In this article, hypnosystemic and embodiment psychologist, Benedikt Schmidt, delves into his approach to therapy – one which is holistic, directly somatic and meaning-making.
Katy came to me with a lump in her throat. She said she had been having this sensation for a while and couldn’t manage to get rid of it. “It makes me feel sad and I feel blocked just thinking about it.” Now, Katy wanted to explore what it was about. I asked her where the lump was and what she was feeling while mirroring her movements on my own throat. As we began to explore the sensations, I felt my own throat tensing up. With friendly curiosity, we followed the sensations as they started to move and change.
“My throat feels stiff every time I try to push the feeling down.”
She started to massage the muscles in her neck, and I asked her if any images or sensations were showing up. She mentioned the number seven. Neither of us knew what this number was about, so we noted it and kept listening.
“It seems to be moving now, going up towards the back end of my mouth.”
Understandably, she was a bit anxious about this whole endeavour and curious at the same time. We kept feeling into it.
Casually, she mentioned that she used to have cancer there a few years ago.
“Now, it’s at the top of my tongue.”
She paused for a moment. Then it came to her. With an emotional outburst, she realised what had happened. It was an extraordinary release of emotional energy, coming out of her like a pressure wave. Once she felt calm again, she wanted to tell me what she had just realised and what her body seemed to have known all along.
After a series of harmful relationships, she found herself in yet another one a few years ago. She knew this connection wasn’t doing her very good, yet she so needed it at the time. One fine day, she felt a physical lump in her throat and got it checked. The insensitive doctor blamed her for not having seen the thyroid cancer earlier. He said that it must have been there for at least seven years. The pain of this criticism went deep. So did the fact that the cancer developed just after she had entered that hurtful relationship.
For all these years, she blamed herself for staying in the relationship, and she blamed herself for the cancer, too. Her body knew that it was not her fault. Yet, she kept pushing down the self-blame, shame, and sadness, reinforcing the split she felt within her even more. This has now changed.
“It feels as if my body wanted to get this straight for me, as if it didn’t want to take the stress and the self-blame anymore. I can breathe now and it feels good.” Katy said she felt calm and peaceful, glad she could understand and give herself what she needed. She wanted to look after herself much better from now on, accepting that she had always done the best she could.
This entire breakthrough took less than ten minutes. All we did was to give her system some space, compassion, and acknowledgement, an approach called ‘motoric emergence’ . The body is direct and can be a great ally in sense-making and in creating solutions.
It can be so frustrating to feel blocked, but this, too, can pass.
Most of us grew up and were educated in societies that overly value conscious reasoning. The body has often been seen as a mode of transportation rather than a home for our souls, let alone a wise meaning-making system that crucially supports our conscious reasoning. Or that makes sure we are safe. This separation between mind and body goes back a long way. As a result, entire societies seem to be afraid of the body and dissociated from the throat downwards. What a pity!
After all, we are experiencing this life with our entire body-mind system. The body is fundamental to the processing of information, perception, and the readiness to take action [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]. Think of the gap between knowing that sport would make you feel better and actually getting yourself to do it when you are not feeling it. Or the dilemma of wanting to meditate to reduce stress but feeling too stressed to meditate. Or the many linguistic expressions you might use to describe your, well, embodied feelings. Think of the butterflies in your stomach when you’re in love. This metaphor is a representation of the psychosomatic experiential knowledge of previous generations.
Once you understand and use these unconscious processes, you can create an embodied momentum. It’s like creating a downhill ramp for your new perspectives, experiences, and behaviours, rather than an uphill battle. It can be so relieving to have the body sensations change and transform and to see how the thoughts change as a result of it.
Luckily, science is also catching up. Embodiment-related fields, such as psychoneuroimmunology , somatic trauma therapy, and psychosomatic research, are emerging and studies within these fields indicate a promising efficacy of embodiment approaches for therapy and coaching [2, 3, 4, 6, 7].
How do the embodiment and hypnosystemic approaches work?
There are as many different approaches to therapy and coaching as there are people, and different approaches work for different people. What is special about the embodiment and hypnosystemic approaches is that you don’t only talk about your sensations. You work with them in an active and direct way. After all, it is through these unconscious and somatic markers that you have access to your entire embodied life experience.
Before we go into it, we need one more piece of information. Our mind works in networks of experiences [1, 6], that is to say, associations. Suppose I say the word ‘car’. For some of you, a car brand might come to mind, a certain type of person driving that brand, and your feelings about that kind of person. For others, a childhood smell of your parents’ old car comes to mind, a holiday you spent with them, and the colour of the summerly pine trees.
This is what happened to Katy. She entered the network through the body sensation in her throat. That gave her access to the number seven, the memory, and the suppressed emotions. When the network got activated, she allowed herself to release the emotions. In other cases, it might be more complex, as when you feel a foggy discrepancy between how things are and how you want them to be.
Now, these networks have few connections with one another, so most associations happen within the same network. You may have already experienced it. When you feel depressed, are you more likely to think of challenging situations or of sunshine-filled days of laughter and ease? Do you think of difficult memories or of adventurous ideas for the future? And how easy is it to leave such a network or state for another one?
Finally, the networks can contain anything you can experience. These can be memories, values, or longings, as well as images, sensations, or smells. The feeling of depression often leads to a depressed posture, which in turn reinforces the initial feeling. The other way around works, too. Remember when you were in love? What did you pay attention to? What did you not pay attention to? And how did you walk? How did you not walk?
It can be pretty tricky to struggle against these self-reinforcing tendencies of the nervous system. Luckily, there is also the possibility to cooperate with them. One of the many ways to go about it is through ‘problem-solution gymnastics’ [1, 5]. I’m forever grateful to the wonderful Dr Vera Popper who has been and continues to be an incredible mentor in these inner worlds.
Let’s imagine a situation, a moment when you didn’t feel good. How would your body stand if you let it express that feeling? Some people may start to duck, others may put on an imaginary shield; and still others may hide. This can already be helpful to spot challenges or unmet needs, such as difficulties in breathing when your system thinks it has to duck to be safe. Inner coping mechanisms like these internalised postures may have served you in crucial moments. Yet, today you might not need them anymore and feel blocked by them.
Now, imagine how you would stand if you felt completely in your power, confident and alive. How would your body react if it could express itself freely? Maybe more upright? Bigger and with a more secure stand on the ground? Pay attention to what comes to mind when you stand like this. What abilities of yours do you remember? How does your outlook on things change?
After you have explored these two states and their effects on you, you can pendulate between them. This helps you connect the networks with each other. So, when you are feeling down, you can move more quickly to the more beneficial state.
You can continue this in many different directions. You might, for example, want to use the trigger that usually puts you in the unpleasant network of experience. It can become a ramp to activate your natural and confident posture without falling into the first one. There is a fascinating world waiting outside the conscious mind. A world, where even apparent contradictions can come together.
Will it work for me?
If you have a body, chances are you two can become good companions. The hypnosystemic and embodiment work is valuing for you as a client because it puts you back in the driver’s seat. Instead of a hierarchy, you join a co-creation in which you follow what feels coherent for you. That means that the solutions you come up with will likely feel coherent, too.
Imagine the possibilities. Imagine you start to perceive symptoms not as isolated problems, but as attempts by your mind-body system to keep you safe. As attempts to show you what you need to learn and integrate, even if it doesn’t make immediate sense. Finally, embodiment gives you a direct way to regulate your nervous and limbic systems. This is important because they are the foundation of how you experience the world [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7].
How can embodiment psychology work for therapists, coaches, and consultants from other schools?
There are no magic bullets. Yet, the embodiment and hypnosystemic approaches can be valuable additions to your practice. It’s like having a direct access to the older parts of your brain that are crucial for change, but that can be tricky to access.
This means that you and your client can achieve therapy goals more easily, because the client’s embodied solutions come with an embodied action readiness. Goals are felt and created with the entire system, not constructed with the mind alone.
What can I do today to become a better friend to my body?
There are a few low-barrier ways you can start with today to look after yourself, whether you are in a challenging phase of your life or not. You can learn about your nervous system and how you can regulate it. You can learn to better understand and acknowledge your emotions. Both have a massive effect on people’s wellbeing. You can, for example, start to observe your feelings and thoughts. What they’re pointing to, what they’re fighting for, and what they want for you. Often, these are unseen or unmet needs that can make a big difference in your life. You can also get to know and befriend your body through self-care. This can mean acknowledging your body’s sensations or doing yoga, as well as getting a massage or acupressure therapy.
Even so, it can be difficult to do all that by yourself. We are social creatures, after all, and wired to go into these feelings and inner realms in a safe space [1, 3]. That’s why it can be helpful to have someone on your side, someone you can trust and talk to, like a good friend. The compassionate support of a trained professional can also be a valuable help.
Would you like to learn how you can make this work for you and use this approach for your individual situation? Feel free to explore my profile at https://complicated.life/de/finde-einen-therapeuten/berlin/benedikt-schmidt and my website at www.followtheriver.de/en. If you’re a therapist and would like to exchange ideas, I’m more than happy to hear from you!
How is all that for you? How have you become a better friend to your body? What did you learn from it that might be helpful to others?
Resources and further reading
1 Gross, M., & Popper, V. (2020). Und die Maus hört ein Rauschen: Hypnosystemisches Erleben in Therapie, Coaching und Beratung. Carl-Auer Verlag.
2 Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma: The innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.
3 Porges, S. W., & Dana, D. (2018). Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory: The emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies. WW Norton & Company.
4 Rosenberg, S. (2017). Accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve: Self-help exercises for anxiety, depression, trauma, and autism. North Atlantic Books.
5 Schmidt, G. (2020). Einführung in die hypnosystemische Therapie und Beratung. Carl-Auer Verlag.
6 Schubert, C. (Ed.). (2015). Psychoneuroimmunologie und Psychotherapie. Klett-Cotta.
7 Storch, M., Cantieni, B., Hüther, G., & Tschacher, W. (2006). Embodiment. Die Wechselwirkung von Körper und Psyche verstehen und nutzen. Huber.