Therapist, trainer, writer

Blog: November 2020

Water lily

The Touch of Attention

Somatic practice in hard times  

We are now in the second national lockdown in the UK, and several other European countries too, and approaching the darkest days of winter. For much of this year we have being required NOT to meet and to touch each other in the ways we are used to. We are social animals. Our brains are designed to relate and be related to; touch and social engagement are as essential for our whole being as are food and water for our body. The question of how we sustain ourselves through long periods without the physical and emotional connections we need becomes a critical one at such a time. Even those living with family or friends, where regular touch is still possible, may have lost access to other familiar sources of nurturing contact, such as massage or bodywork, and of course the hugs and handshakes of friends and colleagues. And we are all having to limit the amount of social engagement that normally sustains us. Social media has proved a wonderful substitute for face-to-face meetings during this time, but still we must work consciously to resource ourselves in order not to feel totally undone by this unnatural state of affairs.  

Loving and nurturing physical contact is vital to an infant’s wellbeing and healthy development, both physiologically and psychologically (Montagu 1986, Juhan 1987). The sense of touch has been called the ‘mother of the senses’ - the first sense to develop, and the sense out of which our taste, smell, hearing and sight have evolved as specialized touch-receptors of chemical, auditory and light stimuli.  

The infant’s sense of self is nurtured into being through touch; indeed, all through life we need to touch and be touched in order to maintain our physical and psychological integrity and sense of wellness (Hartley 2004). The healthy functioning of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, and all the organ systems of the body, depends to a significant degree on physical touch and emotional connection. And, of course, the health of the immune system is especially important at this time of a global pandemic; just at a time when we most need healing touch and connection with others, we are being asked to avoid it.  

It is my experience that the touch of attention, placed mindfully upon and within the body, can offer a nurturing alternative, or at least a substitute - a caress or embrace of the mind, if you like. Of course, it is not the same as receiving the warmth of another’s physical touch and embodied presence, but conscious attention to the body can soothe, comfort, relax, connect, and integrate. If we have received moments of nurturing touch in the past, whether as infants and children or as adults, our cells hold the memory of these experiences. This memory can be activated through the touch of our attention, and some of the benefits might be felt again. It could be likened to shining a light into the dark places within us, places that need to be met, acknowledged, befriended, and perhaps healed.  

The discovery of empathy neurons in the brain have shown the mechanism by which, when seeing a movement in another person or thinking the movement in our own body, the same neural pathways are activated as if we were actually performing this movement[1].  I imagine something similar to be occurring when mind touches body with careful attention and an intention to soothe or heal or energise[2]. Somatic work offers such attentive touch. It is ideally first experienced with the support of a skilled practitioner; the body remembers the sensations of receiving the touch, and they can be recalled when practising alone[3]. In this way, clients and students are empowered to embrace a personal practice that supports self-regulation and self-healing. However, there is much that can still be embodied and experienced by those new to the somatic way of working in this time of special need.  

Accessing this capacity as a resource during the physical distancing that the pandemic requires could be helpful to all of us. I find my personal practice of somatic movement and Authentic Movement to have been enormously resourcing over recent months. Here I can deepen or recover my connection to myself, and return to balance within myself and in relation to my world when this has been lost. You might already practice somatic movement, yoga, or some other discipline that brings conscious attention to body and movement; there are many ways to do this. Here are a few examples for you to explore if you wish. Each can be done sitting or standing for just a few minutes; or you can take time to explore more fully and see where the movements want to take you.  

Example 1  

Spiral of the pelvic bones: grounding, rooting, supporting, spiraling upwards and downwards. Before you begin you might want to take a look at an image of the pelvic bones. Can you see the beginning of a spiral as the pelvic bone (each side of the pelvis) makes a half-turn around its axis?   Pelvic bone

-- Begin sitting or standing, with your spine comfortably upright. If you like you can begin by tracing with your hands the parts of the pelvic bones that are easy to feel, to get a sense of their shape and location – the rim of the iliac crest at the top, the sit-bone at the base, the pubic bone at the lower front.

-- Close your eyes for a moment and breathe, getting a sense of these bones in your body. Try to visualize their shape and location as well as you can. Do you start to notice any sensations, or changes in your breathing as you pay attention to your body in this way? 

-- In your mind’s eye, trace the curves of the pelvic bone upwards and downwards: you might get a sense of how the more lateral (side to side) curve of the upper part changes to a more sagittal (forward-back) curve at the level of the hip-joint. Here is the turn of the spiral.

-- Extend your attention to continue the curve of the spiral upwards, travelling around your spine towards the top of your head, and downwards around the bones of each leg towards the earth.

-- Stand, and feel your connection to the earth through your feet, and the sky through the top of your head.  

Example 2

Inner support of the heart: The heart is a powerful muscular organ that keeps life pulsing through you. It is about the size and shape of a loose fist, lying behind your breastbone (sternum) and slightly to the front and left of centre. Heart

-- Place one hand over the centre of your chest, slightly to the left; rest your back into the floor if you are lying down, or the back of the chair if you are sitting – you could imagine another hand holding the back of your heart. The heart is also cradled within the ribcage, the soft embrace of the lungs, and a three-layered sac of protective membranes. It is completely held.

-- Close your eyes and breathe. Slowly let your attention move through the layers of tissue that surround your heart - skin, connective tissue, muscle and bone, lungs, pericardial sac – deepening until you begin to feel you have reached the heart itself. You might have a felt-sense of its presence inside your chest, or an image, or just a knowing that it is there. You might clearly feel its pulse and presence in your chest.

-- Sense-feel its three-dimensional, almost spherical shape, especially feeling into the back and underneath surfaces. Imagine the breath fills your heart, enters all the cells, nourishing and energizing them. Allow your heart to respond with a sigh, or a hum, or a note on the exhalation. Do you notice any sensations, or changes in your breathing? Does the presence of your heart feel clearer?

-- Does your heart have a message for you? Listen with full and receptive attention. Enquire how your heart feels, what it might need to express or receive. Take as much time as you want and need here.

-- When you are ready to finish, draw your attention gradually back out through the surrounding tissue layers until you feel your hand touching your skin, through your clothing. Gently take your hand away when you are ready.

-- If you wish you can move, dance, sing, write or draw, to complete your journey into your heart. Note any message you received, and anything you might want to do or change in response to this.  

Example 3

Releasing nerve pathways: During lockdown many of us have been spending more time than usual at our computers and might be suffering from ‘zoom-fatigue’ or ‘keyboard-stress’. This exploration invites a release of the nerves which pass through the neck and shoulder area and might cause pain when tension builds up there. It can be done sitting in a high-backed chair (your sofa is perfect), but is best done lying on a comfortable floor surface. I will assume you are lying down in my description, but please adapt accordingly.  

-- Brachial PlexusSlowly and gently turn your head from side to side, rotating around the axis rather than rolling the weight.

-- Now take your attention to the lower area of the back of your head, the place where there is a slight rounding on each side, just above the neck. The part of the lower brain called the cerebellum is cradled in this area of the skull; imagine that you are initiating the head-turning from the cerebellum, at the base of the back of your head. You can place your hands here, or touch lightly with your fingertips, to help you to initiate and feel the movement. Gradually you might feel that you are actually initiating the movement from the cerebellum, rather than the neck muscles, as activation is felt here. 

-- Once this movement feels easy and fluid, let your arms rest along the floor beside you, at shoulder height. Continue with the gentle head turning, perhaps slowing it down further so that you can feel into what is happening through your neck, shoulders and arms. Nerve pathways that enervate the upper limb leave the spinal cord between the cervical vertebrae and travel between the muscles of the neck (where often we gather tension and pain); nerves branch off at different places to reach muscles of the neck, shoulder, arms, hands and fingers. Visualise these fine threads of nerve fibers branching and reaching out from spinal cord to fingertips. 

-- As you turn your head from left to right you are alternately stretching and condensing the nerve fibers. The condensing action can give release to overstretched nerves as your face turns away from the side you are focusing on; the lengthening can give release when you sense-feel a flow outwards along the pathways of the nerves, down the arm to the fingertips.

-- Let your attention stay with one side for a while, then the other; feel into what you need on each side. Do what feels easy and comfortable. Let your breath and the touch of your attention flow through the nerve pathways from spinal cord to fingertips.

-- If you wish, you can increase the effects of this movement by rotating your lower body into a spiral stretch, knees resting on the floor to one side, then the other.

-- When you are ready to finish, come back to centre and take time to rest and feel into your body, noticing what has changed. Or you can continue moving, improvising with the gentle rotational movements to see where they take you.  

I hope these ideas might support you, perhaps remind or inspire you to find your own ways of nurturing and resourcing yourself with the touch of attention. These three explorations can support grounding in the physical body, connection to heart feelings, and release of mental stress and tension. I call this way of working a warm-in, just as important and beneficial as a warm-up – a way of deepening connection to self, grounding, centering, and becoming more present to what we feel and need, as we listen to and dialogue with our body. Connecting to embodied presence enables us to be more resilient in the face of the challenges and the suffering that are part of our personal and collective experience right now, as we go through this descent together.  

We are approaching the darkest day, and the return of the light. May the practice of bringing the light of consciousness to dark and hidden places within support us at this turning point, as we move through this difficult year to welcome in the new.

[1] https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct05/mirror  

[2] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/mirror-neurons-how-we-reflect-on-behavior  

[3] Some IBMT practitioners, like those from other disciplines, are offering online sessions, and face-to-face meetings when regulations allow. See https://ibmt.co.uk/practitioners/ to find a practitioner.  

References

Juhan, Deane, Job’s Body, 1987. Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York.

Montagu, Ashley, Touching, 1986 (3rd edition). Harper & Row, New York.

Hartley, Linda, Somatic Psychology, 2004. Whurr Publishers, London & Philadelphia.  

© Linda Hartley, 2002

Previous Blogs: October 2020

Round sun

Stress, Immunity, and the Coronavirus

The Earth is burning. So are we

At the beginning of this year (2020) I had been making plans to offer a new workshop, an exploration of personal symptoms of ill-health in relation to the crises in the world and of the Earth that touch each of us most deeply and intimately. Then the pandemic struck, I became sick with Covid-19, and we were all told to Stay at Home. So, of course, the workshop could not happen.

Instead we have all been given the opportunity to reflect deeply on health and sickness - our own, individually and collectively, and in relation to the Earth and Nature. There are many lessons to be learnt – we are probably still at the beginning.

My reflections brought me back to my explorations into the immune system in the 1990s, when I was introduced to the work of Professor Alfred Hassig and his research into the immune response (1). I found his ideas profoundly illuminating, though outside of the mainstream scientific thinking of the time. He was researching into the HIV-AIDS epidemic, and the effect of stress on immunity and the progress of the disease. In particular, the gay community had been devastatingly affected and there were understandably high levels of grief and fear amongst them.

The body reacts to all kinds of stress - psychological, traumatic, nutritional, environmental, toxic, and infectious - through the same neurophysiological pathways. Whatever triggers it, the stress response impacts the immune system in detrimental ways, and this makes us more vulnerable to infection and disease.

The immune system is a highly complex and sophisticated system of defence, but I will try to simplify a core aspect of it. Through the pandemic news reporting you might have become more familiar with the names and functions of ‘Antibodies, B-cells and T-cells’. Our B-cells enable the production of antibodies, which tackle specific pathogens (such as the coronavirus). They are like an army that is called up to fight an invading army (the virus), prevent it from getting to its target (the interior of our cells). They go into battle against the infection. This is our antibody immunity.

T-cells carry out the essential work of cleaning up during and after the battle – breaking down and destroying damaged or infected cells, incapacitating viral particles, and generally clearing up the mess. I think of them as the housekeeping system, even though they have aggressive names like ‘killer cells’. This is our cellular immunity, essential for general health and wellbeing. The message to Stay at Home potentially supported the cellular immunity of those of us fortunate enough to have a safe and nurturing home environment to retreat into.

As part of the stress response, the sympathetic nervous system activates a fight or flight mode of reaction (anxiety and a hyper-vigilant ‘Stay Alert’ stance may be part of this). This can create an overreaction of the antibody attack, eliciting an autoimmune response where the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy cells. In the case of the coronavirus and other infections, an excessive inflammatory response – a cytokine storm – is triggered in some patients. Stress can increase the likelihood of an excessive inflammatory response, and it also diminishes the effectiveness of the T-cells’ clearing up activities, so that viral particles and infected cells might not be properly cleared from the body.

Now we see the coronavirus wreaking havoc in some patients as the inflammatory response rages out of control.

Around the world we see rage flaring up at racial injustice. We see fires burning out of control in western USA. Fires have raged in Australia and the Arctic, and glaciers are melting from unprecedented levels of heat. Countries are at boiling point as people rise up in anger against corrupt and authoritarian leadership. And a virus which inflames the lungs and other vital organs of the body spreads out of control around the world.

Temperatures are rising and the Earth is burning. So are we.

Here in the UK, as arguments about Brexit begin to limp back onto our news agenda, it occurred to me that we in Britain succumbed to this pandemic at a moment in time when we were, as a nation, deeply stressed, even traumatized, and exhausted from years of heated ‘debate’ about Brexit; passions and tempers flared on both sides of the argument and deep anxiety was activated in many of us as we faced a national existential crisis. That all fell into the background of awareness as the pandemic took hold of our attention, but like any stress that we have not been able to resolve, it is somatised; the stress response becomes embedded in our cells, nerves and tissues, and begins to undermine the balanced function of the immune system.

Is this one of the (many) reasons why we in Britain had the worst death rate from the coronavirus in Europe this spring, I wonder? And one reason why the USA, burning up with rage over racial injustice, politically polarized to breaking point, and consumed by forest fires and other climate change induced catastrophes, has one of the worst death rates in the world? Our collective immune systems are out of balance, cellular immunity failing, and the fight or flight stress response exacerbating the inflammatory work of the B-cell armies. I suggest this might be a political analogy as well as a physiological reality.

So what can we do? It’s easy to say, less so to do when collectively we feel anxious, afraid, grieving, angry, and a host of other feelings that the pandemic has escalated in us. But we need to find ways to rest, nourish ourselves, dig deep inside to find pools of calm and safety. Government advice to go for an hour’s walk or run or cycle ride each day during lockdown was good advice. Eat well, exercise regularly, relax and rest, switch off the news when you need to, play well within the regulated ways we are still able to play, and treasure the social engagement that is allowed, as this more than anything will support the nervous system, and hence the immune system too, to re-balance. And if, at this time, we are not able to receive the nurturing touch that is also vital for health, loving attention to ourself and our body through meditation, mindful movement, or self-massage are ways to resource and help support our immune system.

Most importantly, when you don’t manage to do any of these things, don’t feel guilty! Just do whatever you need to do to get by, remember the things you love, that give you joy and pleasure, and be grateful when the next ‘good’ day arrives. Love and Gratitude are the two feelings which have the most beneficial effects on our health and wellbeing.

Each act of self-care and self-healing contributes to the healing of our world. As we are being shown so clearly right now, we are wholly interconnected and interdependent, and every small and positive personal act contributes to the collective wellbeing.

So, first and foremost, dig deep within to find loving kindness and compassion for yourself. It will support your immune system, and you will be in a better place to offer the same to others when they need it.

Nourish yourself, play, relax and rest, stay safe, be well.

[1] From an interview with Professor Alfred Hassig (Continuum 1997):

There are five identified categories of stress: infectious, toxic, traumatic, nutritional and psychological stress. If there is a chronic accumulation of several of these stress factors it causes a whole-body inflammation. That means antibody production increases in order to keep pathogens under control or eliminate them while production of T-cells is suppressed. This leads to an over-demand on the organism – fight or flight – without the necessary restoration time – anabolism. Body reserves are used up in an extensive way, more than they are built up – catabolism. This achievement-oriented switch in the vegetative nervous system is called stress by the Hungarian scientist Hans Seyle. The stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol are produced extensively. This hypercortisolism causes the Thymus gland to shrink and fewer T-cells are produced while T-cells in circulation migrate to the bone marrow where they activate B-cells. In the short term these mechanisms are life-saving; when persistent they damage the immune system and create illness.

https://www.virusmyth.com/aids/hiv/mbhassig.htm (accessed September 16th 2020) 

© Linda Hartley, 2002