconscious mind is always running the show.

It has to be: that's the only way you can operate all the biological mechanisms that keep you alive, without overwhelming the conscious mind with too much to do.  The survival brain is always on alert; scanning the body and environment for signs of threat. This is why you instantly pull back from a burning flame, or suddenly swerve the car away from danger even when you've been driving on auto-pilot.

When you're anxious, you may want to believe the conscious mind is the source of your distress, but it often isn't. Equally, you may believe there is a rational explanation and solution for your anxiety, but that's just wishful thinking. If you could think new thoughts that would stop you worrying, you would just think them and get on with it. But it's not that simple.

Long before you experience conscious thoughts, you're wired to respond to your instincts first. Your brain-body is wired for survival and anxiety is its way of letting us know something is wrong. Anxiety is not 'all in the mind', but in the body as well, which is responding to stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. So why don't we respond more effectively to them?

If not 'thoughts', then what?

Usually, most anxious patterns of feeling and behaving are conditioned in childhood. This is when we learn how to regulate our emotions. Our instincts are often ignored and discounted in favour of scenario-playing or problem-solving in the mind, in an effort to find solutions that never seem to relieve the stress of anxiety. You may have become desensitised to; or emotions we have long suppressed.

Anxiety is not fear of what is happening now, but what you believe is going to happen in the future. Or believing that the past is about to repeat itself. The problem is this: we are picking up stress from our environment all day long, but if we cannot self-regulate our emotions the stress never gets discharged. the body senses stress, but the 'sensory-brain' cannot locate the source of the threat, because there is no imminent danger. So the 'thinking-brain' asks: what is going on, why do i feel so stressed, why do I have a disproportionate reaction to normal events? The 'thinking-brain goes off to search for the answer and creates several possible scenarios, problem-solves them and invents storylines to help it make sense of what is going on.

The thinking-brain disconnects itself and ignores the symptoms of stress on high alert in the body.

You may unaware of stress hormones and other neurochemicals continually firing back-and-forth between your body and brain. For example, think of how you regulate your heart, lungs and organs, all without thinking. How quickly you react to a sudden threat or head-off an accident. How easy it is for you to drive on autopilot down a motorway. Or how you catch a fast-moving ball, mid-air, without thinking.

Holistic or psychological therapies?

No matter how rational you think you are, you're wired to survive by your instincts first. The brain's primitive alarm system is constantly switched on scanning the environment and the body for signs of threat, even in sleep. This means to truly understand your distress, you need to treat the body and mind as one. You have to explore your bodily sensations, your physical health and non-verbal body language to get a deeper awareness of the events in your mind. This is because events in the body, are also events of the mind - each has an impact on the other.

You may need to accept that not all mental health problems require thought-based solutions or a rational explanation. Far from it.

Traditional approaches to counselling usually focus on the psychological symptoms of mental health. This often means talking through your story and commenting on your unconscious patterns of behaviour. It also means helping you resolve emotional disturbance, unwanted thoughts and conflict in relationships. Such an approach can lack focus on your overall wellbeing. And it also misses the point: the brain and body are interconnected through the nervous system. The anxious brain, for example is only responding to sensory stimuli and stress hormones in the body.

As a psychotherapist, however, I help you understand yourself as a whole person. And this means, helping you explore how your instincts and bodily sensations, inform your emotions and thoughts. You will also look at how your unconscious impulses are the primary drivers for embedded patterns of behaviour. Understanding how you learned your 'survival maps'  during childhood. As well as how you learned to self-regulate emotions and whether these patterns persist into adulthood.

Neuroscience of the Brain

You need to be aware that conditions such as fear, anxiety and depression are all caused by the way your mind and body interacts with the environment. Your mind is not separate from the body, but interconnected via your nervous system. Sensory stimuli, trigger stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to regulate your emotions and cause you to behave instinctively.

During a state of anxiety, panic, or  trauma your brain and body goes into survival mode  - such as a "fight-flight-and-freeze response". This may lead you into conflict, avoidance or withdrawal from relationships. When you are at your most vulnerable you may experience excessive worrying, health concerns, dissociative states, or intrusive thoughts.

What will I experience?

These experiences can be very frightening; almost as if the threat is immediate. You may relive a trauma  and have flashbacks to images, sounds or smells. Your body may become hyper-aroused with sensations such as breathlessness, heart dysregulation or physical pain. And you may freeze in a trance-like state, or become numb and detached.

These dysregulated states not only condition your emotions and cognitive processing, but also disrupt your ability to think and make informed decisions. In this state you cannot problem-solve or accurately attune to the emotions of other people. For example, a belief such as "I am helpless" or “I am irrational” may interrupt your ability to use appropriate boundaries to protect yourself, or say “no”.

An emotion such as fear may escalate your emotions to the point of overwhelming panic. In this case a smell or feeling may trigger a reminder of the traumatic experience, which is perceived as a flashback or reliving of the trauma. This is why sensorimotor interventions can help you regulate thoughts and emotions. It teaches you new strategies for managing your experiences as you heal and recover.

Sensory awareness counselling

A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy focuses on building emotional awareness, thought-processing and learning to trust your instincts. This method of counselling is particularly effective for working to limit obsessive thinking, screen-playing and compulsive behaviour. We will also look at how you offset procrastination, dissociation and withdrawal as a way of avoiding action.

I want to emphasize how sensorimotor techniques can be integrated with counselling to that treat these symptoms. Because the therapist's ability to interactively regulate clients' dysregulated states and also to cultivate clients' self-awareness of inner body sensations is crucial to this approach, three sessions are described illustrating the clinical application of this method.

Sensorimotor psychotherapy (Psychotherapy Twickenham) helps you process heightened states of emotion, traumatic memories and self-destructive patterns of behaviour. It helps you regain safety and self-care routines, improving wellbeing and developing new patterns of interacting in relationships. These sensorimotor techniques help you become more aware of your physical and sensory patterns. Moreover, you will learn how to deactivate states of arousal, how to process traumatic memories and adaptive behaviours.

How can I help?

I will help you learn how to pay attention and attune to your five senses, your motor impulses, muscular tension, posture, facial expressions, stress response, breathing and cardio-vascular system. Gaining insight into this "felt sense" of the world will help you to react more proportionately, trust your instincts and validate your own experiences without having to rely on others approval or depend entirely on their support.

However, many people are often brought up without ever learning how to adequately self-regulate or acquire the tools to do this. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have learned them somewhere along the line. I am a firm believer in the client’s ability to utilise their own coping mechanisms and survival strategies, rather than replace them with readymade techniques they cannot resonate with. It is usually simply a matter of modifying, adjusting and tweaking them to become more effective.

In counselling you learn how to distinguish between physical sensations and unconscious reactions. This means cultivating a stronger sense of awareness; learning to tolerate heightened states of emotion until they become regulated and stabilized. One of the first things you will learn is how to develop a body map to identify, observe and monitor your bodily sensations. You may learn how they are triggered in specific situations, events or interactions with others.

The body-map and self-attunement

Use the body map diagram below and carry out sensory experiments with yourself: paying particular attention to your internal sensations and five senses. For example, noticing your bodily responses to working in the office. Locating the source stress such as back pain, muscle tension, headaches, dehydration, hunger, lethargy, or under-breathing. Or, noticing how you respond to intimacy such as freezing, avoidance and feeling disconnected.

If you are often numb or withdrawing into yourself, how do you respond to conflict? Do you experience tension, panic, restricted breathing, heart palpitations or stammering. And afterwards do you tend to start screen-playing the same scenes over again, playing out worse-case scenarios.

Slowing down your awareness will help you pause, step back and deactivate high levels of arousal. And it will encourage you to be more assertive, create a sense of calm and deal with situations in a clearer state of mind.

How to use the sensory-motor body map:

  • You can draw your attention to noticing and observing what sensations are triggered. Notice the location or region of the body you experience a particular sensation – such as the heart, lungs, gut, legs, shoulders, neck muscles, backbone, joints, ligaments, eyes or mouth etc.
  • Then draw an arrow on the body map diagram and label the part of the body you have identified.
  • Underneath it you can describe that sensation or feeling – such as breathlessness, light-headed, exhausted, calm, peaceful, hot, perspiring, or dehydrated etc.
  • You can write a brief description of the triggering event, situation or interaction.
  • You can continue to experiment and explore your sensations throughout the days and weeks.
  • Then try to record a number of techniques to relieve your stress symptoms – mindful breathing, grounding, meditation, stretching, yoga, exercise, walking, martial arts, or swimming etc.
The Brain Counselling Twickenham and Hounslow