Whether we know it or not, our bodies record our emotions and, if not released, they have the potential to engender bad behavior or illness. The language confirms this: “She worried herself sick over that boy,” or “He died of a broken heart,” or “The whole business turns my stomach.” These days, it is possible to identify and release emotions that have a negative impact on our bodies or spirit, and therefore our interface with the world.
Bodily manifestations of strong emotions are often readily apparent. Anger may be evidenced by clenched teeth, or fear by shortness of breath. The more subtle emotions are harder, but you can test it. The next time you are feeling, perhaps, “I am sad today,” ask yourself how you know you are sad. In other words, what in your body tells you that you are sad? If you concentrate (and this can be learned if it doesn’t come easily), you will be able to find the sensation in your body. And there are ways to release it.
Children have more ways to release their feelings than adults do, in that we are not surprised if a child bursts into tears, has a tantrum, or acts out in various ways. Only slowly do children develop the language to describe what they feel in the body, but there are a variety of therapies available to help them express feelings, and parents can help children make the connection between internal and external experiences.
One therapy I highly recommend is Focusing (see references below), and I will use it to illustrate. To locate an emotion, one must focus on the body and allow it to “talk.” The sensation will usually have a form, color, temperature, and may change as you observe it. You can stay with the emotion and allow the body to embrace or release it, but you must not rush, and it takes concentration. The technique is learnable, and a skilled listener can facilitate the process.
Helpful with children is to let them talk about the problem, direct their attention to the body sensation, and encourage them to draw the inner story. The child may depict the emotion as a bunch of red lines, a blue patch painted on a part of the body, or may simply draw a self-portrait with a certain expression on the face. Everyone is familiar with the use of art therapy to help children who have severe disturbances, but art can be used to address ordinary upset.
Here is an example of a teacher who used Focusing to advantage (a relatively easy instance).
Michael hurt his hip during gymnastics. Previously (before I learned Focusing), I would have said, “just keep going, you won’t feel it anymore,” and the rest of the day he would have disrupted all manner of things. This time, however, I said, ”Your hip is hurting, isn’t it? Is it bad?”
He looked at me, suspicious, because I wasn’t giving him my usual response. I asked, “Where do you feel the pain?”
He pointed to his hip and said, “It happened because Peter was pushing me.”
I said, “Is there something you can feel inside?”
He replied, “Here in my belly … but it’s not that bad,” and ran off with the other children. Nothing was amiss the rest of the day, and it saved me a lot of energy. (paraphrased from Focusing with Children).
The benefits of learning a technique such as this are that emerging bad behavior can be channeled in such a way that the child feels relief from the emotion, and the adult doesn’t have to brace for an escalation of the behavior. More information on the mind/body connection is available, and the items below are only a few of the abundance of resources.
Focusing was developed by Eugene Gendlin. The practice is described fully in his book Focusing, available in libraries, bookstores, and on line. Visit www.focusing.org to know more.
Marta Stapert has written Focusing with Children, which provides many examples of children’s responses to Focusing techniques.
Of interest to adults will be Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine. The title comes from the observation that animals, when threatened, choose to fight, flee, or freeze. Once the threat is past, they (literally) shake off the emotion. Because we are rational, we human beings fail to do this, and our nervous system continues to deal with the consequences of traumatic experiences in varying degrees for the rest of our lives. Dr. Levine’s book describes Somatic Experiencing ®, which he has used to successfully help patients overcome the effects of trauma.
Children’s responses to trauma are documented by Dr. Levine and Maggie Kline in Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, and Trauma-Proofing Your Kids. What is not traumatic to an adult may be frightening to a child, and the authors provide ample evidence of the effects on children of seemingly minor upsets.