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Trauma

How 'Focusing' Helps Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

Releasing memories of trauma from the body.

Key points

  • Unconscious traumatic memories and feelings are stored in the body.
  • A technique called focusing helps blocked feelings and memories become integrated into consciousness in a new way. 
  • Focusing is a technique that has five steps.

Retrieving unconscious memories of traumatic experiences has been the goal of psychotherapy since its earliest beginnings, when Freud said his "talking cure" sought "to make the unconscious conscious."

The 20th century brought innovative new methods of retrieving unconscious memories, which moved away from psychoanalysis with its talking cure. Among the new methods were Francine Shapiro's EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and Eugene Gendlin's "focusing." Both these techniques release memories of trauma that are held in the body.

In the tradition of psychologist and psychoanalyst Alice Miller, author of The Body Never Lies , Gendlin believed that our bodies know much more than what is consciously available to us. Our conscious minds are aware of only a small part of what we really know. "The unconscious is the body," Gendlin famously said to a shocked audience of psychologists and psychiatrists at the University of Chicago.

Gendlin's focusing technique brings about a "felt shift" in the body's memory system. What was previously impenetrable to memory undergoes a gradual reopening to the conscious mind. Ultimately, blocked feelings and memories become integrated into consciousness in a new way.

I learned focusing many years ago when I took a class on modern philosophy from Gendlin at the University of Chicago. While some of his lectures were on philosophy, Gendlin also taught his students the new method "focusing" which he was developing and polishing. When I went to class I didn't know whether I was in for a lecture on Husserl or a session on focusing. In the early days, focusing was not specifically geared to treating trauma. It was more of a self-help technique for happiness and well-being.

Though Gendlin's greatest contribution was in psychology, he thought of himself as a philosopher. Twentieth-century philosophy, which had focused on the logical and the rational (logical positivism and language analysis), was slowly transitioning into psychology with figures like Gendlin, Foucault, and Lacan.

Like a repressed memory, what I had learned about focusing in Gendlin's classes came back to me recently when I was faced with a particularly recalcitrant client, a 17-year-old girl named Anna who had started cutting her wrists. She felt that she had old childhood wounds, but many of her childhood memories were blocked out. She had been to other therapists, but none of them had helped him get to the root of the depression and anxiety that plagued her.

I decided to try focusing with her. Focusing worked so well with this client, as it has with so many others, that I would like to share the steps here.

Clearing a Space Within the Body

Ask the client to focus on her body to try to get a felt sense of the main thing in her life right now that may be holding her back from being happy. Ask in what part of the body she feels this felt sense. It may be the stomach, the chest, the shoulders, the neck, or somewhere else. In Anna's case, it was her forehead.

Get a Handle for the Felt Sense

Stand back from the felt sense and ask what its quality is: is it hard, soft, heavy, sticky, tight, etc.? In Anna's case, the quality was hard. It felt like a volcano. The image of a volcano for the felt sense has emerged many times with other clients.

Resonating

Go back and forth between the felt sense and the image. Check to see if the image fits. I asked Anna if the surface of the volcano was completely hard or was it softened by plants along its surface. She said it was very hard.

Asking

Keeping the focus on the felt sense, make sure the quality is felt again. Ask if it has shifted or opened up a bit. In Anna's case, the felt sense led to childhood memories when she felt that her own self was ignored by her parents. She was expected to care for her younger brothers who had disabilities. "I never had a childhood," she told me. The pain and anger started to seep out like small rivulets of lava. The felt sense had shifted and opened and Anna began to weep. Painful memories of her childhood were opening up to her conscious awareness.

Receiving

The client receives whatever comes with the shift in a friendly way. She feels a release. Whatever comes, this is only one shift. The client might want to return to this shift in another session, or she might want to find another felt sense. The shift may be painful and even shocking to the client. The therapist helps the client become comfortable with the revelations. With Anna, several sessions of focusing helped her overcome the cutting and her anxiety.

If you think this technique might be helpful to you, Gendlin's seminal book Focusing gives a good introduction to the technique. I also find that his YouTube videos are particularly useful. Learning focusing from a therapist experienced with the technique can also be helpful.

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