Why is Including the Body in Treatment So Important?

I recently presented at Renfrew’s National conference on the topic of the body in psychotherapy, specifically, the neuroscience behind embodiment, and its importance in recovery and healing.

Embodiment, or the understanding of what is happening from “the inside out” is a key component in developing a healthy sense of self. We form mental representations or ideas about our body. Forming ideas based on your actual felt, sensory experience of your body, as well as developing a relationship between the felt sense of how emotions register in your body is vital to the development of a healthy sense of self.

Eating disorders lead to distorted perceptions of what I call the surface body, or what the outside body looks like. As a matter of fact, the distorted perceptions of one’s body may continue on for quite a long time long after behaviors have changed. It is one of the reasons that changing up these perceptions – one’s body image – is so important in sustaining recovery. However, this isn’t easy to do.

What we know from the world of neuroscience is that perceptions are formed through the interplay of the sensing body, what we can actually feel on a sensory level in our bodies, and the entities around it. There is an ongoing exchange, a constant dialogue, and awareness happening in the moment at all times between our emotions, our thoughts, and our body’s sensory system. With an eating disorder, one loses this dialogue and awareness, and what gets focused on is just the surface body and one loses touch with the sensory experience and the interplay of thoughts, emotions, and the body.

We have to re-learn this awareness by re-training the mind to focus on direct experience in the moment, and by focusing on what is happening inside our body. The name for the awareness of what is happening on a sensory level from the inside out is Interoception. There is a region in our brain located in the cortex called the anterior insula where interoceptive awareness takes place. Every time we focus on the internal experience of our body we are actually stimulating this area of the brain. Perhaps the most significant part about this is that this area of the brain is also responsible for the development of a healthy sense of self. It is also the region of the brain that holds the most somatic markers. This part of the cortex maps our bodily states associated with our emotional experiences, which then gives rise to conscious feelings.

What this all means is during recovery, especially in the beginning stages, as your body is experiencing physiological distress and disembodiment is evident, the implication around deepening your awareness at the embodied level would potentially serve in heightening attention and awareness on the interoceptive level, and assist you in moving forward toward the beginning process of self-awareness, potential self re-integration, and a integrated healthy sense of self.

Below are some ways to begin heightening your interoceptive awareness:

  • Sit with your eyes closed and register the temperature of your body. Is it hot, warm, cold, or cool, or neutral?
  • Now attempt to register the temperature of your breath. When you inhale is the temperature of your breath warm or cool? How about when you exhale?
  • Can you feel your heartbeat? Can you feel when it changes? Can you imagine how many beats it makes per minute? Now stand up and take a deep breath with your arms raised overhead. As you exhale allow your arms to swing down along your side. Do this a few times and then sit back down, close your eyes, and again register the change you can feel in your heartbeat and in your breath. Notice how it has changed up.
  • Can you imagine the inner workings of your stomach and intestinal tract? I know this may not seem pleasant to imagine, however it is another way to register and get to know your body. A great way to begin to get in touch with this sensory experience, especially when you feel bloated and full is to gently massage your stomach in a circular, clockwise motion. You may use some cream or massage oil for this. This actually aids in digestion so see if you can imagine this area functioning properly and becoming healthier, and just rest in the sensory experience of this moment.
  • This one requires even deeper imagination. Can you imagine your blood flow? Can you imagine your blood flowing freely throughout your veins and arteries? See if you can imagine the flow starting in the center of your body and extending outward into all regions of your body, your arms, legs, hands, and feet.

Engage in your imagination about the inner workings of your body on a daily basis. Trust that you are helping to activate and build brain-based knowledge that can assist you further along your path of health and wellness.

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