How Hands-On Bodywork Helped Me Navigate Change
Times of significant change can affect our minds and bodies in unexpected ways
Therapist Amy Barnes reflects on her experience of moving house, and the bodywork necessary to help her feel at home
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We were one of the many thousands of people who decided to move house during lockdown. We had lived in our previous home for 18 years. Although we knew we had outgrown our place quite a few years ago, it took the pandemic, the lockdown and the stamp duty holiday to facilitate our move.
At first, we were delighted to be moving out and we looked forward to moving from commuter town to the countryside in East Sussex. We grew up abroad and our work also took us to different countries so we treated the move as largely a logistical challenge. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The reality was, beneath the logistical challenges were layers of history melded together by the highs, the lows and the routines of life. Each round of clearing things out involved repeatedly asking ourselves the questions ‘do I still need this?’, ‘will I ever use this again?’ and the sub-text ‘does this still have meaning for me?’ Layered on top of these reflective and emotional moments, we were still navigating our way through the day-to-day business of living within the context of a national lockdown.
Out of the blue in February, I had a severe anxiety attack. I was lucky to have just about enough psychological support to recover and I was functioning enough to move us in and out of temporary accommodation before finally moving into our new house in April. Just when I thought our struggle had come to an end, the extent to which the house needed renovations was far more than we expected. So instead of moving in and nest building, I had to dig a bit deeper physically, emotionally and financially, to carry out remedial work.
The extent to which I felt exhausted and completely disorientated was not something I had ever experienced before. Even though I was able to carry out tasks, I felt totally ungrounded. It was as if I was floating in some nether region between our old place and the new place. I felt as if I had been dropped into a totally alien place where I could not connect with anything around me. I was doing tasks mechanically but I felt disconnected and absent inside. This was a very odd experience because we have always enjoyed being in different places and part of the excitement of being out of my comfort zone was the exposure to new experiences which I used to relished. In short, I felt alien to me, to the self I knew.
Having had the benefit of previous training in Gestalt psychotherapy and now working as a biodynamic massage therapist, I was able to access a range of resources to help myself but I knew I needed additional support, particularly hands-on work. I found a local Shiatsu therapist and we started work together. Although Shiatsu was not a modality I knew, the way the therapist was able to tune into what was going on in my world and fine-tuned what she did in order to support me meant that she was able to provide what I, as a whole being, needed. I remember feeling profoundly met and instantly safe in our first session when she simply sat next to my body on the mat. I remember tears rolling down both sides of my face and somewhere in my body, a release, a letting go. The internal churning, like choppy water on a stormy day, instantly calmed.
Since June, we have had eight sessions together and I feel the sessions have been incredibly effective in helping me settle within myself and, in turn, I feel a gradual easing into my new environment. What made the hands-on work so effective? I think our sensory feelings are important components of what we experience as anxiety, overwhelm, scattered etc. Thoughts and feelings inform each other as a unified whole system. Perhaps in times of extreme stress our internal bearings get disrupted.
In other words, our sense of disconnection is likely to be both a somatic phenomenon and a psychological one. Below, I am offering some possibilities as to why being supported primarily from my body helped me settle into myself and into my new environment.
A feeling-sense of place
This is a kind of ‘landing’ of feeling fully here and feeling my body as solid and substantial. In the first two months after the anxiety attack, my body felt as if it was barely there. When I touched my belly, my hands and my body felt fuzzy as if my skin was not all there. After the first bodywork session, I could feel my body as firmer more ‘here’. Eight sessions later, when I put my hand on my belly I can now fully differentiate between my hand and my belly and my body feels solid. The tissue is firmer and more full.
A feeling-sense of safety
For me, the feeling of safety in bodywork is conveyed through safe touch, making the phrase ‘a safe pair of hands’ more than a metaphor. Safe touch has many aspects, not least of which is the feeling of safety within the therapist and the extent to which they are able to tune into their client’s needs.
Since the therapist’s hands are directly in contact with the client’s skin, safe touch means the ability of the therapist to attune their touch such that – from a boundary perspective – the client does not feel it is too much or not enough.
As a biodynamic massage therapist, we refer to neutral touch as contacting in a ‘matter of fact’ way. This can be described as the therapist simply reinforcing ‘I’m here and you are here’ at the skin boundary. This way of being held where there is no expectation, no exploration, only affirmation of existence. I think this way of making contact may be particularly helpful in restoring an in-body feeling of everything being in-place and safe. This may well be a process within interoception, an emerging field of research.
A feeling-sense of support
Some generic ways of holding the body or regions of the body – for example, ‘sandwich’ the upper back and chest – often elicit an in-body feeling of support. However, a skilled body therapist can locate particular regions of the body where suitable ways of contacting can be felt as particularly supportive to an individual.
It is this bodily felt sense of support that gave me a tangible feeling of being supported, and because that was grounded in the actuality of someone’s presence and their hands holding me, it also helped me find safety and grounding within myself in the present and that in turn helped me regather the scatteredness and countered the strong sense of isolation I had been feeling.
A sense of routine
Within the shadows of the pandemic and being in a totally new environment, weekly sessions formed part of the skeleton for building a weekly routine. This routine helped me establish new connections and helped me familiarise myself with new surroundings. I found routine to be an important handrail to orientate myself in relation to time, place and space. Psychologically, since my new home is still in the making, the therapy space has become the safest space for me each week.
A time for rest and integration
Major life transitions take up a lot of energy, so periodic rest to find still points in the chaos is essential. While we rest, we are also allowing our whole being to resettle and integrate into a new whole. Each session allowed my body to get what was needed and after each session, I felt a marked shift in how I felt and a marked change in my capacity to deal with a larger range of challenges without feeling overwhelmed.
What I did for and with my clients in biodynamic massage therapy sessions I was able to experience for myself through a different modality of body-based therapy. My experience has furthered deepened my trust in what hands-on body-based therapies can offer and how it can complement talk-based therapies during major life transitions.