Much of this article by Allison Brunner, LCSW, is reprinted from Natural Awakenings magazine’s (Lancaster/Berks edition) November 2016 issue.
Many of us know it well: a gnawing in the pit of the stomach, an ache in the chest, shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat or a lump in the throat. Roughly 40 million Americans (or 18 percent of the population above the age of 18), according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, experience anxiety as a full-blown disorder.
Most of us encounter the symptoms from time to time. Hardwired to avoid pain, we do everything we can to self-distract or problem-solve our way out. We try to convince ourselves we’re “worrying about nothing”. In cognitive approaches to psychotherapy, too, we examine the validity of the thoughts that create suffering and attempt to assuage our fears by labeling them irrational.
But how effective has that been for you?
Running and thinking (or arguing with our thoughts) exacerbate angst. The worse we feel, the more afraid we tend to become, wondering how long the discomfort will last or whether it may worsen and turn us crazy. Our minds are adept at tricking us into believing that what’s really a mouse in the closet is a six-foot monster with fangs.
What if we tuned into our bodies when the symptoms, like little lights on an automobile dashboard, indicated distress? What if we pulled up a chair and invited our anxiety to tea, so to speak? When we take the opportunity to face it, feel it and get to know it a little better, it calms. We can drop beneath it and find that where it was trying to turn our attention is an emotion that is far more tolerable than panic or fear. There may be sadness, grief, disappointment or anger—only a mouse when compared to the anxiety monster.
Try the following next time the body-mind gets noisy.
Find a safe, quiet space where you can turn your attention inward. It’s best to sit on the floor and allow yourself to feel the support of the earth beneath you. Squeeze all of the breath out of your belly, if you can; then fill it first, before your lungs, with fresh air. Notice whether your body is holding tension and relax if you’d like.
Let go of thinking. There is no future, not even a few minutes from now. There is only this moment. Breathe.
Enhance your feeling of safety by focusing on an object in the room that gives you pleasure. Notice the quality of light where you’re seated. Feel the texture of your clothing against your skin. Notice any sounds, smells, the taste in your mouth.
Where in your body are you feeling anxious? What are the physical sensations that accompany it? Place your awareness in that area. How much space does it take up? Does it have a shape; is it solid or diffuse; does it have a temperature?
Stay out of story. Remove the labels (good, bad, awful, terrified) from what you’re feeling. Simply allow yourself to feel what you feel.
What does your body want to do? Does it want to curl into a ball while wrapped in blankets? Do you need to cry into a pillow or scream? Do you need to shake, punch or kick? Allow the release.
Emotions move like waves; they don’t last forever. Give yourself 15 to 30 minutes to ride this one, rather than being pummeled by it, and know that the nervous system will calm again. When we resist, anxiety persists and either somaticizes or intensifies.
Once the waters still, ask your body what it needs. Reconnect to your five senses and where you’re situated in time and space. Soothe yourself with a warm bath, lit candles, low lights or relaxing music. Make yourself a warm cup of tea. After you’ve braved this storm, those in the future will feel more manageable.
Body Talks Therapy owner, coach, healer, and facilitator of a community of Highly Sensitive People, Allison Brunner, LCSW, will facilitate a workshop on Thursday, May 11, 7:15pm to 8:45pm, at Mulberry Art Studios’ Mulberry on King, 253 W. King St., Lancaster (off-street parking is available against the side of the building, near the entrance. Join us for a combination of psychoeducation, hands-on learning, and experiential practice of tools for coping with and minimizing or even eliminating your symptoms of anxiety as a way of protecting yourself against the emotions that scare you.
Bring a pen and paper or journal. If you prefer to express yourself through art or music, bring the tools to do so. We’ll engage in body awareness and somatic work (grounding and resourcing), mindfulness practice and strategies, guided visualization, “parts work,” and journaling.
How often do you have a thought similar to “When this happens, then everything will be alright,” or “I’ll be happy when I have x, y, or z”? You may even worry about something real or imagined to come.
Meanwhile the sun shines over a bright-blue sky, a chorus of songbirds whistle, and the temperature is perfect. In addition, much of your life is going quite well, and there is much to celebrate. But you don’t notice. You’re busy thinking about how you wished your life could be better or how to avoid the thing you fear.
Thus you create your own suffering.
I’ve noticed that people who have struggled with depression and worked hard (and successfully) to heal hurt parts of themselves seem to have a default setting (an identify, even) for the blues. Joy has been out of their realm of experience for so long, they’re not sure how to access it when it’s right within their reach.
I empathize, because I’ve been there. The good news is that we just need to do a little rewiring of our brains. All it takes is a slowing down and a willingness to notice the marvelous in the mundane.
Come experiment with a group of us (and have some fun in the process) on Thursday, April 13, 7:15pm to 8:45pm in a workshop called “Rewire Your Brain for Pleasure: Be Mindful of What You Love vs Resisting What You Don’t.” Join us online via Zoom or in-person at Mulberry Art Studios’s Mulberry on King location, 253 W. King St., Lancaster, PA.
Bring or have handy some paper and a pen (and as a list of a few other objects I’ll e-mail to you in advance), as well as a willingness to sing (or lip sync if you’re shy) a few tunes as a group. For this won’t be just an ordinary workshop. Nope, this will be mostly hands-on with a little teaching of Quantum physics and brain neuroplasticity that I guarantee will neither bore nor mystify you.
During our time together, we’ll also do the following:
- Experience the effects of sharing pleasurable experiences vs misery with others.
- Connect to all five senses in the present moment to experience increased pleasure.
- Create “quantum moments” in the brain in order to rewire to default settings of well-being and joy.
- Learn how to use positive visualization in a more powerful and effective way to bring about desired outcomes in life and to create shifts in your subconscious beliefs.
- Realize the power you have (and how to) impact the world with your thoughts and emotions.
- Become familiar with your home “frequency” and learn how to dial it up to impact the world positively.
- Shift your focus to create more of what you want vs more of what you don’t.
Call (717) 340-2096 for more information, or RSVP and pay here in advance. Cost is $25.
I look forward to spending the evening with you!
Join me on Thursday, March 16, St. Patrick’s Eve, for a special Movement Medicine class, 7:15pm to 8:30pm. To music recalling an era in which the Celtic Nature traditions lived embodied, we’ll dance beyond thought back into our own bodies. This authentic movement practice offers a fun and safe way to realign the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of ourselves and to reconnect our hearts with the perfection of our humanness.
For centuries, we in the Western world have hungered for an antidote to the collective wound created when Christian Romans in the 1st Century AD and the Saxons in the 5th Century AD nearly wiped out or drove into hiding a culture that understood that the higher intelligence and expression of Source energy (or God/Goddess) runs through all living things (our bodies included), that human beings and nature are interdependent, and that truth and divinity are within.
The Christians of that era labeled Celtic lifestyles primitive and their beliefs blasphemous toward the patriarchal version of God who reigned from on high. They taught us that human beings (women especially) and our bodies are inherently evil, emphasized reason over intuition, and urged us to beg for the deservingness of redemption.
The truth is, though, that we’ve never required redemption, were never less than deserving, and were perfectly imperfect all along. But such disempowering teachings (and others like them) have contributed to the suffering of most people on this planet from the distorted notion that we are bad or unlovable and that we must spend our lives proving our worthiness.
Together, we’ll heal these ancestral injuries with somatic practices that include breath awareness, the exploration of old, familiar patterns of seeking refuge in our thoughts (and honoring the safety this provides), connection to our five senses, body scanning, emoting though movement, and allowing our bodies to express what within us longs to shift, let go, and forge a new way of being.
Please note: Because this dance community has outgrown the space on King Street, Movement Medicine classes will be held every first and third Thursday of the month at Mulberry Art Studios‘ main location, 21 N. Mulberry St., Lancaster, PA. Thus, classes are now $20; but when you bring a new class member, each of you pays half. RSVP in advance to pay by credit card or pay cash in person. Drop-ins are now welcome!
“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul,” wrote Clarissa Pinkola Estés, poet, Jungian psychoanalyst, and author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, in her Letter to a Young Activist During Troubled Times. “Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.”
You, members of the Body Talks community, are beacons of light. Some of you have been seeking opportunities to join forces with like-minded folks to beam more brightly in what a few of you have described “a tough time to be highly sensitive.”
Join me to do just that, during the moon’s darkest phase of the cycle, at the Highly Sensitive Mystics first New Moon meetup, Friday, January 27, 7:15pm to 8:30pm. There are four spaces remaining for those who want to meet in person at 237 N. Prince St., Suite 303, Lancaster (above the Lancaster Trophy House). Ten additional, from San Francisco to Philadelphia, may participate live online.
We’ll start the evening by introducing ourselves, then open sacred space in the manner taught to me by one of my teachers, a shaman and practitioner of the sacred energy medicine ways of the Q’ero and the Machi and the female shamans of the Chilean Mapuche. We’ll read poetry (bring your own or a song if you’d like), bless the Earth, and engage in meditation similar to Tonglen to benefit those special to us and to beings worldwide. We’ll hold space for each other and set intentions and burn them in fire, close the circle, and sample a little food and drink.
This will be a smaller, more intimate gathering. As our community grows, we’ll move into a larger space. Until then, please be sure to R.S.V.P. here whether you’re joining us in-person or via Google Hangouts; your payment of $5 reserves your spot. (If you’re a part of my Meetup.com group, I’ve already received your R.S.V.P.). You may also contact me to place you on a waiting list should one participant cancel in advance.
In the mean time, I leave you with more from Estés: “I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is — we were made for these times.”
That includes each one of you.
The timing of this announcement, given what we have been facing in our communities, our nation, and internationally, feels significant.
Years of planetary chaos seemed in late-2016 to reach a crescendo. All that lay hidden in our shadows with regard to what in humankind wants to heal (greed, violence, hatred, separation or the illusion of “the other”) moved into the light of our collective awareness. The crisis, like a global-scale Herxheimer Reaction, prompted some of my friends and clients to ask how we can take responsibility for and help soothe the world’s woes and bring us back into balance.
Moved and inspired by your displays of tenderness, compassion, and commitment to serve, I’ve felt a soul yearning to support you bearers of light to ensure your missions are accomplished. In order to create a community for and attract more who are similar in characteristics and attributes, I’ve reflected on what you all have in common. I came to the conclusion that you (and I) are what clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Elaine Aron refers to as Highly Sensitive People (or HSPs).
We process stimuli more thoroughly than the average person and feel more intensely than others. Often this means we’re more artistic, observant and conscientious, exhibit greater empathy, notice subtleties in our environments, identify imbalances as well as solutions, put others at ease, and hold a vision for what is possible in creating a better world. We’re artists, guides, coaches, healers, empaths, intuitives, inventors, philosophers, thought leaders, and sages.
Many HSPs are not aware that their sensory processing sensitivity trait, when acknowledged, understood, and honored, is a strength—nor the fact that it is the very medicine Earth and its inhabitants need now more than ever. When an ailing child cries out for comfort (as humanity seems to be doing more and more desperately these days), it is the embrace and nourishment of the wisest and most nurturing caregiver that can most effectively lull the little one’s pain.
That is the gift that you possess, HSPs. When our own nervous systems are balanced and our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs met, we’re an unstoppable force for positive transformation in our families, communities, and beyond.
And this is where I feel called to serve, beginning now, in this auspicious hour.
I’ve narrowed my niche, serving those among the 15 to 20 percent of the human population who identify as highly sensitive, by offering virtual and in-person emotional healing services, coaching, education, community, even transformational dance classes, so that you may heal yourself to heal the world, find support and power in numbers, and dare to shine your light far and wide.
Body Talks Therapy, the name of my new practice, is more than a nod to my somatic (or body-centered) approach to facilitating your self-empowerment; it acknowledges the sacredness of that which allows our spirits to live in form, where we can connect with our breath, with our five senses, and with our emotions, and experience the wonder, mystery, and miracle of being alive—even during turbulent times.
No one knows precisely what’s in store for the human race and for Earth, our beautiful home. But because of you, I am optimistic. With the unfolding of current events, I’ve witnessed your journey from shock and devastation to a willingness to peacefully rise up, embody your best selves, and to love others (regardless of their background or beliefs) with every bit of strength and resilience you have.
Since I was a child, I possessed a deep knowing that once I worked through my own pain and integrated much of my personal shadow with my light, I would play some kind of role in helping others do the same and to steer us in a direction that would serve humankind’s highest good. Often I felt isolated, unaware of those around me who were doing the same, and longed for a community of folks with a similar life purpose.
The Hopi elders have said that we, this generation, yes, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. From where I sit, you are the ones I’ve been waiting for. I bow to you; for the light in me recognizes the light in you.
As a client, I fell in love with experiential psychotherapy with each shift from emotional or existential anguish to insight, clarity, and release. Like any human being, I long for relief, and my clients do the same.
Often, though, we circle back to a clearing, and there is no place else to explore. We’ve done all we can “do.” We’ve examined every angle, we’ve scoured the unconscious, perhaps we’ve even reintegrated fragmented parts. But the present moment now calls us to sit with what is, even if what’s present is uncomfortable.
Often, that’s what life asks of us: to sit with discomfort instead of trying to fix it.
A therapist friend and I joke that we are addicted to self-growth. Like an artist who cannot not paint, she and I cannot stop reflecting, stretching, and navigating the depths of our underworlds. I wonder too, if like me, she prefers this “doing” to “being.”
Other non-clients look to me for answers: Should I break up with so-and-so; should I take an antidepressant; how do I forgive this-or-that person? What should I do?
Even if I had the answers, they’re not mine to give. So I sit with people in the questions and be a loving presence as they dip into their angst. That is where much of the healing lies, in the murky waters where we can’t see where we’re going or do much while we’re in it. Sometimes the most healing thing we can “do” is nothing.
The trick is to be mindful when doing nothing. Alternate between feeling your feelings and observing them with some distance. (Do not get mired in or over-identified with how you’re feeling.)
First, see if you can rest in your emotion, whether it’s sadness, anger, depression, fear, etc. Identify where it lives in your body. Say hello to it. Notice its size and the boundaries or edges of it. If you’re able to tolerate it, then I ask you this: Can you purposely feel it even more? (You may think me harsh, but to resist your feelings strengthens them.) Notice what happens as you do this. Take your time.
Next, add a special ingredient—one that can transmute your suffering over time: awareness. Observe the emotion that is present. Notice that it is part of and not all of you. Now re-label it energy.
You’ll note that, as Quantum Psychologist Stephen H. Wolinsky, PhD, explains, you, your emotions, and everything around you is basically energy. The matter you can perceive with your eyes (e.g., furniture, the walls of the room) is denser energy. Your emotions and the space around you are lighter, less condensed, so they seem invisible. They are energy too.
See if you can rest your awareness in the space around you, then to the space beyond (perhaps outside the room and into nature). Imagine now that some of the molecules of that space enter your body and float between the molecules of energy we formally referred to as emotion. Spend some time here. Notice the way it feels.
Finally, allow even more space to enter into the formally denser energy of what we called your emotions, your body. Re-label all of it energy. There is no longer a difference between any of it. It’s all just energy.
You can use this exercise as often as you’d like, but its purpose is not to get rid of your pain. If your intention is to surrender to what’s present, over time you’ll likely see a shift and find relief. For everything is temporary and this, too, shall pass.
Disclaimer: The exercises, tools, and insights I offer on this blog will not work for everyone. Each of us is unique, and I am not the expert of you, your mind, your body, or your experience. Listen to your own body-mind wisdom. None of my writing should take the place of a licensed mental health professional if you are experiencing unyielding or overwhelming distress. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, I urge you to call (800) 273-8255 or go to your nearest emergency room.
Acknowledgments: This exercise combines techniques originated by Quantum Psychologist Stephen H. Wolinsky, PhD, and author of The Open Focus Brain, Les Fehmi, PhD. But I credit my own therapist foremost for introducing me to this work, for guiding and supporting me through my dark nights of the soul and in inspiring me to become a therapist and to integrate her knowledge and methods into my own skill set. She’d likely have written this differently, but I confess unabashedly that I’ve modeled most of my own therapeutic approach after hers. From the bottom of my heart, Martha, thank you.
—Allison Brunner, LCSW, RM, Body Talks Therapy