Mindfulness based psychotherapy and counselling are efficient and effective ways to work with trauma and developmental wounds
Mindfulness based psychotherapy can also be referred to as bodymind, body-centered or somatic psychotherapy. Sensorimotor and Hakomi psychotherapy are body-centered methods used to treat trauma and developmental wounds.
As human beings we adapt to our family, school and social environments, and can learn maladaptive ways of being. We may often feel unsafe if our family or school environment were abusive. Consequently we may have learnt from being in these situations which may have been strict, lacked encouragement and nourishment that it is difficult for us to ask for support, to be vulnerable or feel worthy for example.
When our personalities adapt to our environment, we learn to adopt a character strategy to manage our developmental wound that has occurred as a result of being mistreated. We may learn to appear tough when we have been shamed for being weak, or we may become self-reliant when our needs have been ignored or rejected. As we mature, we increasingly become aware of how our adaptive strategy restricts our ability to have healthy relationships. This is particularly true in romantic or social relationships where we need to be able to let our vulnerability be seen, and express our needs honestly and openly.
Estonian-American neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp wrote about our daily life action systems that relate to our ability to mature developmentally and participate successfully in life. These action systems are activated through our relationship with our mothers, fathers or caregivers, and include learning to explore the environment, form close relationships, regulate our energy, reproduce, and care for each other. (Panksepp, J. 1998, Affective neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.)
However when caregivers have unresolved developmental wounds, or the environmental circumstance in which we develop is compromised because of health, financial, immigration or other stressors, a safe and nurturing environment may be absent, leaving a person at risk of moving less effectively in daily life. A person may struggle to feel safe, mistrust their environment, have difficulty initiating positive relationships, or be able to set appropriate boundaries.
When a person feels unsafe, being able to focus at work and be emotionally available in relationships can become challenging. Psychologist Peter Levine says humans, like animals, resort to animal defensive responses as a survival response to perceived danger or life threat in their environment. In addition if our family environment was unsafe, our brain and nervous system will be predisposed to detecting environmental cues that seem unsafe. When this happens our bodies are more inclined to act out behaviours that reflect these animal defences. There are five animal defences that humans can unconsciously perform when feeling under threat. The first is an attachment cry where a person seeks protection from someone stronger. Then there is fleeing or fighting so the body can mobilize and overcome the threat. A freeze or feigned death response is the last defence to come on line causing us to collapse into an immobilised posture believing we could be harmed (Levine, P., In An Unspoken Voice How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, 2010).
It is common for clients seeking help with their relationships to feel stuck in habitual animal defence patterns of behaviour. They may have suppressed unresolved trauma memories of family, school or work place bullying. This is where bodywork approaches like Sensorimotor and Hakomi Psychotherapy are useful in assisting people to be conscious of how they organise their experience in the world. Israeli engineer and founder of the Feldenkrais Method Moshe Feldenkrais said it well when he wrote, “you can only do what you want when you know what you are doing” (Kurtz, R., Body-Centered Psychotherapy The Hakomi Method, pg.1, 1990).
Awareness of oneself creates positive relationships
It is liberating for people when they make connections between their thoughts, emotions and body sensations, and gain an awareness of themselves in the present moment. Their relationships become more meaningful when old habitual patterns are made conscious, and they can explore new patterns of being in the world. Founder of the Hakomi Method, Ron Kurtz, confirmed body-centered therapy aims to help people change procedural tendencies that maintain their stuck, limited or immature behaviour (Kurtz, R., Body-Centered Psychotherapy The Hakomi Method, 1990 Pg. 39).
Hakomi mindfulness based psychotherapist Karen Baikie explains “one of the main reasons people in relationships get into trouble is because of the states they get into or the parts of themselves that show up” (Hakomi News, Issue 30, ‘Navigating Relationships with H.E.A.R.T’). These states may be expressed as rage, withdrawn or critical behaviour which may represent parts of a person’s self that they act out unconsciously to protect hurt hidden parts of themselves that they carry from previous trauma or upsets that are unresolved and easily triggered in current situations.
Interestingly it is in relationships where we can get hurt, but it is also in relationships where we can heal. This is where the therapeutic relationship can play an instrumental role in the client’s positive transformation. Mindfulness is the main therapeutic tool that the therapist encourages the client to use, because it enables the client to safely access emotionally charged memories from their childhood without feeling re-traumatised. Using mindfulness, a client is able to turn their attention to an activated hurt part that gets triggered in their relationships. They can then understand how they came to feel that way as they understand the childhood memory. This helps the person to cease over identifying with this hurt part, and they can begin to see their partner as a separate person, not as someone from their past.
Mindfulness is caring about oneself
The client can create a mindful state and become curious rather than critical about the part of themselves that cannot listen to their partner, or the part that is quick to blame or ridicule them. Hakomi Trainer Julie Murphy agrees: “when the client starts to become mindful and curious about that experience, there’s a lot of room to explore and have new opportunities arise in the therapeutic relationship, so it’s a very rich venue for exploration and for healing.” (Hakomi News, Issue 37, Connected in Love, April 2016).
Mindfulness based psychotherapy is therefore very useful in helping people to be less evaluative and more caring about considering both their own and other people’s points of views with greater compassion, understanding and flexibility.