• We often think of therapy as being driven by thoughts and words

  • Bringing the body into the counselling room can help when someone struggles to express themselves

  • If you are struggling to understand your experience or relationships, find a therapist here

As a professional counsellor I find my self working very intuitively with what is happening in the body from moment to moment. I'm sure this comes from my training as a dance movement psychotherapist, however, this is not to say I am getting clients to dance and move around the therapy space. Our bodies, posture, holding and gestures speak volumes and, in tune with what is being spoken, these non-verbal clues can really provide a great opening for working with clients. 

Bringing the body into the counselling space means being open with all your senses to be present to the inner world of the client, to what is going on for you internally and to listen to your intuitive sense too as a therapist. As well as this, bringing the body into the therapy space means watching the body conversations, noticing how the client holds themselves, their breathing patterns, listening to non-verbal gestures and micro-movements.

The importance of presence

Presence is truly important in therapy, for the therapist as well as the client. Without it we are not able to attune to anyone. 

I work as a person-centred counsellor, and so I naturally practice being present with empathy, unconditional positive regard, and honesty (the core conditions of person-centred therapy). I believe this is the fundamental foundation of any therapeutic session, and at the same time I am always looking to see how each individual client experiences life internally. How they internalise their experiences, because with this information I am able to understand what is driving the quality or the nature of our experience together. 

My client Betty

As an example I can share with you a very recent session with a client whom I shall name Betty. Betty finds it extremely hard to speak and express her needs when she is anxious and lives in a continual loop of running away, reacting in anger and feeling bad about herself because she cannot control this. She has been to a few therapists and gets to the point of ending just when the sensations and situations become too much rather than staying with what is happening. She is at that point with our work together. 

Last session I asked her if she would like to change this dis-heartening (for her) cycle she lives within. She said yes. So for me we needed to go into the body. The CBT approach (that she had had for a time before coming to see me) did not work for her. She just keeps living in her head and addressing thoughts in relation to her behaviours – i in this approach, where is her body, the place where she has experienced distress before and where the reacting comes from?

So, I asked her to remember the last fight she had with her partner (because this was the sore point and one which triggered her over and over again). To make contact, if she could with the feelings this experience evoked. In her case, this was a fear of being left. She did and told me that when her partner calls her to ask her how she is during the day she reacts with stern and disconnecting words. 

She spoke these words out in a role play scenario which helped her understand how harsh her words are – she didn't like this at all. I then had her ask that fearful part of herself what it was scared of and she said it was scared of losing the connection with her partner. I asked her to make a gesture to show how she wanted to reach out, she did this and then I asked her to say the words that go with this gesture of reaching to keep the connection with her partner when he asks her ‘how are you?’ 

She found a more gentler, connecting, kind expression emerge. At first this worried her a little because it was so different from what she was used to. So, this gives a big clue into how working with the body sensations, images, feelings and thoughts together can provide a doorway into the clients internal world and experiences.

By attending to the bodily conversations in relation to what my clients are saying, I am given a pathway into what Dr Sue Johnson calls the ‘softer feelings’. I like this term because we are very much our feelings, sensations and internal universes, as much as we are our thoughts and external world.  

Our bodies hold all our experiences inside them and so it makes sense that we need to bring them into the counselling room.

Further reading

Meet the therapist: Karen Woodley

Beyond words: working non-verbally in psychotherapy

What's the tension in your body trying to tell you?

Dear body, a love letter

Mindfulness body scan to help with anxiety

Dissociation: understanding the impact of relational trauma