Often when asked about the kind of work I do, my response of Somatic Psychotherapy is met with a curious look and the question…”What is that exactly?”.
This sends me on a long stumbling description about body awareness and the mind body connection.
I’m pretty certain the point I am trying to get across often gets lost in translation.
So this is my attempt at trying to describe some of my work, through the use of actual examples.
When I teach groups about somatic work, I like to start with the children’s book The Way I Feel. This book illustrates a different feeling on each page and a catchy poem to go with it. I invite folks to be the feeling on the page. For example, if it’s angry, make an angry face. See what angry feels like in your body. Do you feel tense or relaxed? Hot or cool? Where does anger live in your body?
Yes I know, this sounds a little silly, and perhaps childish. I see how uncomfortable this exercise can make people. My argument for that is, “Who is more present in their body and their immediate experience than a child?”
This is a concrete experiential way to discover the connection that emotions have with our bodies. No matter the feeling we are having, it is always living somewhere within our bodies as well as our minds.
I work with clients to help not only bring awareness to the places in the body where these feelings reside, but also learn ways to move and transform these feelings. The way this transpires varies from person to person.
Some people find sound and/or movement can help with this process. Maybe there is a phrase or word that also makes it’s home in this area of the body and feeling. Giving voice to this can help some people work with and through this feeling.
Perhaps there is a movement that your body wants to do. Maybe you feel afraid and you find your body wants to curl in on itself. Or your are angry and you want to hit or punch. I get curious about what happens if you allow yourself to curl up tighter. What happens to your fear? What if you punch a pillow or tear up a phonebook. Does your anger move and change?
Our bodies hold a font of information about our emotional landscape. I believe that by enlisting our bodies in our process we can more deeply heal and grow.
This is not a one size fits all method of psychotherapy. Nor is it the only method I use when working with people. It is however one of my core beliefs that our bodies are one of the richest sources of knowledge we can access to find out more about ourselves.
This article from the NY Times, offers an interesting perspective on how suffering effects and molds us. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/opinion/brooks-what-suffering-does.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0
Being a Somaticly oriented psychotherapist I'm always interested in reading about the effects positive touch has on us as humans. This is a link to an article from Psychology Today that discusses this. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch
Using Praise to Shape Behavior
When I am working with a family in my role as counselor, one of the things I find myself working most with is a parents desire to change a child’s behavior. It is common for parents to feel like they are not being listened to, or that their child is purposefully acting out.
Most of the time I find children are listening and in some instances they are in fact acting out.
Every child has the desire for attention. They need the adults in their life to acknowledge them, notice them and appreciate them. It is through these experiences they learn to believe in themselves and develop confidence and competence.
As a parent you may find yourself saying “no” an awful lot. “No” does have its place, especially in situations that may involve safety issues. However “no” can get used so often that pretty soon it can feel like everything is “no” and you are constantly at battle.
If we take the concept of children needing acknowledgement to heart, we can begin to see that even negative behaviors invoke a response from parents. Although these negative behaviors are not producing the desired “feel good” feelings, children will continue the behaviors if they see that they are getting attention for them.
So how do we shift these negative behaviors and take more of the “no’s” out of our interactions?
Think about a time when someone noticed you did a good job and commented on it. No matter how small the comment or the job, it probably felt pretty good to get that recognition. Chances are you had a little boost of confidence and a smile after such an interaction. You were probably more likely to repeat that behavior or give your next project your very best attempt.
We can give this experience to our children as well. No matter how “bad” behavior gets, or how much of your time power struggles feel like they take up in your day, I can guarantee that there will be moments in which your child is behaving in a way you are wanting to see. It is these moments that we want to reinforce with praise.
A simple “good job” can be helpful, but to really get the most out of praise, be specific. This will give your child a clear picture of what they are doing right and what they might be able to do again to get this positive attention from you. For example, if they are minding their manners at a restaurant you might say “You are doing such a great job sitting still while we wait for our food” or maybe you see your child sharing with another child, you might comment “wow you are being such a good friend by sharing your toys. I’m so proud of you.” The more concrete your praise, the more impact it will have.
People who have not experienced therapy are often curious about the process of therapy. Questions such as, “Does therapy make you feel better?”or “ If I come a couple times will you be able to “fix” my problems.”
The answer is: therapy is a process and that process looks different for different people. It is also dependent on the issues at hand. Some people come to therapy to help figure something out. They are looking for solutions or direction. Others may be trying to work through a loss, or major life transition. And still others are working on relationships and patterns that are not serving them.
Each of these situations will require a different approach and a different length of time. The thing about therapy is that while you are right in the middle of it, it doesn’t always feel good. Uncomfortable and sometimes unwanted feelings arise. Part of the therapeutic process is often to face these feelings and find new ways to work with them in order to no longer avoid them.
During periods like this it is possible to feel disorganized in one’s thoughts and have a strong urge to run the other way. I have learned that these moments can be the ones that preceed a breakthrough of sorts, a moment of clarity or realization.
My favorite analogy for therapy is the game of Boggle. Some of you may have played this game and others might not have this as a frame of reference. In summary, Boggle is a word game, with dice that have a letter on each side and a square tray that has a slot for each die. The idea of the game is to put the plastic cover over the tray, shake it up, disorganizing all the dice, then allow them to fall back into new slots with new letter combinations showing. The timer is turned and players use the time to form as many words as they can out of the letters.
The process of therapy is like this, minus the timer. Often as we begin to explore ourselves we come to this disorganized place. We can’t quite wiggle our die back into their old slots and instead find ourselves a little confused and sometimes very uncomfortable. But this is just part of the process. Soon our die land in new formations, settling comfortably into new patterns and designs. New ways of being and interacting emerge, some of the old ones stick around too and others fade away.
The process of therapy is one that requests patience and courage from the client. It is not easy to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, nor is it simple to change patterns that have long been a part of one’s way of being. But change is possible, and if we can learn to tolerate the disorganizing part of this process it does become easier and the new patterns that emerge can be exciting enough to be worth the wait.
The Power of Play
Some of us may have heard the statement “play is the work of children”. As grown ups it can be easy to forget that children use play as a means to learn, communicate and experiment with new ideas, as well as explore their feelings. Interactive play is also a doorway into the realm of social skills. Sharing, turn taking, and even the intricacies of social niceties are broken down and learned in their simplest forms. Play is a powerful example of experiential learning.
There are two main forms of play that most every style of play can be categorized under.
Organized Play is play that has a structure, like a game with rules, or an activity that requires a certain configuration like a puzzle. These are activities that follow rules or specific formats.
Free Play is play that has more flow to it. There is not a set way a task needs to be done. Toys or objects can be used in whatever way children feel moved to use them.
Both forms of play are a rich source of learning for children.
Some examples of cognitive growth/learning can be found in the way children discover spatial awareness, matching, awareness of sizes and shapes and colors and even numbers. When children play with different sized objects and/or stacking toys, they discover the difference between big and little, that small can fit inside big but not the other way around.
Play also increases physical development and both fine and gross motor skills. Running, riding a tricycle and climbing all involve large muscle groups and boost development of strength and coordination. Drawing, painting, gluing, and a myriad of other activities promote fine motor skills and hand eye coordination.
Social/Emotional growth is found in most avenues of play. Make believe, story telling, singing, and peer interaction all offer pathways for development. When a child creates a story to act out they are experimenting with themes they have either been witness to or are curious about. When they interact with their peers they are learning about cooperation and social expectations.
You do not need the latest technology or fancy toy to promote play in your child. Children are spontaneous and creative. In their hands a pile of rocks and sticks can become roadways and buildings. A squiggly line on a piece of paper becomes a snake. A sheet and a couple chairs can become a castle.
Play can look different in different children. Children with special needs may use toys in a different way or play in a way that is difficult for adults (and sometimes other children) to understand. This does not mean that they are playing “wrong” or not learning from their experience. It does mean that in order to interact and encourage them we may have to take a different perspective.
Tips for playing with children:
1. Get curious about what they are doing. For example if you have a child that likes to line things up, become a detective and explore what this experience is. Get down on the floor and try the activity too (this goes for any activity). Do this with an open mind. Maybe it won’t make sense at first. Maybe it never will, but what better way to interact with your little one than to get down to their level and try to see things their way.
2. Encourage play. Create space for free play and organized play time in your family’s schedule. Have different types of activities available for your child, things like, blocks, play dough, art supplies, and toy cars, offer limitless creativity. For organized play time you can bake or make play dough together, play a game (bounce a ball back and forth or try out Simon Says, making sure to take turns being Simon)
3. Remember that it is the process of play that is important not the end result (this is especially important in relationship to art projects). You may find children trying to change rules during play. Ask questions about this and share your own feelings. Ex: “When I don’t get a turn I feel sad and don’t want to play anymore”. A child will learn more from this than from being told they are “doing it wrong”
4. Praise children for the creativity as well as for the behaviors you want to see repeated! Be specific in your praise. Ex: “I love how you colored that flower 5 different colors. It looks really beautiful!” or “You just did such a great job sharing with Johnny. I am so proud of you!”. This will foster positive self esteem and a feeling of competence.
5. Have FUN! As adults we often forget how good play can feel. Spend time playing with your child and you might just find yourself laughing more, relaxing more and most importantly connecting with your child more
Most people experience stress from time to time. Some more than others. Our bodies respond to stress in several different ways. Often we sweat more, breathing can become difficult, heart begins to race. As these bodily responses occur they can lead to a sense of being out of control, a heightened feeling of discomfort, and along with stress usually comes hyper awareness. Each of these feelings alone or when combined with the others does nothing to alleviate the stress response but can definitely increase it.
Stress can occur at any time and the triggers are different for every person. There are varying degrees of stress responses and some can lead to full blown panic attacks. Stress response is very much a fear response in the body. This is because stress is actually fear that is trapped in the body and unable to dissipate.
It is important to remember that when we are in a stress response our awareness can be heightened while, but often we become flooded and are unable to think clearly and logically. Thus when we are really stressed making big life decisions is not always in our best interest.
The following are some concrete in the moment tips to help bring your nervous system to a calmer place. These exercises help with the stress feeling as it is happening, however, because stress stems from fear stuck in the body, therapy is recommended to help with ongoing stress. Therapy can help you find the root of the fear and dissipate it.
So in a moment of stress/fear response what do we do?
(1) The first thing is to breathe. Because we often respond to stress with shallow breathing, we can feel like we are not getting enough air. When we feel like we are not getting enough air we try to inhale more deeply (this can occur completely unconsciously, but when we do it consciously we are usually getting a bit afraid that we can’t breathe). When this happens we often do not exhale enough and we actually can begin to gasp for breath. This is how hyperventilation occurs.
So exhaling is a key factor here. Slow deep breathes in and even slower exhalations until all the air is pushed from the lungs. Then repeat.
(2) Humming. It can be a tune or a long droning hum. The vibration of humming coupled with the way the action can regulate your breathing helps to soothe the nervous system.
(3) Activating your containment muscles. The muscles that run up and down the sides of your body can help you calm when they are activated. You can do this by simply putting your hands on the outside of your thighs just above your knees. Now press your knees out and your hands in. This action coupled with regulated breathing can assist in soothing you. It is also something you can do just about anywhere that you are sitting down.
(4) If you are alone or with someone you trust you can do a deeper expression of this practice. Sit with your back against something solid (a wall, a couch or chair), bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Place your hands so that your fingertips are centered on the crown of your head, elbows bent and outside of your knees. Now push your knees out and your elbows in. This will also activate your “containment” muscles, while allowing your body to feel supported.
When we are stressed it is not unusual to feel outside of ones self. Holding the crown of your head in this manner can assist in helping you feel more grounded.
(5) If you are alone or with someone you feel safe with lying on your back with your legs up a wall in an “L” shape can be very comforting. Be certain your bottom and thighs are flush with the wall and your back is flat on the floor. Focus on breathing (and exhaling completely) while you do this. Do this until you feel yourself relax.
(6)The last technique I want to share with you is a systematic tightening and relaxing of muscles. Beginning with your feet, tighten all your muscles (your toes, feet and ankles), hold for a count of three then release. Next focus on your calves. Tighten for a count of three then relax. Move up the body, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, back/chest, arms and even face. Holding each for a count of three. By the time you reach your face your body should feel more relaxed overall.
In our busy lives situations are bound to arise that cause you stress. It is learning to deal with these situations that allow us to move through the world in a much more comfortable way. I hope that these techniques will help to soothe you in those inevitable moments of stress we all experience.
Teaching Children to Identify Feelings
Children are close to their feelings at all times. They may not have the language or understanding to be able to express themselves appropriately or be able to identify what someone else’s experience is, but that doesn’t keep them from laughter and tears. Regardless of understanding children are really good at FEELING their feelings.
In fact children are so good at feeling their feelings they often are frustrated or overwhelmed by their experience and their inability to use language to share that experience with others.
You may have seen this in the form of tantrums, lashing out at peers (or adults) or perhaps you have seen your child become upset only to then get more and more distressed while trying to explain their upset.
Talking to kids about feelings is a good starting place for feeling identification. Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to use yourself as an example. If you find yourself smiling broadly because of an experience you are having with your child share with them your feelings of happiness. Ex: “I am smiling because I feel happy playing this game with you”. Or if you are sad and tearful you can share that with your child “I feel sad right now and so I am crying”.
Building on this type of exercise, you can practice feeling faces with your child. A fun way to do this is to name a feeling then ask your child to show you their face that matches that feeling. (“what does your happy face look like?”)You both practice your feeling face and take turns looking at that face in the mirror. Depending on the age and development of your child you may be able to expand on this by asking them a question about what makes them have that feeling. ie: “what is something that makes you feel happy”.
Social stories are a great way to explore feelings. There are many books available at the library that offer ways to investigate feelings and situations where feelings might arise. And making up stories about a specific situation can also be helpful. For example if you have a child who is afraid of the dark, you can make up a story about a little boy or girl who is afraid of the dark and what they do because of this and how they were able to comfort themselves (with a favorite toy, a nightlight, a special blanket) and eventually feel less frightened.
Offering children appropriate responses when they are having big feelings can also be helpful in deepening their awareness of managing emotions. Some options for moving through anger include, hitting pillows, pushing against something (like a pillow a parent is holding), a wall, or even pushing hands against a parents hands. Also squishing clay or playdough or throwing pillow or stuffed toys into a laundry basket or running can help a child to move some of their anger or frustration in a healthy way. Talking about these options and practicing them when the child is not angry helps these resources to be more accessible when the big feelings roll in.
Other examples include offering hugs when a child is sad, or giving them a favorite cuddly toy or blanket and encouraging them to hold it while they cry.
Taking these concepts one step further it is possible to use these same ideas in relationship to your child’s behavior with other children. (“When you hit Tommy, he looks sad and doesn’t want to play with you. You can use your words to ask for what you want instead”)
Feeling awareness and identification are a process and one that does not happen overnight. However, using some of these ideas and tools can help your child on their journey to being able to express themselves and decrease some of their frustration.
Here is the link to the archived Radio Show was on with Veronica Wade-Lewis. We shared about using play as a tool for connecting with children on the Autism Spectrum.
As we enter into November we find ourselves sitting on the edge of the holiday season. Before we know it Thanksgiving will be here and then four weeks later Winter Break is upon us.
Some people look forward to this time of year and some feel a sense of trepidation. There is usually a shift in normal routines and an increase in social gatherings. Regardless of how you feel about the holiday season most of us find our stress levels creeping up.. Here are a few tips to help ease you and your family into the next couple months.
Trips to the park, play dates, baking and art projects, can not only provide more structure to your day but also give you some quality time with your little one.
If you need ideas for projects or games you can google “activities for children" or more specifically "activities for (enter child's age) children" (for ex: activities for preschool age children) and find a variety to choose from.
A. Others may not understand if your child has different needs.
You can help with this by letting your family and friends know ahead of time what behaviors they might expect and how you will be working with your child in these instances.
B. Children may have a hard time with the difference in schedule and the new people they might be coming in contact with. This can lead to grumpiness, tantrums or even hyperactivity.
Prepare your little one by creating a social story about an upcoming event (ex: if you are going to Thanksgiving dinner at a family members house, tell a story about where you are going, who will be there, what one does at dinner and what will happen while you are there). Share this story often before the big day.
If you will be seeing relatives/friends your child doesn’t know or doesn’t often see, it can be helpful to share photos and names with your child for several days before an event. This helps your child be more informed about an unfamiliar situation and can make the transition easier.
C.. Being in a different environment and being offered different foods can also cause upsets for your child.
Come to gatherings armed with a backpack full of things you might need; familiar snacks, a favorite comfort item like a blanket or toy, activities your child likes to do (a few cars, blocks or crayons can go a long way), and an extra, comfy, change of clothes.
Schedule some down time for yourself. Whether it’s five minutes or a few hours remember that even parents need a break sometimes. The better you feel the more available you will be for your child.
Enlist help! You don’t have to do it all alone. If you are going to someone’s house for dinner and you know you might need help with your child, talk to a family member or friend beforehand and set up a plan for what you might need. Preparedness is one of the keys to preventing a stressful situation.
Emily Morrison is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Sonoma County California. She has a private practice in downtown Santa Rosa.
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