Clients with histories of physical and sexual abuse or neglect are often chronically disconnected from their bodies.   Experiencing physical sensations or bringing awareness to specific places on their bodies can be overwhelming when the feelings are reminiscent of past events that were inappropriate, invasive, painful, or arousing.  It makes sense that clients believe it’s safer and less triggering to disavow and dissociate from their bodies to increase a sense of numbness and decrease the possibility of becoming too activated in their own skin.  

Clients might also detach from their bodies if they believe they “participated in” sexual perpetration.  This is complicated by the reality that human beings respond to physical stimulation, whether they want the experience to occur or not.   Other clients might sever a physical connection if they feel “responsible for” the physical abuse they endured.  When clients have been neglected throughout childhood they often unconsciously re-enact that neglect by continuing to ignore body sensations that indicate hunger, fatigue, the need for comfort or connection.  In all of these cases, disengaging from the body becomes a form of self-punishment and can set clients up for acts of self-harm.

Sadly, the coping strategy of disconnection results in other significant negative consequences.  Clients are often left in an inevitable state of disempowerment and the inability to use the body’s natural “radar” to assess for potential danger.  It also means that clients lose soothing non-sexual touch for comfort and connection, as well as the experience of sexual pleasure, both of which are vital to wellbeing, good mental health, and intimate relationships.   Therapists should be mindful of the fact that survivors of abuse and neglect are likely to live in this state of physical detachment.  Helping clients safely reconnect to their bodies is vitally important.  Here are some of the many advantages to incorporating body-centered therapies into treatment:

  • As clients learn to slowly and safely re-access sensation, the body and the breath can be used for re-grounding.  Invite clients to notice their feet in their shoes and their feet on the floor, as well as the difference between breathing in and breathing out to help them be more in the present moment and to de-escalate hyper-arousal in session.
  • An awareness of how the body manifests feeling safe or unsafe allows clients to use the body as a compass.  This helps to enhance boundary setting, activate a healthy fight or flight response when needed, and reduce the unhealthy risk-taking that can lead to subsequent re-victimization. 
  • Physical sensation is often the window into the verbal and emotional trauma narrative.  Help clients to identify how their bodies manifest fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness so emotions can be identified and soothed.  Asking "If the sensation could talk what would it say,” is a way into the verbalization of their experiences.
  • Re-engaging in body sensations allows clients to re-claim a genuine sense of power and control.   Encourage clients to be open to the possibility that dissociating from their bodies will keep them in a frozen state, while reconnecting helps to repair past disempowerment.
  • A willingness to “listen to” and honor the body’s cues allows for self-caring choices.  When clients can acknowledge the ways in which their bodies communicate fundamental needs, they can begin making decisions that nurture, soothe, and protect.

What other body-centered therapies would you ad to this list?

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