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Stress Management Health Center

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The Healing Power of Touch

For Emotional Healing: Body Psychotherapy

What it is: This form of therapy combines touch, movement, breathing techniques, and exercises to raise your awareness of sensations in your body, which can help you identify and resolve damaging emotional issues. Research by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., an expert in posttraumatic stress and trauma treatment, helped confirm that traumatic memories get stored in nonverbal parts of the brain as sensory, motor, and emotional fragments. “So no matter how much verbal therapy you do, you may never get to the core of it,” says psychologist Virginia Dennehy, Ph.D., president of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy.

There are more than 40 kinds of body psychotherapy ranging from bioenergetics, which focuses on muscle constrictions and their relationship to emotional expression, movement, breath, and posture; to core energetics, which uses specific movements to encourage the expression of difficult emotions; to the Rubenfeld Synergy Method, which relies on gentle touch and talk to release repressed tension and emotions. Body psychotherapy can be used alone or together with talk therapy.

Why try it? You might see a body psychotherapist if you’ve got a persistent case of the blues; to help you cope during a troubled time, such as a death in your family; or to deal with the effects of a past trauma, like being the victim of a crime.

To help me grapple with the darker parts of my childhood, my practitioner used sensorimotor psychotherapy, a combination of talk with body-centered therapy. In one session, I lay fully clothed on a massage table while my therapist, Dana Endsley-Denniston, touched different spots on my body. Her hand on the back of my neck triggered a terrifying memory. She showed me how I could cope with the feeling by not shutting down and instead staying in the present and paying close attention to my body sensations at that moment.

When recalling a trauma, “it’s important to understand the feelings that you’re experiencing are from the past,” Endsley-Denniston explains. “If you can have new experiences in the present when traumatic memories arise, the nervous system learns new ways of being, and healing occurs. Staying connected through your senses is the way to do that.” Other sessions included special exercises and movements to create a sense of safety in my body. I worked standing, sitting on a chair or gym ball, or lying down, depending on the activity.

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