Let's Get Physical!

Counselling is predominantly about talking (mostly the client's job) and listening (mostly the counsellor). We might imagine Rogers or Freud sitting for 50 minutes with a client, nodding wisely, considering what the client is saying, and occasionally responding. Of course, this is important - speaking is the most effective way a client can communicate their emotional and mental state, and counsellors use a wide range of verbal skills to help them bring about therapeutic change. But: I believe words alone are not enough to maintain our best mental health.

Of course, this is not a new idea - the Romans used the phrase "mens sana in corpore sano" meaning "a healthy mind in a healthy body", and the benefits of exercise in treating depression are well known. Numerous ancient practices such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and pranayama have been widely recognised to be beneficial to mental as well as physical health. I always find it helpful to think holistically about mental health - it can be affected by posture, sleep (or the lack of it), diet, how much time we spend outdoors, even how we breathe. All these factors are deeply connected to our emotional wellbeing. In his book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, author James Nestor describes a surprising array of physical problems that stem from bad breathing habits (spoiler: you should breathe through your nose!) and how these are linked to issues such as depression, anxiety and insomnia.

As well as actually doing things with our bodies, it can be very helpful to focus our attention on our physical feelings. This can be a form of mindfulness, and I often try it with clients who struggle with overthinking or intrusive negative thoughts: it is very difficult to attend to our bodily sensations at the same time as worrying about other issues, so deliberate attention to the body can lessen the impact of the unwanted thoughts.

Although physical and mental health are clearly connected, this doesn't mean you have to be super fit and run marathons or work out with weights at the gym - it is not hard to incorporate some simple body awareness practices into your daily routine, perhaps when you shower or while you're waiting for the kettle to boil.

Here's an example exercise you can try - you might like to find somewhere where you will not be interrupted for five minutes. You can listen to an mp3 audio version of this exercise here.

Stand with your feet slightly apart, so the outside edges are in line with your hips. Feel the sensation of the bones in your feet pressing down against the floor, and feel the floor underneath you, solid and supportive.

Imagine that while your feet are firmly anchored on the ground, the rest of your body is being lifted and elongated. Lift your shoulders right up next to your ears, then push them back as far as you comfortably can, and then drop them down without letting them move forward, so your ribcage and collar bones have a feeling of being spread apart, enlarging your chest cavity. Keep your breast bone lifted and coming forward.

Bring your ears in line with your shoulders so your head isn't jutting forward. Allow the very crown of your head to lift upwards, elongating your neck, but don't tilt your head back or forwards - imagine holding a grapefruit under your chin, not a melon and not an apple.

Keep lifting your body, stretching your spine so your shoulders are far away from the pelvis, but don't lift the shoulders - let the weight of your arms pull them down towards the ground. Let your upper arms, forearms, wrists, hands and fingers hang down limply, like heavy lengths of rope.

Now focus on the muscles in your scalp and forehead. Let them become soft and loose - imagine they're becoming so warm they could melt and pour down your head. Do the same with the muscles around your eyes, in your cheeks and jaw. Let your lower jaw hang down loosely, but keep your lips gently touching. Rest your tongue against the back of your lower teeth.

Now, let's focus on our breath. As you breathe in through your nose, feel the air making its way through your nasal passage, being warmed and filtered, and passing right down to the very bottom of your lungs. Let your diaphragm muscle below your lungs move downwards so your abdomen pushes outwards, making room for your lungs to expand freely. Now feel the breath fill your lungs from the bottom upwards - you can picture it like a jug being filled with water from a tap. You might be able to feel the air level in your lungs get as far up as your collar bones.

When your lungs are completely full, pause for a moment and enjoy the sensation of the air inside you, then gently allow the air to leave your body - again, keeping your lips gently together so your breath leaves your body through your nostrils. Again, visualise your breath like water being poured out of the jug, emptying from the top downwards. Keep breathing out until your lungs feel really empty and you're not holding on to any stale air your body doesn't need. Now pause again and focus for a few seconds on the feeling of emptiness in your chest, then allow the next breath to flow in again naturally and fill your lungs to capacity. Keep on breathing like this for a few minutes: inhale - pause - exhale - pause.

While maintaining this breathing pattern, allow your attention to scan your body for pain or tension. Any time you find any discomfort, you might be able to identify a thought or emotion that may be related to it. Whether you can or not, acknowledge the discomfort, and the thought or emotion if you have found one: see if you can observe it neutrally as a thing that is happening independently of you, accept that it is there, but realise that you don't need to keep focussing on it, then move your attention onwards. If you notice any thoughts appearing that distract you from your awareness of breathing and your body, do the same thing - acknowledge that they are there, then gently bring your focus back to your body and your breath.

By now you should be feeling calm and relaxed. When you are ready to finish, allow your attention to gradually go back to your surroundings, the sounds and colours and shapes in your immediate environment. Give your body a wiggle and a shake to get some blood back to the muscles that have been resting, and breathe one last deep breath in and out, then be ready to continue with your day.

There are lots of other ways we can use our bodies to look after our minds - going for a run or a walk outside helps maintain our vitamin D levels, which is important as a lack of this vitamin can contribute to depression (see this article for more details). Dancing is also great for our mood, and there is evidence that laughter has significant physiological benefits - so much so that many people around the world practice "laughter yoga" - see this TEDx talk for an example.

With all that in mind, I will soon be expanding from zoom only to add socially distanced, open air "walk and talk" counselling in various locations around North Cambridge. There will be more details on here, and on my Facebook page, but do send me a message in the meantime if you're interested.

26 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Someone - I forget who - once said that both client and counsellor should feel slightly nervous before a session: neither one knows exactly what is going to happen, or what powerful emotions may be re