Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

How to Feel Your Body Talk

Actress-turned-therapist applies “method” to abuse recovery.

I once took a class in a master’s program in clinical psychology in which we participated in a group exercise involving dream interpretation. One person would describe a dream that had disturbed him or her and the rest of us would “become” the various elements.

For example, a man’s dream about being chased by a snake into the lair of a grizzly bear involved one of us acting out the snake role, one being the bear, and the dreamer playing himself. The dream was set in motion as if on a stage, which not only gave the dreamer a new perspective but also greater control over the dream’s disturbing aspects.

Stefanie Stolinsky offers a similar approach and, in a way, even supplies the group. She practices as a psychologist in Beverly Hills, CA, and has just released a second edition of her book, Act It Out, in which she offers 25 exercises for healing from PTSD and childhood abuse. Formerly an actress, Stolinksy has created a unique therapy that combines method acting with Object Relations Psychotherapy.

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Stolinsky defines child abuse as the “exploitation of, or assault on, a child.” This includes verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and can take the form of aggression or neglect. It can also mean subjecting a child to watching another child being abused. Scars form, diminishing quality of life for years, perhaps a lifetime.

Acting out such trauma not only provides more angles to process but also empowers the individual. It connects the mind to the body. For example, you act out taking a shower in one exercise, which assists you to physically feel what you’re imagining.

The acting exercises provide structure, which is essential for abuse recovery. Victims often get fixated on inarticulate fear or pain. Stolinsky demonstrates that the physical movement involved in acting exercises helps to break down this paralysis. Like acting students, survivors imagine objects and activities, or adopt “roles,” honing the ability to be both inside and outside at once. They can also anticipate their future selves.

A concept central to this approach is the “third eye.” It’s the “part of you that always knows exactly where you really are and what you are really doing.” It lets you stop when you’ve had enough, but also lets you recognize your individual point of view. “The third eye is a constant reminder that you are in control,” says Stolinsky.

The next step is to apply this approach of joining mind to body to your personal experiences.

“One of the most potent and valuable ways of working toward understanding yourself and how you created your personality through your experiences,” Stolinsky states, “is to reenact some of those moments, to see how the sounds, sights, objects, and feelings connected with them contributed to the formation of you.”

Easier said than done, of course, but having a guide who is trained for moving people through fear and pain is highly beneficial. The exercises are organized along an emotional hierarchy. Each has a simple objective for helping an abuse survivor find his or her own voice, to facilitate recovery.

A unique addition to this book is that each exercise comes with a bar code. Scan it and you can watch the exercise being performed by actual participants on your smart phone or digital tablet. The video adds a lot to seeing how this works. It also allows you to compare what you envision against what others do. This alone is a valuable tool for self-insight.

I scanned the introductory relaxation exercise and was instantly aware that Stolinsky has a genuine therapeutic presence. Commanding but compassionate, she knows how to help you fully explore each step. She's a true teacher.

This book is a terrific example of a mixed-media platform that supplements narrative with video. You get an explanation, which becomes your reference manual, and you can also participate in a video session from your own home. 

In the end, Stolinksy also describes what recovery looks like: she lays out such items as self-trust, assertiveness, tolerance, confidence, and recognition of your true needs. This clarifies the ultimate goal of these exercises.

Although Act It Out is aimed toward abuse survivors, I think it could be useful for people with other issues as well. It could even help creative people more fully explore their personal voice.  

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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