#51. Psychotherapy-ing my sensorimotor(s)(???)

Sometimes, I realize, it must seem like I’m just making stuff up in order to have a blog entry for the week. Sometimes, I confess, it feels a bit like that. Lately, I’ve been so concerned about making my last two entries Important Changes that I’ve run completely out of time and had to look at what changes the nice universe seemed to be putting in my path instead. This one’s kind of a doozy. As I may have mentioned in a previous entry, I recently made a foray back to therapy, which is good for me. I assert: I think therapy’s good for everyone. That is, I think everyone should be in therapy. Yes, that includes you. Don’t look at me like that. It’s not an insult. It’s just that I think everyone can benefit greatly from an unbiased third-party perspective on their lives. And I think self-knowledge is the most powerful tool we have.

But enough about you and your crazy mental problems. This is about me and my crazy mental problems. Having been in and out of therapy for years now, I’m pretty comfortable with the process and very open to trying new things, particularly if they will help relieve me of the albatrosses I’ve been carrying around for years (food issues, fear and anxiety, etc.)

When my therapist suggested I try EMDR a couple of years ago, a large part of me thought it sounded hinky. But another part of me was in enough pain from some past issues that I was willing to give it a shot. And I’ll just say this: I don’t understand for a moment how it works, but it worked for me. It rendered some of my most difficult, raw and painful memories into benign recollections. That, for lack of a more scientific term, kicks ass.

So when I went back to her recently to discuss how my underlying fear and anxiety has been manifesting of late – with eating issues and an increased fear of flying – my lovely therapist mentioned she’d been training in a new modality. A little something called sensorimotor psychotherapy, should I want to give it a shot.

“Sure,” I like to think I said. “Only…what the hell is it?” My therapist explained the basics. (And, yes, I realize I may be losing you here, to which I can only say: I understand. You’re dismissed.) Sensorimotor psychotherapy. According to the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, this is “a body-oriented talking therapy that integrates verbal techniques with body-centered interventions in the treatment of trauma, attachment, and developmental issues.”

Got it? Okay, let me see if I can explain, bearing in mind that I have little to no idea what I’m talking about. So…regular therapy deals with the conscious part of the brain and tries to resolve issues or trauma through its processing ability. Conversely, sensorimotor psychotherapy focuses on how the body responds to stress or trauma and attempts to change physical responses first, in the belief that they will, in turn, change responses in the brain.

Wow. That does sound weird.

Here’s what I know, though: my fear and anxiety feel like a very real physical presence. In fact, I generally feel fear first in my limbs, a wiry, electric feeling building up so that I get restless and agitated and my mind follows suit. Thus, I can get on board with the idea that if we address some of my physical manifestations of fear, it could help the ol’ grey matter chill out.

Which finally brings us to this week’s change – practicing sensorimotor exercises to try and learn some techniques for dealing with my anxiety. The first order of business in this whole dealio is to try to recreate the sensations of fear and anxiety in your body so that you can then learn and practice methods for coping with it, physically. In other words, instead of starting with your mind and trying to tell yourself to calm down, you start with your body and find ways to physically stem the anxiety.

In case you were wondering – and I know you were – purposely manifesting fear is really uncomfortable. It involves thinking of a time when I felt overwhelmed by fear – for me, that was the last time I flew – and trying to recreate those sensations in your body. It says something that I have absolutely no problem accessing that part of my physical being – but I hate it. I hate the feeling like my arms and legs are humming with an energy that’s whispering to me, “Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.” I hate that my heart responds in kind, flipping and leaping, that my head gets light and I feel like I’m gonna burst out of my own skin.

So what happens then? Well, we’ve been trying figure out which physical changes help calm me down – and which don’t. At first, I tried getting up and walking about because, especially when I’m on a plane, when the fear sets in I start to feel kind of trapped. Turns out, pacing doesn’t help me. It just increases all the sensations and if I tune into what my body wants me to do, it says: stop. It wants to steady all the humming, quiet the motion.

Next, I tried sitting down using my own pressure – hands on the insides of my knees pushing out and knees pushing in – to try and exhaust the frenetic energy I felt. Turns out that’s more effective than pacing. Not terrifically effective, but the idea is that the more I practice, the more effective it becomes.

Did I mention I’m also supposed to be breathing deeply while all this is going on? Sure, it sounds easy. But it’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. What? You can do that? Of course you can.

Throughout the week, I challenged myself to practice these methods, as challenging as it was. In addition, I learned to employ another resource – imagining a time when I felt safe, visualizing it (while still breathing!) and trying to recreate those sensations in my body. I will tell you right now: some of this stuff is flat-out embarrassing to do in front of another human being. You have to move your body into the position in the memory, even if that means curling up in a fetal position on your therapist’s couch. I didn’t! But I could have…

Interestingly, at least to me, I found that it was much harder to tap into and hold onto the sensations of being okay than it was to feel fearful. As I tried to tap into those feelings throughout the week, it felt like hard work. At times, it was so exhausting I got frustrated and just gave up. Other times, I felt it…a bit.

As if that weren’t enough to work on in one week, my therapist added another calming visualization to the mix: picturing light to calm me, inhaling it and exhaling my agitation. I swear, sometimes when I’m attempting to do what sounds relatively simple, I start to worry that I’m just broken. No matter how hard I try, I can’t picture the light at all, let alone inhale anything. It’s daunting. There is so much to do at once, so much to feel and pay attention to, so much new stuff that makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious.

On balance, however, it doesn’t make me nearly as uncomfortable as my go-to fear response does, so I’m willing to stick it out beyond my initial, “I’ll try this for one week” approach. It’s ridiculous, I realize, to expect to see lasting results in just that short period of time. I am driven once again by what I don’t want to be: a person riddled with fear that holds her back from living her life to the fullest.

I find myself questioning, then, the value of even trying this for a week then writing about it, when it’s far too early in the process to deliver any pearls of wisdom regarding whether this sensorimotor psychotherapy approach works for me. Once again, though, I recognize that this blog is often more about willingness to try than about change accomplished.

Having an entry to write gave me the kick in the pants I needed to give it a shot for a short period of time, to commit to beginning something. For me, that’s interesting food for thought, especially as I realize next week is entry #52 – the ending of something.