Grounding: A Foundation of Bioenergetic Therapy

“One of the most fundamental exercises in Bioenergetics is also the easiest and simplest. We use it to start the vibrations in the legs and to help the person sense them…The feeling contact between the feet and the ground is known in Bioenergetics as grounding. This denotes a flow of excitation through the legs into the feet and ground. One is then connected to the ground, not ‘up in the air’ or ‘hung-up.’” 

 – Alexander Lowen, M.D., from The Way to Vibrant Health: A Manual of Bioenergetic Exercises

Alexander Lowen, who started Bioenergetic Therapy in the 1950s, developed exercises to use along with analysis to help people work through emotional problems and to express themselves more fully. He is partially known for getting people off the couch (from the traditional psychoanalytic position) and getting them onto their feet. The bioenergetic grounding exercise forms a basis for helping people work through a variety of issues. We could discuss grounding as a concept but actually having people practice it as an exercise accesses a direct experience.

In bioenergetic analysis, grounding refers to a set of specific exercises. These exercises have a few specific goals. They help people to: 

  1. Connect with gravity downward through the earth rather than pulling up away from contact with the ground. Contemporary western culture tends to value thinking over feeling. This leads to people’s attention being focused in their heads rather than on their bodies. Too much attention in the head leads to anxiety and disconnection from the ground, which generally increases awareness of the present moment and brings calm. 
  2. Release tensions in the feet and the legs, especially the souls of the feet and the hamstrings. People are often unaware of the significant tension they hold in their feet and legs. While holding helps prevent distressing sensations and expression of emotions when not appropriate, tension held chronically limits all sensations and emotions. Further, chronic tension requires the body’s energy, which could be used in other, more satisfying ways. Constrictions prevent people from feeling alive, including feeling the pleasurable vibrations that Alexander Lowen describes.  
  3. Develop a foundation of strength within themselves, rather than only focusing outward for validation, encouragement, or support. Through contact with oneself, starting with the feet and legs, a person can develop or increase a solid foundation. This allows a person to stay focused on their own needs, desires and wants in their relationships with others. It forms the basis for making choices from an integrated sense of self, connected to one’s body, intuition, and truth.
  4. Allow energy and emotions to move freely through the body. Like electrical outlets, where one wire holds the charge and the other wire grounds the energy, the more a person is free of tension in their feet and legs and connected to the ground, the more charge they can safely tolerate. The charge relates to energy – for tolerating strong emotions of all types, enjoying sexuality, asserting one’s needs and wants, and experiencing pleasure in life. 
  5. Focus on being in reality and the present rather than living in fantasy or thoughts about the future or the past. We use the expression “having one’s feet on the ground,” meaning a person is solidly rooted in the present and in their sense of themselves rather than being “spaced out” or out of touch with reality by having their head in the clouds.  Doing the exercise, rather than simply talking about the concept, can help people learn to shift their focus. 

Grounding is an effective exercise for everyone. It is especially valuable for addressing common issues such as anxiety, depression, and recovery from trauma.  Many people who come to therapy complain of issues such as worrying, racing mind, or perseverating. They often struggle with negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and concern about what others think of them. In focusing on the ground, through physical exercises, to increase contact with their legs and feet, rather than focusing upwards with attention on the head, these exercises help people focus less on their mind and more on their body. Grounding exercises help shift the focus to contact with the earth. Grounding exercises also form the basis for setting boundary limits and reaching out for support in relationships. 

I use the grounding exercise frequently in sessions with clients. I use it to help clients connect with their body rather than their head and with what they feel rather than what they think. For example, I suggest they do a grounding exercise when exploring their feelings about an issue that concerns them. I also encourage clients to do a grounding exercise after an exercise to open their breathing (such as leaning backward over a ball) or after a strong exercise (such as expressing anger). Further, with clients who dissociate, I regularly suggest they do the grounding exercise before leaving my office. 

For myself, I practice the bend-over grounding exercise almost every night before going to bed. It helps to release any tension I have developed throughout the day. As a result, I sleep better and rarely suffer from leg cramps. I set the timer on my phone for 5 minutes. I suggest to my clients that they do this as well. I tell them that doing it for 5 minutes may seem like a long time, but you can get used to it!

Basic Bioenergetic grounding exercises:  

1) Standing up grounding: 

Stand with your feet hip-width apart (approximately 8” – 10”). Place your feet parallel to each other, with your toes going forward. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your legs. When you straighten your legs, be sure not to lock your knees, as this cuts off your connection to the ground. Roll your knees out over your second toes. Notice your breathing and aim for slow deep breaths. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your legs several times. Imagine that you have roots in the bottoms of your feet that, like a tree, draw energy up from the ground and give you solidness as you press down. If you stay with the bending and straightening, you may feel some shaking in your legs. Allow it – this means your legs are not too tense and that you are alive! 

2) Bend over grounding:

Stand with your feet hip-width apart (approximately 8” – 10”). Place your feet parallel to each other, with your toes going forward. Bend your upper body forward and let your arms dangle. Rest your fingers on the floor to help with balance but without weight on them. Let your head go. This may take some practice as your head may initially resist letting go. Keep your weight slightly forward over the arches of your feet. Gradually bend and straighten your knees several times (without locking your knees). Breathe fully and deeply. Breathe in as you bend your knees and breathe out as you straighten them. 

If you encounter any pain or discomfort as you stretch, letting out sounds will help to release the pain. Unless you have a knee injury, the pain generally relates to areas of tension. If you have a knee injury, be gentle with the pressure on your knee. If you experience shaking or vibrations in your legs, let them go through you. This is energy moving in the stretch as you are stressing the muscles.  As you get used to shaking, most people find it pleasurable. 

Stay in the bent-over position for several minutes. You can modify the stretch by rocking forward and back and from side to side on your feet. You can also experiment with straightening your legs as much as you can without locking them to increase the vibrations. Keep checking that your head is letting go and that you aren’t holding tension in your neck. When you are ready to end, come up slowly and keep pressing down on your feet as you come up. Notice how you feel and what you experience. If you experience any dizziness or lightheadedness, stamping your feet down a few times usually shifts this. 

3) Chair grounding:

While sitting, put both feet flat on the floor. As you breathe in, gently press your feet into the floor and your butt into the chair. As you breathe out, focus on relaxing on the chair and the floor. Feel the chair supporting you and holding you. Feel the solidness of the ground beneath you. Notice any sensations that arise in your body. Notice if any areas of your body specifically call your attention. Notice your breathing. 

Resources:

Guest, D, Parker, J. Grounding, 2021. A Guide to Becoming Grounded: For Somatic Therapists and Individuals. Independently published. 

Lowen, A., Lowen, L. 1977. The Way to Vibrant Health: A Manual of Bioenergetic Exercises. The International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis. New York: NY. 

Bioenergetic grounding exercises in a group class

Shrink Rap Radio Podcast

I recently had the pleasure of an interview on Shrink Rap Radio. To watch it via video click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NilfH5rAoA

To listen via audio click here: https://tinyurl.com/y5574z5z

How Bioenergetic Psychotherapy Unlocks the Feelings Carried in Your Body

This science-based approach to therapy explores the mind-body connection as a healing modality

Modern psychotherapy generally occurs with the therapist and client sitting on chairs or on a couch. The client(s) talks about their problems, the therapist listens, asks questions, and offers insights.

While bioenergetic therapy starts in this way, it doesn’t end there. Bioenergetic therapists incorporate movement as part of the therapy. The movement includes exercises to be more connected to the ground, to open restricted breathing patterns, to practice asserting personal boundaries, and to express sometimes unpleasant or repressed emotions, safely and appropriately.

Rooted in awareness of the fundamental connection between mind and body, modern bioenergetic therapy offers an integrated approach to mental health. While this therapy was developed in the 1950s, contemporary scientific advances support the value of working with the body in psychotherapy. Neuroscientists and other researchers emphasize the important role of the body in common conditions such as depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” for example, links the body and emotions stating: “your body and your mind are deeply interconnected… the most important thing you can do to master your emotions, in fact, is to keep your body budget in good shape.” (Barrett, 2017) Bioenergetics addresses this through active participation of both body and mind in therapy for maximum effectiveness.

As a bioenergetic therapist, I begin most sessions by checking in with my client (or clients when working with a couple) about their current experience. As in any other psychotherapy approach, listening attentively provides a starting point. Developing a trusting therapeutic relationship, where the client feels safe, valued, and respected, builds a necessary foundation for our work.

As the client talks, along with listening, I observe my client’s body language. I pay attention to their spontaneous movements, to the sound of their voice, to the quality of their breathing, and to their overall posture. I look for clues from what their body expresses, which may be out of their awareness.

In a break in the conversation, I often ask my client: What are you aware of sensing in your body as you are talking? Their responses vary widely. Some clients look at me confused and state they don’t feel anything or they don’t know what they feel. In this situation, we need to dig deeper, and I may offer suggestions about what to explore. I encourage them to scan their body looking for areas that call their attention. I suggest they observe if they feel tense or in pain. I tell them to notice their breathing patterns, their level of hunger or thirst, heat or cold, and tiredness or energy.

Many times, clients offer a clear response to my question about what they notice in their body. Their hand goes to their heart, for example. Or they identify a specific area of tension — such as their shoulders, neck, or solar plexus. They may say “I feel exhausted.” or “I feel hungry.” With a focus on connecting their body, their mind, and their emotions, this is important information. Their responses often provide a useful place to begin further exploration.

Bioenergetic therapy is an intuitive method, focused on what the client needs moment to moment, rather than on a specified set of instructions. This allows for creativity and flexibility to meet the client where they are and guide them towards their desired goals. Bioenergetic therapists are trained in techniques — both physical and mental — to address a variety of issues. We assess what our client needs and offer suggestions for using the techniques to their benefit.

Based on the client’s story, along with information gained from their body awareness, a direction for the session emerges. In a recent session, for instance, my client identified feeling tense in a particular spot in her upper back. I encouraged her to bring her awareness there and invited her to put a hand on the area. I suggested that she start by exaggerating the tension. I explained that this is counterintuitive as the tension was uncomfortable, but invited her to see it as an exploration of a message from her body.

As she exaggerated the tension, she described feeling disgust. I encouraged her to stand so she could move more freely with this emotion. We worked with a grounding exercise of simply bending and straightening her legs while pressing her feet down on the floor. She spontaneously began to shake out her arms and her head. I encouraged her to allow this movement and to continue with the shaking. She then talked about memories of times from her childhood when her father violated her boundaries (such as walking in when she was in the shower as a young teenager).

In listening to her describe these memories, I felt anger rising in my body — which I identify as a natural response to this type of violation. Sympathetic responses are common. Some of you might put your hand to your own heart when you hear someone else’s bad news, or you may feel angry when hearing about someone being hurt or violated.

I know this client well as we have worked together weekly for a few years. She has been through significant difficulties in the time she has been coming to therapy and has a solid sense of herself. She has expressed her anger many times previously in her therapy sessions. From this, I assessed that she would benefit from working actively with her anger. I felt clear that she could integrate these feelings while staying grounded in herself.

With a client I did not know as well or who did not have this level of ego strength, I would have moved more slowly. I would have likely suggested more grounding exercises and would have explored their feelings, offering empathy and compassion for the painful memories. I would introduce movement and encourage expression more gradually.

A woman standing on the floor, bent forward with hands also touching the floor.
Bioenergetic grounding exercise. This and the following photos all by the author.

With this client, I invited her to get a towel (we were working via telehealth) and to start by twisting it. I encouraged her to express to her father what she couldn’t say when she was a child, with both words and sounds. I suggested she bend and straighten her legs a few times to stay solidly grounded. If she had said she did not feel angry, we would have explored what she felt instead. But this direction resonated with her. She expressed her anger at her father — saying, “Get out!” and “Go away!” She made sounds that expressed her anger and frustration as well. After a few minutes of doing this, her expression slowed. She spontaneously shook out her arms, releasing the emotion and the memory.

I encouraged her to continue bending and straightening her legs to emphasize grounding, as the emotion moved through her and she integrated the experience. I also encouraged her to put her arms out in front of her with her palms facing outward to affirm her right to her boundaries and her ability to assert them in the present. After doing this for a few minutes she reported feeling better. She was calmer and the tension in her upper back had released.

Working with her body provided a safe way for the memories and emotions from the past to move through her. Through grounding in her body, she could identify that what happened was not acceptable and that she has the strength as an adult (which she could not have as a child) to protect her boundaries. She was able to learn from the message of her body (the tension in her back). As she processed the painful memories and related emotions, the tension released. More tension will likely appear for her as there may be more difficult memories to uncover, but she has the experience to know she can work through it and come out feeling better than she did before.

In other situations, I use an exercise ball or a bioenergetic stool (which looks like a step ladder with a rolled up blanket on top) to help clients release tensions that constrict their breathing. I instruct clients to slowly lower their body backward over the ball or the stool, with their hands supporting their head, gently stretching it back to rest on the ball or stool. Some people need a pillow behind their heads to support their necks. I tell them that their balance is in their legs so remind them to keep one foot on the floor at all times.

A woman laying with her back on top of a large exercise ball, her feet planted on the floor.
Opening breathing over the exercise ball.

In this position, I encourage my clients to notice what they sense in their bodies. I suggest they breathe into any areas of tension, even putting a hand on those areas for support. I let them experience this stretch. I observe what happens in their body, especially with their breathing, in the process. I often invite them to focus their mind on what’s happening in their body. I suggest they give in to the support of the ball or stool, letting it hold them.

This exercise elicits a variety of responses. Sometimes an emotion arises, such as sadness, anger, or fear. Often my clients observe changes in their breathing. At other times, a memory emerges or they note various sensations in their body. We work with whatever emerges and follow with appropriate movements. If sadness arises, for example, I encourage them to allow it to move through, which may include tears. Some movements lead to pleasurable sensations, which we aim to allow and even to increase.

Making sounds can help release tensions and express emotions. Most people experience this as awkward or uncomfortable initially. But over time, as they do it repeatedly, they observe that it feels good and helps to let go of stress. Dr. Stephen Porges, originator of the Polyvagal Theory, confirms this in his descriptions of how singing and vocalizing help to calm the vagus nerve.

These are some of the ways that bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body in psychotherapy. Bioenergetic therapists explore their client’s stories, including both present issues and childhood experiences. We integrate work with a person’s mind, body, spirit, emotions, and relationships to offer an opportunity for maximum effectiveness.

This method is not quick or easy but can offer hope in addressing some of the most challenging conditions such as trauma, loss, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, addictions, etc. Bioenergetics focuses on helping people have more vitality and capacity to enjoy their life.

I have witnessed many clients grow enormously. Many have stated in the course of therapy: “Bioenergetic therapy has saved my life!” I have personally experienced deep, life-changing transformations through this approach.

A Time for Tantrums:

What 2-year-olds model about releasing frustration and restoring calm

Imagine the familiar scene — a 2-year-old gets frustrated about not getting something they want or not being able to do something that excites them. They throw themselves on the floor, stomp their feet, pound their arms, and shout or scream. No one teaches them this behavior. The response comes organically, believe it or not. Controlling this full-body expressive response challenges parents and daycare providers, often generating feelings of frustration and helplessness. A Google search yields many links related to stopping tantrums, managing them, and teaching children to contain their emotions by talking about them rather than expressing them physically.

Consider instead that children inherently know how to release the energy built from frustrated desires. Think about how, if allowed to “complete” the tantrum, the child visibly relaxes and calms when it’s over.

With the pandemic entering the third year with the next more contagious strain, nearly everyone feels frustration and weariness. Adjusting to this situation brings realities out of our control that we don’t like or which cause uncertainty, discomfort, and varying degrees of sacrifice and suffering. Without the option of temper tantrums available to release our frustration, it can come out in road rage, conflicts in relationships, and mental health issues such as increased anxiety and depression.

As a bioenergetic (body-oriented) psychotherapist, I encourage my clients to have adult temper tantrums. I suggest they lay on their back on a mattress in the safety of my office. I guide them to lift one leg at a time and let it drop. I tell them to continue going back and forth, bringing both legs up and down. As they get into it, I invite them to add their arms, make fists to pound on the mattress, and let their head go from side to side. Words such as “It’s not fair!” or “I don’t like it!” or “WHY?!” integrate their mind into the expression.

After watching them do the exercise, I nearly always suggest a grounding exercise to reorient themselves. The grounding exercise involves standing with one’s feet about hip-width apart and feet going forward. Then, I invite them to bend slowly and gently straighten their legs without locking their knees to increase their connection with the ground.

Clients sometimes feel fear or shame as they initially do the exercise. They may relate a painful memory from being a child and an adult’s reaction to their tantrums. For example, they describe punishment with ice thrown at them or being yelled at to stop it. But nearly always, when they allow themselves to get into the exercise (and especially after), they feel more relaxed, calmer, and freer.

When a child’s expression repeatedly gets stopped in a shaming way, they use their muscles to hold back the emotions. They develop negative messages about themselves like “I’m bad” or “My anger is not acceptable.” Then, the feeling comes out another way, such as self-hate or mistreating pets or people they love. Many people deny their feelings through addictions, including alcohol, drug use, overwork, or overeating.

I do my version of temper tantrums regularly when swimming. I kick firmly with straight legs while both on my front and back. Depending on my current level of frustration, I kick with as much force as I need to release the feeling. The exercise is aerobic and usually feels energizing. I always feel lighter, calmer, and more relaxed afterward.

Children, of course, need to learn appropriate places to express themselves. Lying on the floor having a tantrum at the grocery store isn’t appropriate any more than peeing in their pants. But if they don’t have anywhere to express themselves fully, they become emotionally constipated. They then use their energy to suppress their expression. Parents can help by providing a space where children can express themselves safely.

You can try this for yourself. For example, if you swim, try it while swimming. Or lie on your back on a mattress in a private place. You will likely feel self-conscious or uncomfortable at first, especially if there’s anyone else around. If you experienced shaming or punishment for having tantrums as a child, you might feel fear or shame as you begin. It may be too uncomfortable to try on your own. You may need support from a trusted guide or therapist to work through the fear and shame. With guided practice, you can become more comfortable expressing your frustration in this safe way.

If you have children, you can do it with them. Teach them, through modeling, that everyone gets frustrated sometimes, and they can release it in ways that no one gets hurt. Everyone will feel better together! Your relationships will likely improve when you stop taking your frustration out on people around you. Imagine if the legislators started their sessions with communal tantrums. Think how much more would likely get accomplished! If we all release frustration in safe ways, the world can become a kinder, gentler place.

Enjoy the Holiday season More Fully: start by considering – what do you want?

Magazine ads, commercials, and songs lead us to believe that the holiday season is “the most wonderful time of the year.” We expect happiness, abundance, and joyful family togetherness. But this season often brings a mix of feelings and experiences. Even families that look perfect from the outside have conflicts, sorrow, and sometimes a lack of real connection. So, to enjoy your holiday season more fully, with whatever is happening in your life and your family, start with thinking about what you most need and want.

The pandemic has brought increased awareness about connections for nearly everyone. Unfortunately, most people have missed connections, had too much contact, or some of both. In this holiday season, reflect on what you have learned about yourself and your relationships during the pandemic.

Consider the following questions: What connections nourish you — with yourself and others? What do you most need or want regarding your relationships this year? Which of your needs or wants are you willing to negotiate on, and which are non-negotiable?

Start by clarifying what you want. Then, express your wishes when you can. Next, listen to the needs and wants of your family members or friends. Where your wishes differ, negotiate to get some of what you value. Discuss how you can honor some of the desires of people close to you. Everyone may not get all of what they want, but everyone should get some of their wishes.

During the pandemic, you may have learned, for instance, that you prefer more time alone. If so, consider arranging time in smaller groups or find a way to have some solitude amid big family gatherings. You might negotiate to meet for part of the day, such as gathering for dessert or appetizers rather than spending the whole day together.

On the other hand, if the pandemic has kept you from gathering with family or friends, you may realize that you value the time together more than you thought. Think about how to maximize the time with family or friends and give yourself that gift when you can. 

Perhaps, instead, you do not have close family nearby. If so, this can be a tough time of year. Consider planning a gathering with a friend. Or, explore what else would feel good to you. For example, plan a memorable day trip or do something for someone else who is alone, such as delivering a meal.

If you experience stress due to conflicts, expectations, or demands within your family, find ways to nourish yourself during these gatherings. For example, taking a break for a walk, either alone or with someone you enjoy, can help. If you’re traveling, staying at a hotel (if you can afford it) rather than staying with family can give you needed time apart.

Some families have had painful losses since the last holiday gathering. Rather than ignoring the pain, create a ritual to honor the loss together. For example, light a candle for the person, have a moment of silence, or invite family members to share memories. While suggesting this may initially be uncomfortable, it will likely feel better than not sharing it.

This time of year can also be difficult for people who have financial hardships, with an emphasis on gifts and materialism. If this includes you, look for simple ways to give something of yourself. Handmade gifts or gifts of time can mean a lot. Explore taking the risk of asking for help from someone who can provide it. Or, if you have abundance, allow yourself the joy of sharing it.

Asserting your wishes, requests, and choices may involve taking risks. Not everyone will like or approve of you when you do. You may need to accept disappointing people some of the time. Aim to release guilt if someone tries to place this on you. When you clarify what you want and need, you can usually negotiate to get at least some of it.

However you spend these days, remember this is the darkest, coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. You likely need extra rest. Be sure to prioritize self-care, including rest, exercise, healthy eating (not overeating!)

The Road Not Built:

Saving Sacred Lands — the Grand Staircase Escalante

I celebrate the action of President Biden to restore the monuments of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to experience these areas’ sacred and unique beauty, I share a personal account about why their preservation remains significant. My story includes the history of my aunt’s activism in the 1970s to stop a road, which remains central to the area’s remoteness today.

My Family’s History in Utah:

When I was nine years old, my father moved my family from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City to live near his sister, the late June Viavant. Our families spent significant time hiking, camping, running rivers, and backpacking in southern Utah. My father bought a 4 wheel drive vehicle to access the very remote areas of the state.

My aunt loved the Grand Staircase-Escalante in particular. She spent years hiking and exploring this majestic region and became devoted to protecting it. My aunt loved the spectacular beauty of the unique red rock formations, waterfalls, arches, cliffs, and slot canyons carved through centuries, unique to the Escalante.

In 1996 (unfortunately after my aunt’s death), President Clinton declared the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, covering about 1.8 million acres of land — primarily accessible only by a few rough roads. The area includes:

  • The Escalante Canyon (a red rock canyon with a river running through it and many side canyons, including several narrow slot canyons)
  • The Kaiparowits Plateau (a wide desert plateau area standing above the nearby lands)
  • The Grand Staircase (referring to the layered geology in this extended area)

Raised in New Hampshire, June and her family pioneered camping and backpacking, in the 1950s, long before these activities were popular. My grandfather, a YMCA camp director, and my grandmother, later gave talks on the wildlife and birds of New England. June was always an active political advocate as well. At family dinners, for example, she often required us to write letters to our representatives (in the days before email and online petitions), advocating for the protection of places like the Escalante. When hiking together, she made sure we picked up every bit of litter and never took shortcuts of the trails.

While our families frequently vacationed in southern Utah, Thanksgiving became a favored time to go. With four days off and fewer crowds, we celebrated the holiday in this sanctuary. We camped in Zion National Park or backpacked into the Escalante or Waterpocket Fold, carrying Thanksgiving dinner on our backs. We packed turkey, dressing, homemade sticky buns, pies, and wine to enjoy around a campfire (we skipped some of the vegetables and, of course, ice cream to top the pies!). One of the memorable parts of these trips was sitting around the fire after dinner. In late November, it gets dark early, and we joked about how slow the time passed. We enjoyed singing and sang for what felt like hours when it was only 6:30 or 7:00. “It’s too early to go to bed,” someone would proclaim, but there wasn’t much else to do, so we slept a lot.

On one family trip to Death Hollow, a side canyon of the Escalante canyon, we searched for hours through the desert to find the trailhead as this was the 1970’s and trails were not yet marked. Once we located the steep trail going into the canyon, we had to pass our packs to each other, heavy with Thanksgiving fixings, to maneuver the steep cliffs. We waded through water up to our waists, on another trip, carrying our packs above our heads. We hiked through places where a stream had carved basins in the rock, with one beautiful pool following another. We camped beneath a large overhang and explored native American ruins not seen by others. We experienced the quiet, awe, and reverence of places largely untouched by humans.

June’s Political Activism to Stop the Highway:

June treasured the solitude and wildness of Grand Staircase-Escalante. She spent a lot of time backpacking in this area backpacking and she became passionate about preserving it. She worked as a school counselor in Salt Lake City, and I think what she liked best about the job was the time off it afforded her to spend in southern Utah.

In the late 1960s, June co-founded the Escalante Wilderness Committee with Ruth Frear. June and Ruth argued before the US Senate in 1970 to halt the proposed Trans-Escalante highway. The road would have cut through the heart of the Escalante wilderness, ruining its remoteness. They gathered letters from hundreds of people who expressed their intent for it to be kept wild.They testified before the US Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation.

In her testimony to the US Senate in 1970, June argued for the value of maintaining it as wilderness, stating:

The Escalante is a contrast of the huge and the minute, of openness and hidden glens — an endless expanse of Forty-Mile Bench complemented by walls eighteen inches apart, hundreds of feet high in Davis Gulch. It displays the beginnings in its massive sandstone walls, the end in its fragile ferns. The Escalante is a little of the Grand Canyon, some of Bryce and Zion, a reminder of Mesa Verde, and the last great remnant of Glen Canyon — but it possesses a unique spirit of its own. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 78)

She went on to describe her experience of the spirituality of the region:

Who can stand within the perfection of the Escalante and not in some way experience a hint of the supernatural? We all have our personal religions. To some of us, wilderness is the place worship; of what, depends on the individual. One man sees desert canyons as a hell of a place to lose a cow. Another stands alone on the rim of the Escalante Canyon and thinks ‘Perhaps when God was driven from Glen Canyon, He came to live in the Escalante.’ We can approach this beautiful, ecologically fragile area with the care and the love of a people that respects and values its last few remaining pockets of wilderness, or we can come with bulldozers and pavement, blasting our way across them. People deserve to have a chance to be drawn into the Escalante naturally — to follow a canyon stream or a canyon rim on foot, wondering what is around the next bend. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 79)

It is worthy to note that she also specifically addressed the value of the area for mining and drilling in her testimony. She referenced a document called “Geology of the Circle Cliffs Area, Garfield and Kane Counties, Utah, United States Geological Survey Bulletin #1229, Prepared on behalf of the US Atomic Energy Commission.” She reported that the document states: “The uranium deposits are small, and opportunity for discovery of any large deposits seems poor.” She goes on to comment: “no mines of consequence have yet been developed and the depth of burial would preclude its exploration in many places. No pattern of ore bodies of significant size exists to allow confident prediction of more ore bodies.” Additionally, she references the problem with drilling for oil in the area related to the lack of abundant water which remains an issue today (United States Senate, 1970, p. 80).

In Canyon Country Zephyr in 2015, Ken Sleight praised the conservation work of Ruth and June, stating:

…speaking of the Sierra Club, I’ll never forget the valiant and hard work of two of their most able leaders, Ruth Frear and June Viavant. They helped stop the proposed Trans-Escalante highway that would have stretched from Bullfrog to Wahweap marina. The road would have bridged across the Escalante canyon just downstream from Stevens Arch and Coyote Gulch. This was one of the environmentalists’ finest hours in Utah. (Sleight, paragraph 31)

June smiling in the Escalante Canyon with snow on the ground
June in Escalante Canyon, circa 1980. Photo provided by Tim Viavant

The Fragile Environment: Biological Soil Crust

While June publicly defended the Escalante, she also taught us about the crust covering much of the open desert of southern Utah, which takes many years to form. The vast expanses of land between the beautiful canyons look barren, lifeless, and desolate, but on this, we learned, lives a fragile crust unique to this environment. My aunt implored us to be mindful of where we walked to minimize the damage to this delicate crust, as even a single step can destroy it.

The fragile crust — called “biological soil crust” — consists of various organisms, including lichen, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. Together they work to control erosion and hold water to allow plants to grow in the dry environment. One of these organisms — called cyanobacteria, or green-blue algae — is believed to be among the first living organisms on Earth! Amazingly, it can take thousands of years for this crust to form (NPS, 2020). In building roads and development of all types, fragile organisms would experience irreparable damage, including extinction.

The Bees of the Escalante — Who Knew?!!

I have recently learned that the Grand Staircase is also home to over 650 unique species of bees! Bee biologist Olivia Messinger Carril, and a team of volunteers, spent four years researching bees in the area. They found huge numbers of bees varying in size, colors, and shapes. (Zimmer, 2018) Carril and her crew produced a film about their work titled: The Bees of Grand Staircase Escalante. (You can view this interesting film at this link: https://beesofgsenm.com)

On the topic of roads, the film shows a large group of bees that lived in the unpaved, dry road going through the national monument. Sadly, a road crew using heavy equipment to grade the road devastated these bees, even after the researchers informed them of the existence of the bees and requested that they work around them. In watching the film, I reflected on the number of species of bees that would have been lost, if the road my aunt and her colleagues effectively stopped in the 1970s, had been built.

Many bee species, along with the fragile ecosystem, risked permanent damage in the recent reduction of the size of the national monument. This policy of dominance, which continues to permeate the political landscape in the United States, does not respect the needs of the other. Dominance accepts the destruction of anything in its way, especially if viewed as inferior, vulnerable, or fragile. Further, policy based on dominance does not tend to what comes after it.

Prayers, Gratitude, and Celebration

And so, I speak in honor of this tender place.

I speak for the right of untamed places to exist and of their need for protection. I speak about the incredible resiliency of life forms to thrive and adapt in even the harshest of conditions and the ability of fragile life forms to be damaged irreparably by a single action or series of actions.

I honor the efforts of people like my aunt and so many others who dedicate their lives to protecting fragile, remote environments and ecosystems so they may thrive and endure.

I hear echoes of the centuries of ancestors who called this land home, on the people who currently live there, and the expectations of generations to come who wish to enjoy this wild and wonderful planet.

I acknowledge the value of the vulnerability within every one of us, which these lands reflect.

Today I celebrate the win for places like this whose abundant riches lie in something far more significant than in the finite resources that we can extract from them.

The words of June from the introduction of the book Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest published in 1971 ring true to me: “Much has been done to protect these wild, beautiful, lonely places. Much remains to be done. We can win many successive steps of a conservation battle, but we can lose only once” (Abbey, p. 14.) Gratefully, wildness has won again.

References:

Abbey, E., Hyde, P. (1971). Slickrock: endangered canyons of the southwest. Sierra Club/Charles Scribner’s Sons

National Park Service. (2020, Feb 15) Biological soil crust of southeast Utah. https://www.nps.gov/articles/seug-soil-crust.htm

Sleight, K. (2015, June 1). Canyon Country Zephyr. Ken Sleight remembers, part 5: the 60s, “memories of Escalante.” Retrieved from: https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/06/01/ken-sleight-remembers-part-5-the-60s-memories-of-escalante-by-ken-sleight/

United States Senate. Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. (1970). Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=KwTx470b8t8C&pg=PP1&lpg=PP1&dq=United+States+Senate.+Canyonlands+National+Park+and+Glen+Canyon+National+Recreational+Area.+Hearing+before+the+Subcommittee+on+Parks+and+Recreation+of+the+Committee+on+Interior+and+Insular+Affairs.+(1970)&source=bl&ots=bUBoEb6vXN&sig=ACfU3U1l4a1i-5a6Ba3lkVMEZshkjdl8KA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiA98y0y73zAhUdonIEHdwfAVIQ6AF6BAgDEAM#v=onepage&q=United%20States%20Senate.%20Canyonlands%20National%20Park%20and%20Glen%20Canyon%20National%20Recreational%20Area.%20Hearing%20before%20the%20Subcommittee%20on%20Parks%20and%20Recreation%20of%20the%20Committee%20on%20Interior%20and%20Insular%20Affairs.%20(1970)&f=false

Zimmer, K. (2018, December 17). National Geographic. 660 species of bees live in the newly shrunk national monument. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/bee-city-at-risk-after-grand-staircase-escalante-divided

Beyond Gold

Four lessons from Simone Biles about trauma and life

After the flame from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics extinguished and I reflected on the events, my attention focused, more than anything else, on the experience of Simone Biles. In her conduct, she exemplified excellence as a role model and a teacher. In addition, through her example, she has offered invaluable lessons about honoring limits, the mind/body connection, recovering from traumatic stress, and shifting from an individual orientation to a collective focus.

1 — Respecting limits

While Simone has already brought the sport of gymnastics to a new level through all kinds of amazing feats on the balance beam, vault, and uneven bars, in this Olympics, she showed to the world that being human includes limits that deserve acknowledgment and respect.

While she had spent countless hours preparing to compete, and the hopes and expectations of many people were riding upon her success, she bravely confronted the reality that she could not compete safely. Accepting these limits and honoring the boundaries of her capacity meant valuing her safety over the accompanying disappointment — for herself and others. In this Olympics, respecting her physical, psychological, and emotional limits became one of her most remarkable feats yet.

2 — The mind/body connection

Simone has become a teacher about the mind/body connection. Though her body likely could have physically done what was required to compete, her mind could not do its part. While I do not claim to fully comprehend what happened for her (with the “twisties”), my experience as a body/mind psychotherapist provides me with theories.

From her significant training, she had sufficient muscle memory to perform her routines, and she had managed the pressure of this situation in many past competitions. Simone’s struggles emerged in twists, which requires the mind to tolerate the disorientation of the body moving through space while simultaneously finely calibrating to locate contact with the ground. The mental focus and attention required to navigate this eluded her this time.

3 — Post Traumatic Stress Response

Understanding the limits of Simone’s focus requires exploring the impact of post-traumatic stress. Specifically, Simone stated that being at the Olympics activated memories of Dr. Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, who repeatedly abused her and numerous other Olympic athletes, including at the last Olympics of 2016.

From my practice as a psychotherapist working with clients who suffered traumatic events, I have learned that people can compartmentalize painful events, putting them out of their mind for long periods — years or even decades.

When something in the present reminds them of the painful event, memories return. Along with memories, painful emotions emerge and require attention. This can derail a person from focusing on other things until the memory and emotions are acknowledged, felt, witnessed, and processed.

Processing traumatic events requires significant mental and emotional energy. A person coping with post-traumatic stress may be able to manage familiar, straightforward tasks of life (i.e., driving, walking, cooking, eating), but they do not have the focus required for tasks that require more of them.

I can imagine that gymnastics involving the mental feat of orientating in space through twists may have been more than Simone’s mind could manage, in conjunction with processing the complex emotions and memories from the trauma. With her body connected to the ground and moving in a relatively linear direction, she could access the mental energy necessary to block out difficult memories and emotions.

However, twisting and turning through space mixes up one’s thoughts and feelings and one’s body; her mind may not have been able to both block or process painful experiences and also focus on the complexity required with twists.

I had an experience with my partner recently, which provided a simpler example of this. Our dog had become ill, which activated memories for my partner of previous pet illnesses with unfavorable outcomes (if you’ve had pets for any length of time, you know this is inevitable but sad and sometimes painful).

My partner rested more than usual over the weekend, and on Sunday afternoon, we went for a walk at a familiar place. The walk began on pavement and then moved onto a path in the woods. Shortly after shifting into the woods, with the uneven ground, she took a bad fall. I believe that in her compromised state of processing past trauma and the anxiety which accompanied this, her mind could manage walking on pavement, but not the more complex adjustments required to navigate the uneven woods path.

4 — From me to we: a value beyond winning

Finally, through the likely deep disappointment of not being able to compete fully in the Tokyo Olympics, Simone maintained a positive attitude and became a great support for her teammates rather than keeping the focus on herself. Throughout the remainder of the competition, she coached them, cheered for them, celebrated their victories, and shared their losses.

While Simone may have felt frustrated about her inability to compete at her usual level, she did not become consumed with hopelessness, bitterness, or resentment. Instead, she adjusted her expectations, shifted her balance beam routine, and encouraged her team members.

Simone may not have brought home a gold medal this time, but she landed solidly on her feet. She taught the world what exists beyond gold by honoring herself, including her limits and needs, modeling the importance of mental health, and demonstrating leadership in supporting her teammates.

Thank you, Simone

A Different Take on Anxiety & Fear

Your fear may have an important message for you. Acknowledging it doesn’t mean you let it stop you from doing things you want to do.

In my psychotherapy practice, I recently received a call from a potential client stating she wanted help “getting rid of anxiety.” Anxiety, which I think of as fear in motion, manifests in ways that cause discomfort — a fast heart rate, sweaty palms, tense muscles, worry or racing thoughts, and difficulty sleeping. I can appreciate wanting to get rid of these symptoms. However, in my experience, acknowledging fear, which underlies anxiety, and exploring it, provides a more effective and long-lasting solution.

Rather than admitting to being afraid, people often identify being anxious which, while still not pleasant, as being more acceptable, or at least not as overwhelming, as simply being afraid. Men especially, generally view fear as being unattractive, not manly, a sign of weakness, or even shameful. Sometimes other emotional states, such as fits of anger or even depression, hide underlying fear. Addictions can be a cover for fear as well.

Fear is a natural, physiological response to danger — real or perceived (to our bodies there is no difference). It alerts us to pay attention. Our heart races, breathing quickens, and muscles become tense to confront the threat. Sometimes adrenaline is released providing excess energy. The threat may be out of conscious awareness, but the symptoms call our attention. Fear can be a natural response to doing something new and to a situation filled with uncertainty.

As I thought about writing this article, for example, I woke up early one morning, aware of a big knot in my gut. If you’ve ever had one of these you know it’s not comfortable. Fortunately for me, I remembered to follow the advice I was preparing to write about! I exaggerated the gnarly knot. I acknowledged to myself: “I’m afraid.” I explored the cause of my fear — being vulnerable, open to judgment, and/or criticism. I remembered my childhood experience where getting attention was not always positive. I focused on my reason for writing this — my desire to share the tools I’ve learned to help people feel more alive. And I tolerated the discomfort in my gut, breathing into it, with the hand on the knotted area, without trying to make it go away. Slowly, the knot released.

Understanding Fear & Anxiety

Sometimes fear leads to immobilization, as in the phrases: “stopped in my tracks” or “frozen in fear.” Fear is generally at the root of anxiety, but anxiety also includes feeling jittery, worrying about things in the past or the future, and discomfort from excess physical energy. A search about fear in Google or on Medium provides links to many excellent articles about overcoming the immobilization caused by fear to do things out of one’s comfort zone.

Approaches to anxiety, and the fear which underlies it, generally focus on symptom reduction. Techniques from mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises offer guidance on shifting one’s thoughts, learning to control breathing patterns, and relaxation techniques. Medications are often prescribed as a way to calm anxious nerves.

The pandemic has caused increased fear and a spike in anxiety in most people. Most of us have not previously encountered the danger of a potentially life-threatening virus, transmitted from one person to another, often without awareness. We have come to fear normal interactions — being close and greeting one another with a handshake or a hug. What used to be benign gatherings with relatives or friends became potentially dangerous, let alone gatherings with larger groups. Physical symptoms of anxiety alert us to be cautious in getting close.

Other situations, such as public speaking, a performance, social gatherings (aside from the concerns due to the pandemic), or going on a blind date cause an increase in anxiety for different reasons. We fear the possibility of psychological danger from embarrassment or humiliation from failing publicly. In these situations, when the event ends, our anxiety symptoms stop as well. Chronic anxiety or persistent fear presents a bigger problem.

The Bioenergetic Approach to Addressing Fear & Anxiety

As a bioenergetic therapist, integrating active work with the body along with the mind, my approach begins with helping clients begin to identify and explore their discomfort. I invite them to notice their bodily sensations in the safe space of my office and to describe them in as much detail as possible. For some clients, this is easy while others need coaching in bringing awareness to their bodies. I suggest they note areas that call their attention, areas where they feel tense or relaxed, and notice their breathing pattern.

Next, I often suggest something really crazy. Though it’s counterintuitive, I explain, as I understand they want the discomfort to stop, I encourage them to exaggerate the symptoms. I may ask, for example, what would it look like if you allowed your whole body to express this feeling? After initially looking confused, they usually comply. They may breathe more quickly, they might stand and shake in a wild manner, or they may make a knot tighter. I suggest they also speak about their worry and/or racing thoughts, which generally accompany the symptoms. As they do this, I invite them to explore the underlying message of their body.

They begin to own their fear, with a simple statement such as: “I’m afraid of being rejected” or “I fear being out of control.” Other fears include being alone, being overwhelmed, being hurt by someone who has power over them or failing. Sometimes people express feeling afraid of their anxiety (like being afraid of being afraid)!

For many of my clients, acknowledging and naming their fear provides a good beginning towards feeling calmer. It interrupts their belief that it’s not acceptable to be afraid or to admit feeling fear. It breaks through to the truth of what they feel. Rather than using the exhausting effort of denial, in time, they can relax, in facing what is.

Some situations require not acknowledging fear at the moment. If you are in the midst of danger your resources (both physical and mental) are used to confront the situation. If you are accosted by an intruder in your home, for example, don’t stop to tell them you are afraid! If you are in imminent danger for any reason, you need to focus on thinking and acting as quickly as possible to protect yourself and those around you.

Fear, Muscle Tension & Traumatic Relational Experiences

Similarly, children experiencing abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence in their homes often are not safe enough to admit being afraid. The fear may live in their body as muscle tension, generally out of awareness, for years, even decades. Healing and recovering include acknowledging the fear. If you experienced this, you may need support to process your fear, along with the other feelings from the painful experiences. Your body needs to release the tension and the excess energy from the adrenaline that was produced to face the threat — both from the past and possibly from situations in the present. You need compassion and comfort to express the pain of what you suffered. You may need repeated experience with acknowledging your fear, along with your underlying feelings, and having your boundaries respected, to begin to release the tension associated with your fear and to feel calmer and safer.

The alternative to recovering from situations where you were afraid, which includes admitting your fear and working through your feelings, involves chronically tense muscles. You may have hidden your fear, along with suppressing other emotions, such as anger, sadness, or disgust, through tensing your muscles and holding your breath. A child trying not to cry, for instance, tenses and holds their breath to stop the emotion from moving through.

While holding back emotions is important in the midst of danger, chronically tense muscles stress your body. This leads to being depleted as your body’s energy is used in holding tension. The tension is likely out of your awareness as you have become accustomed to it, but this affects you all the time. You may have stopped identifying the source of your fear or even that you are afraid. Chronic tension contributes to decreased vitality and overall health. Stress from chronically suppressing emotions contributes to, or at least exacerbates, many mental and physical illnesses including heart disease, depression, hypertension, headaches, etc. Like an emotional mute button that’s always on, it leads to a decreased ability to experience pleasure or to enjoy your life. It may cause conflicts in your relationships, especially if you lash out at those you love, rather than softening to address and share your feelings and needs.

If you deny your fear out of needing to appear “cool” or you have not had the permission or felt safe enough (especially in situations of childhood abuse) to admit you were afraid, I give you this permission. No one has the right to tell you not to be afraid. You can benefit from the help of a professional to work through these limitations. You may fear the depth of sorrow, grief, or anger beneath the fear. You may fear your ability to hurt yourself or someone else if you unleash the rage and pain you feel. You may need support to learn to tolerate these feelings and to express them in positive, non-destructive ways.

Abuse and neglect, in my experience, are generally perpetrated by people riddled with fear of pain and wounding from their own past. Unable to face their own pain, out of fear combined with shame, they abuse others who are vulnerable and dependent on them. Healing the cycle of shame and abuse is not easy and takes time. Admitting your fear is a beginning, along with working through the wounding you have experienced. This includes telling the story, allowing your emotions, and, perhaps the next most difficult part — asking for help.

Even some popular leaders in the spiritual and psychology worlds fear emotions such as anger. Rather than admitting their fear, however, they state that anger is bad and that in order to be spiritually advanced you need to “rise above it.” Other leaders deny the value of working with anger in grounded and safe ways and criticize modalities that offer this.

Client Examples

The extremely abusive father of one of my clients could not tolerate her emotions, especially her tears. She learned not to cry at all costs. I have come to believe that her father was terrified of his own emotional pain and could not tolerate seeing pain mirrored in her. Even after years of therapy and frequent reminders from me that her tears are welcome, my client uses tremendous effort not to cry. In response to something that has naturally upset her, I observe her hold her breath, deny that anything’s wrong, and state “I’m okay, everything’s fine.” She needs frequent reassurance that I’m not angry if she cries or is upset.

Another client experienced heightened anxiety following being in a potentially dangerous situation where his car stalled on the ramp of a major highway. As we explored the feeling of anxiety in his body, I encouraged him to put a hand on his solar plexus which he identified as being tense. As he owned the fear from the situation and brought some comfort to himself with his hand, his anxiety gradually lessened.

In another situation, working with a client, born male, now identifying as gender-neutral using pronouns they/them, we identified their feeling of fear beneath anxiety and depression. My client was at a point of uncertainty and transition regarding work and relationships. They noted a pattern of going to sleep late and playing computer games excessively to avoid the anxiety and underlying fear at bedtime.

In one session, we began with noting body sensations and exaggerating them. When I suggested exploring the underlying message of their experience, my client asked for help as this was not initially clear to them. I talked about how fear often underlies tension. This resonated with them. Spontaneously, their breathing slowed with this awareness.

I next suggested they find a pillow or blanket they like (we were working by telehealth) and hug it. In doing this, I realized it was a slightly risky intervention to suggest for a young person who was raised as a male. But I felt it was what they needed. As they hugged the pillow, they immediately relaxed. Their breathing slowed even more with several deep sighs. They reported feeling calmer. We discussed the initial discomfort they felt in doing this, with the cultural conditioning of males to be strong, not show vulnerability or need. But the benefit to my client was palpable. They later reported that the feeling of calm and relaxation lingered for several days after the session.

Admitting Your Fear

I invite you to explore admitting your fear if you dare. For men, quite possibly, you might discover a new definition of being a man. Most people, including partners who want to view you as strong, sexy, manly, and desirable, will respond favorably to your honesty, tenderness, and vulnerability. If they don’t, consider more open discussions about this and/or explore couple’s counseling. Women may feel some relief from permission to acknowledge feeling afraid. Explore what you fear and consider getting help in understanding it, including your history. Experiment with bringing your attention to the uncomfortable physical sensations that accompany being anxious or afraid. Consider what you might learn from the feelings rather than immediately aiming to make them go away.

Think about what comfort or support you need and where you can get it — from yourself (possibly with the help of something soft like your hand or a pillow) and/or from people or a pet. In time, after the initial resistance, you may experience more relaxation and soften of tension, when you receive comfort and support. If those you love aren’t able to hear your fears and respond to your needs, seek help from those who can, so you can release your fears and live more relaxed. Similarly, if someone tells you they are afraid, start by listening and offering support, rather than trying to fix or change it. Explore what the person needs which might be some type of comfort or just being heard.

Acknowledging fear in yourself or someone else provides a first step to accepting it. Your fear may have an important message for you. Paying attention to it doesn’t mean you let it stop you from doing things you want to do. Rather, it can help you to get the comfort or support you need to become more relaxed. Your relationships, along with your well-being and the well-being of those around you will benefit.

Recovering from Pandemic Stress?: You’re not Alone

I’ve noticed waves of strong emotions in myself recently, along with a confusing mix of wanting time alone with an urge to be around people. I shared this with a group of friends on a text thread and discovered several of them experienced this too, along with feeling more tired than usual and considering big life changes. Perhaps you are experiencing some of this as well.

As more people become vaccinated and COVID case rates generally drop, we enter a new phase related to the collective traumatic stress of the pandemic. There’s a reason PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – occurs after the stressful event. In the midst of traumatic stress, our resources – body, mind and spirit – focus on addressing the immediacy of the stress. In the pandemic this has included adjusting to working, teaching or learning online, managing childcare along with work, coping with tight finances for people who’ve lost jobs, tending to the overwhelm of ill patients for medical professionals, finding new ways to connect with family and/or friends, tending to ill family members, exercising caution with regular activities, along with worrying and wondering how long this global crisis will last. 

We have entered a new phase of uncertainty and recovery. For many people, the immediate danger has passed. They are returning to the office and to social gatherings. But questions and concerns remain. Uncertainty about the impact of variants looms. The border with Canada has not opened. Other countries have different travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. Encounters with people who haven’t been vaccinated pose uncomfortable questions.  

Being around people – especially a larger group in an enclosed space – may not feel safe. Symptoms of anxiety run high. This is an example of a trauma “trigger.” The word “trigger” has become associated with situations that remind us of a traumatic event. A more thorough explanation of this connection may help in understanding present responses.

Trauma, from a standpoint of positive adaptation, provides signals to us about protection. Take a classic example of a relatively vivid and simple trauma: the pain of touching a hot stove the trauma of the pain from the touch makes a strong and lasting imprint on your memory. Seeing a hot stove “triggers” your memory of the pain you experienced when touching it. This protects you from hurting yourself as you avoid touching hot stoves in the future. 

In the case of COVID, the trauma trigger comes from being close to people, especially lots of people in an enclosed space. The knowledge that being close to someone could cause either them to get sick from you unknowingly passing on the virus, or you to get sick from them, causes you to avoid this. Further, the concern about unintentionally passing the virus onto someone we care about who is vulnerable has exacerbated the danger. The risk of this goes up in enclosed spaces and with more people. Caution about this situation is normal, predictable and may last for a long time.

As in the caution of touching a stove, even when we know the stove isn’t hot, we are cautious around stoves as they have caused us pain. Similarly, with the virus, we have become more cautious of being physically close to people, even when we know the danger of the virus has passed. 

Further, I expect that most people, myself included, had not previously considered the possibility that a virus could change nearly everyone’s life so dramatically, extending for over 15 months! We had not thought that schools, restaurants, bars, gyms, offices, hair salons could close for this long. This reality has unearthed a deeper fear – what other catastrophe could disrupt our lives?? We no longer feel able to depend on a predictability we previously thought unlikely to change. Realities of climate change – with dramatic record low and high temperatures, rising sea levels, raging fires, droughts, storms, etc. further compound the feeling of unease and uncertainty. Political conflicts and strife add another layer of unease.

The way our adjustment to the realities of the pandemic have changed us adds another factor in our current time of change. The dramatic increase in real estate prices in suburban areas points to the exodus out of urban areas for many people. You may have learned that you have greater hunger to be around nature than you previously realized. You may have developed more comfort with solitude. Or, perhaps you have become clearer the friendships or family relationships that matter most to you and wish to focus on those. You might be making up for lost time with activities you hadn’t been able to do, or developed an interest in new activities or a different direction for your life. You may be recovering from specific stressors related to the pandemic, which takes time. 

With all of these reactions – fears, uncertainties, anxieties, possibly feelings of sadness and loss – you are not alone. You may feel alone, but you are not! The need for mental health services has grown exponentially in recent months. Finding providers to meet the demand can be challenging. Emotions and physical responses (such as exhaustion) generally surface after the traumatic event passes. You may find yourself feeling emotions unfamiliar to you or at unexpected times. You may have stronger reactions to situations you tolerated before (such as avoiding crowds). You may be more tired than usual. You may begin to consider new directions for your life. Or, someone close to you may surprise you with a sudden shift in their direction. Your interests may change.

These are predictable responses to the time of post traumatic stress. A simple exercise from bioenergetic therapy can help you find greater strength in yourself to weather these challenges. 

The exercise is called “grounding.” Alexander Lowen, MD, who started bioenergetic analysis in the 1950’s developed this. Lowen is credited with getting people off the couch (as in psychoanalysis, which was popular at that time) onto their feet. Currently, bioenergetic therapists use this exercise to invite clients out of the passivity of the chair into a more active positive of standing. Grounding aims to help you feel more solid in yourself through identifying with your body rather than only your mind. In the exercise, focus on listening to your honest, unfiltered body rather than your complex and ambivalent mind. Think of a tree that sinks its roots into the earth. The roots provide stability to the tree, enabling it to remain standing through storms. The tree also draws in water and nutrients through its roots. Like the tree, grounding exercises can help you tolerate uncertainty and decrease anxiety through the storms of life. 

The exercise works best standing, if you are able. (If you are not able to stand, you can also do it sitting.) Put your feet flat on the floor or the ground. Remove your shoes and socks if possible, to increase the contact of your feet with the floor (or ground). Put your feet hip-width apart with your toes facing forward and parallel. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your knees. When straightening your knees, be sure not to lock them, as this cuts off your contact with the ground. Press your feet down onto the floor. Notice your breathing and bring attention to your body. If you are sitting, press your feet down onto the floor and press your butt down onto the chair as you breathe in and relax as you breathe out. 

You can expand the exercise by leaning your upper body forward over your feet. Go slowly if this is new for you. Let your upper body hang. Let your head go. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your legs a few times. Take some deep breaths. Focus on breathing in as your bend and breathing out as you straighten. Continue to press your feet onto the floor. Be sure not to lock your knees. If your legs shake, allow this to happen. This is a natural response to stressing the muscles. When you’re ready to come up, bend your knees, press down and roll up slowly. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded (which can happen if you aren’t used to letting your head go), stamp your feet down. Notice the sensations in your body. 

Generally people report feeling calmer after the exercise. If, however, you notice emotions or feelings that are unfamiliar or cause you discomfort, you might start with writing about them in a journal and/or sharing your feelings with a friend or family member. You may also benefit by seeking help from a mental health professional. 

Exploring Your Body’s Messages: Working with the body in psychotherapy – the bioenergetic approach

Modern psychotherapy generally occurs with the therapist and client sitting on chairs or on a couch. The client(s) talks about their problems, the therapist listens, asks questions and offers insights. While bioenergetic therapy starts in this way, it doesn’t end there. Bioenergetic therapists incorporate movement as part of the therapy. The movement includes exercises to be more connected to the ground, to open restricted breathing patterns, to practice asserting personal boundaries and to express sometimes unpleasant or repressed emotions, safely and appropriately.

Rooted in awareness of the fundamental connection between mind and body, modern bioenergetic therapy offers an integrated approach to mental health. While this therapy was developed in the 1950s, contemporary scientific advances support the value of working with the body in psychotherapy. Neuroscientists and other researchers emphasize the important role of the body in common conditions such as depression, anxiety and traumatic stress. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book How Emotions Are Made, for example, links the body and emotions stating: “your body and your mind are deeply interconnected…the most important thing you can do to master your emotions, in fact, is to keep your body budget in good shape.” (Barrett, 2017) Bioenergetics addresses this through active participation of both body and mind in therapy for maximum effectiveness.  

As a bioenergetic therapist, I begin most sessions by checking in with my client (or clients when working with a couple) about their current experience. As in any other psychotherapy approach, listening attentively provides a starting point. Developing a trusting therapeutic relationship, where the client feels safe, valued and respected, builds a necessary foundation for our work. 

As the client talks, along with listening, I observe my client’s body language. I pay attention to their spontaneous movements, to the sound of their voice, to the quality of their breathing and to their overall posture. I look for clues from what their body expresses, which may be out of their awareness.

In a break in the conversation, I often ask my client: What are you aware of sensing in your body as you are talking? Their responses vary widely. Some clients look at me confused and state they don’t feel anything or they don’t know what they feel. In this situation we need to dig deeper and I may offer suggestions about what to explore. I encourage them to scan their body looking for areas that call their attention. I suggest they observe if they feel tense or in pain. I tell them to notice their breathing patterns, their level or hunger or thirst, heat or cold, and tiredness or energy. 

Many times, clients offer a clear response to my question about what they notice in their body. Their hand goes to their heart, for example. Or they identify a specific area of tension – such as their shoulders, neck or solar plexus. They may say “I feel exhausted.” or “I feel hungry.” With a focus on connecting their body, their mind and their emotions, this is important information. Their responses often provide a useful place to begin further exploration. 

Bioenergetic therapy is an intuitive method, focused on what the client needs moment to moment, rather than on a specified set of instructions. This allows for creativity and flexibility to meet the client where they are and guide them towards their desired goals. Bioenergetic therapists are trained in techniques – both physical and mental – to address a variety of issues. We assess what our client needs and offer suggestions for using the techniques to their benefit. 

Based on the client’s story, along with information gained from their body awareness, a direction for the session emerges. In a recent session, for instance, my client identified feeling tense in a particular spot in her upper back. I encouraged her to bring her awareness there and invited her to put a hand on the area. I suggested that she start with exaggerating the tension. I explained that this is counterintuitive as the tension was uncomfortable, but invited her to see it as an exploration of a message from her body. 

As she exaggerated the tension, she described feeling disgust. I encouraged her to stand so she could move more freely with this emotion. We worked with a grounding exercise of simply bending and straightening her legs while pressing her feet down on the floor. She spontaneously began to shake out her arms and her head. I encouraged her to allow this movement and to continue with the shaking. She then talked about memories of times from her childhood when her father violated her boundaries (such as walking in when she was in the shower as a young teenager). 

In listening to her describe these memories, I felt anger rising in my body – which I identify as a natural response to this type of violation. Sympathetic responses are common. Some of you might put your hand to your own heart when you hear someone else’s bad news, or you may feel angry when hearing about someone being hurt or violated. 

I know this client well as we have worked together weekly for a few years. She has been through significant difficulties in the time she has been coming to therapy and has a solid sense of herself. She has expressed her anger many times previously in her therapy sessions. From this, I assessed that she would benefit from working actively with her anger. I felt clear that she could integrate these feelings while staying grounded in herself. 

With a client I did not know as well or who did not have this level of ego strength, I would have moved more slowly. I would have likely suggested more grounding exercises and would have explored their feelings, offering empathy and compassion for the painful memories. I would introduce movement and encourage expression more gradually. 

With this client, I invited her to get a towel (we were working on tele health) and to start by twisting it. I encouraged her to express to her father what she couldn’t say when she was a child, with both words and sounds. I suggested she bend and straighten her legs a few times to stay solidly grounded. If she had said she did not feel angry, we would have explored what she felt instead. But this direction resonated for her. She expressed her anger at her father – saying, “Get out!” and “Go away!” She made sounds which expressed her anger and frustration as well. After a few minutes of doing this, her expression slowed. She spontaneously shook out her arms, releasing the emotion and the memory. 

I encouraged her to continue bending and straightening her legs to emphasize grounding, as the emotion moved through her and she integrated the experience. I also encouraged her to put her arms out in front of her with her palms facing outward to affirm her right to her boundaries and her ability to assert them in the present. After doing this for a few minutes she reported feeling better. She was calmer and the tension in her upper back had released.

Working with her body provided a safe way for the memories and emotions from the past to move through her. Through grounding in her body, she could identify that what happened was not acceptable and that she has the strength as an adult (which she could not have as a child) to protect her boundaries. She was able to learn from the message of her body (the tension in her back). As she processed the painful memories and related emotions, the tension released. More tension will likely appear for her as there may be more difficult memories to uncover, but she has the experience to know she can work through it and come out feeling better than she did before. 

In other situations, I use an exercise ball or a bioenergetic stool (which looks like a step ladder with a rolled up blanket on top) to help clients release tensions which constrict their breathing. I instruct clients to slowly lower their body backwards over the ball or the stool, with their hands supporting their head, gently stretching it back to rest on the ball or stool. Some people need a pillow behind their head to support their neck. I tell them that their balance is in their legs so remind them to keep one foot on the floor at all times. 

In this position I encourage my clients to notice what they sense in their body. I suggest they breathe into any areas of tension, even putting a hand on those areas for support. I let them experience this stretch. I observe what happens in their body, especially with their breathing, in the process. I often invite them to focus their mind on what’s happening in their body. I suggest they give in to the support of the ball or stool, letting it hold them. 

This exercise elicits a variety of responses. Sometimes an emotion arises, such as sadness, anger or fear. Often my clients observe changes in their breathing. At other times, a memory emerges or they note various sensations in their body. We work with whatever emerges and follow with appropriate movements. If sadness arises, for example, I encourage them to allow it to move through, which may include tears. Some movements lead to pleasurable sensations, which we aim to allow and even to increase. Making sounds can help with releasing tensions and expressing emotions. Most people experience this as awkward or uncomfortable initially. But over time, as they do it repeatedly, they observe that it feels good and helps to let go of stress. Dr. Stephen Porges, originator of the Polyvagal Theory, confirms this in his descriptions of how singing and vocalizing help to calm the vagus nerve. (Porges, 2017).

These are some of the ways that bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body in psychotherapy. Bioenergetic therapists explore their client’s story, including both present issues and childhood experiences. We integrate work with a person’s mind, body, spirit, emotions and relationships to offer an opportunity for maximum effectiveness. This method is not quick or easy, but can offer hope in addressing some of the most challenging conditions such as trauma, loss, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, addictions, etc. Bioenergetics focuses on helping people have more vitality and capacity to enjoy their life. I have witnessed many clients grow enormously. Many have stated in the course of therapy: “Bioenergetic therapy has saved my life!” I have personally experienced deep, life-changing transformation through this approach. 

References:

Feldman Barrett, L. 2017. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176

Porges, S. 2017. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. 185 – 186

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