Resources for Recovering Resilience: Moving the Body to Rewire Difficult Emotions

In the aftermath of the tragedies at the Boston Marathon last week, or in the wake of any sudden and shocking loss or shattering of trust, emotions can run high, temporarily hijacking our resilience.

I learned this exercise from psychologist Natalie Rogers to mindfully and compassionately use the intuitive wisdom of our own bodies to shift and even rewire difficult emotional and mental states. May it be useful to you and yours.

  1. Identify an afflictive state that you would like to explore, process, and shift. It could be an emotion like fear, anger, or sadness; it could be a mental state like confusion or agitation. Come into awareness of the body sensations, images, feelings and thoughts of this state.
  2. Allow your body to lead you and come into a body posture that embodies this state. Stay in this posture for thirty seconds. Don’t’ do a lot of thinking or figuring out here: just let your body express what you are feeling, or the state of thinking you are working on. For example, you might allow your body to assume the posture of collapse: perhaps bending over, curling shoulders inward, hiding your face in your hands. Feel your way into your body’s experience of this posture.
  3. Now, without thinking, without going to your head at all or putting anything into words, allow your body to lead you into a posture that is the opposite of this state. Remain comfortably in this second posture for thirty seconds. For example, your body might select a posture opposite to collapse that involves standing tall, spine straight, arms outstretched in exuberance. Feel your way into your body’s experience in this posture.
  4. Without thinking, return to the first posture, and hold it again for fifteen seconds. Then resume the second posture again and hold it for fifteen seconds.
  5. Allow your body to find its way into a posture that is midway between the first two. The middle posture may incorporate elements of the other postures, or it may feel entirely new.
  6. Take a moment to notice the sensations and feelings in this middle posture. What are you experiencing? Notice any differences between the postures, between the states they embodied. Reflect on your experience. What shifted? What state are you in now?

The first time my client David did this exercise, he began by exploring an embodied sense of depression. “I expected the opposite of my feeling of depression would be joy, or something that felt happier. But it wasn’t. It was reverence. I never would have thought of that: I never expected that. But it felt right somehow.” David’s experience of reverence helped him be more flexible and resilient in coping with his down moods. From this bodily experience of moving through depression to reverence, he also knew that he could choose to rewire his mental state.

The body has its own wisdom and knows how it needs to move to “correct” something. You use this somatic wisdom intuitively when you take a break from working too long at your desk or from weeding too long n your garden and get up and stretch or go for a brief walk around the block. We can access this intuitive body wisdom by letting the body move first, without thinking, and then reflecting on what the movement might mean. This exercise is a prime example of how we can use our body’s wisdom to rewire our brains from the bottom up.

[from Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being by Linda Graham, MFT, New World Library, 2013]