In Bessel Van Der Kolk’s powerful and compelling narrative on trauma studies ‘The Body Keep the Score’ he writes about his experience with one of his clients. Sherry grew up with an abusive mother, lived a lonely adult life with her cats and was once kidnapped, held captive, and raped repeatedly by a man. The only way she felt her pain could be numbed, and thereby experience relief was when she picked at her skin. She was suicidal and quite obviously was shamed for her choices and decisions. People who exhibit mental health symptoms often experience a complete de-alienation or disconnect from their bodies. Destructive ways of coping often are a result of neglect and abuse.
Why is Sherry’s story important? To understand trauma, abuse, or any kind of emotional distress one cannot negate the role of the body. The brain which is considered the ruling organ is only a part of our entire being. Modern neuroscience has established that there is in fact no differentiation between the body and mind. The body-mind is intrinsically interconnected with our nervous system and is the bridge to our inner felt sense experience and that outer world. Many individuals who suffer from mental illness often don’t feel whole areas of their bodies- their sensory perceptions just don’t work.
The Buddha once said, “The whole universe ,oh monks, lies in this fathom-long body and mind.” (Ayya Khema, 1991 p.54). Somatic work or somatic psychology embodies the essence of this. The root of the word ‘somatics’ is ‘soma’, a Greek word used to refer to the body. All stressors of our lives are stored in and affect the body, which creates imbalances and distress. These are reflected in our emotional and mental states. Our bodies contain our life stories just as they contain bones, muscles, organs, nerves and blood. (Daria Halprin, 2003, The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy)
The body is often looked at from a mechanistic point of view. It is viewed in relation to its parts and functions, meant for mainly physical and gross level activities. Running, sitting, walking, speaking listening, excretion, and sex – the body is the medium through which the mind conducts all its activities. The reinstatement of the body in the psychological process of thinking and understanding theories of personalities was instigated by Wilhelm Reich (1960), founder of somatic psychology. Reich made an inquiry into the body which goes beyond its mechanistic functions and saw it as a powerful reflection of psychic processes and cosmic energy. Further developments in the field of somatic work challenged the concept of the mind-body split. Somatic-oriented practitioners viewed psychological changes in individuals as intrinsically related to life of the body.
Feldenkrais (1972,1985) developed his ‘structural integration’ approach which focused on the relationship between the physical body and the emotional, mental and behavioural makeup of an individual. Such body-oriented work in the field of somatic psychology would soon have a profound effect and form the basis of many creative art theories in the later part of the twentieth century.
The use of imperatives such as “Mind your tongue!”, “Mind your language!” and “Mind your business!” emphasize the importance of the mind in the task at hand. ‘Mindful’, ‘mindless’ ‘mind-blowing’, and ‘mindset’ are terms which yet again focus all attention to the supremacy of the mind- the supposed control centre of our existence. What if we replace these terms and phrases with the body? ‘Bodyful, ‘bodyless’, ‘bodyset’ , “Mind your body!”, “unbodyless” – the scholars of the English language would quite obviously be alarmed at the tweaking of grammar and the tenets of its subject.
Somatic work acknowledges this very holistic and wholesome view of the body. The mind is not the epicentre of our being but rather only an integral part of our existence. The body encompasses not just its anatomical structure and physiological functions, but the overall psychological state of the mind under any circumstance. The brain-body or the mind-body split is in fact a fallacy, one that ignores the body in its totality.
The body is a family made of separate but interrelated members. Each part has an impact on the whole and each part helps us to understand the whole. Somatic work is purposeful as it finds relationships between the body parts and helps to reintegrate the body as a ‘unity’. Thus, accepting the body as a holistic, complete medium for carrying out all pursuits is the way forward.
The body is the carrier of all memories and the seat of our intelligence, which is undermined. When the intelligence of the body is recognized and given due credit then only can an individual’s unlimited potential be unlocked. For people who lose sensations in parts of their body it becomes increasingly difficult to bridge the gap between depersonalisation and healing.
Continuous and systematic inner work in therapy is beneficial to resolve trauma which is stored in the body. Therapists and somatic practitioners work consistently to ensure clients acknowledge their trauma and do not feel separated from their bodies. To such individuals for whom the world feels strange, peculiar, foreign and flat (Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D., The Body keeps the score, 2014) somatic work enables the integration of the mind-body. The ultimate goal is to enable those undergoing pain and suffering, alleviate symptoms which would no longer allow them to be strangers to their own selves and thus their bodies.
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Sohini is an educator, artist and mental health advocate. After being a teacher for almost a decade she found her calling again and decided to pursue a career in creative art therapies. When she’s not busy guiding her young learners, Sohini writes on mental health awareness, paints and reads nonfiction. She lives in Kolkata with her mother.