I’ll be honest, I spend more time than I should looking at memes. By nature of my interests, I often get a plethora of therapy related memes. These tend to be some of my favorites because as a therapist and as an individual in therapy, I feel like I get to see the meme from two sides. Meta, indeed… Ew, anyways, memes about the power of the first sip of a diet Coke, making your therapist laugh, navigating emotion or changing the subject, and pictures of confused animals or people with captions of “me when my therapist asks me where I feel it in my body.”

Often, this question can feel out of left field. Maybe you’re describing a situation that brings up a big feeling, positive or negative, like: an argument with a parent, getting misgendered or dead named, a joyful moment with a friend, a parent or partner really showing up for you, etc… And you’re expecting to have dialogue about the situation, find out the perfect thing to say next time it happens, and then you get hit with “where do you feel that in your body?”

I remember the first time I got asked this question. My smart aleck response was: “In my brain.” I didn’t really understand the rationale behind why my therapist was concerned with what was happening in my body. I was there to talk about what was happening in my head. For me, naming my feelings and just talking about them was hard enough. It felt like it was getting harder tossing that in there. So why do us therapists seem to like to put you on the spot to name “where you feel it in your body?” enough that it inspires memes?

The answer is a bit robust and regrettably contains less meme talk from here on out… Let’s think about a scenario, you made plans with friends, you’re excited, and at the last minute the plans get canceled. Your friends all have really reasonable explanations as to why they had to cancel. You even practice what you learned in therapy, a cognitive re-frame, such as: “My friends are people with dynamic and often unpredictable lives just like me and I can understand why they can’t hang out tonight. I feel sad and disappointed to not spend time with them this evening.”

10/10 reframe, 10/10 emotion naming, 10/10 empathy towards yourself and your friends, you did it, you solved therapy.

Logically, rationally, you get it and you pivot towards a night in with a movie and some time on your for you page or explore page. But something is still lingering, a heaviness in your chest or a rawness that’s hard to explain. You were able to name your emotions and even give yourself a reframe, why is that other thing sticking around? That feeling of being slightly off, a bit out of tune, or in more extreme scenarios a tight chest, pounding heart, upset stomach, tension in your hips, shoulders, or neck… That’s your somatic experience of emotions.

Awareness and care of that somatic feeling can help deepen our understanding of our emotions and how we take care of ourselves. Back to the example, you feel sad and disappointed to have the plans get canceled. That feeling starts in your body and impacts the thoughts you have. Vice versa, the thoughts you have to describe the experience of that feeling impact your physical feelings. This mind-body connection often happens without us ever noticing. So that seemingly left field question of “where do you feel that in your body?” is meant to prompt curiosity and begin to connect with ourselves in a more integrated, empathetic, and understanding way.

The impact of connection (healthy or unhealthy), adversity, stress, and little t and big T trauma has on our bodies is immense to our whole system. Our bodies through our nervous systems activate to try their best to keep us safe and away from danger.

It learns to respond to cues of connection and of danger; usually so fast that we don’t really understand what happened until later or through in depth processing. When we experience something unsafe–whether a one time event or series of repeated events–that activate our nervous system we learn to respond to get the heck out of danger as fast as we can by:

● Flight
○ Some emotion words to describe this feeling: on edge, worried, anxious.
○ Possible somatic experiences: your pupils dilate, chills, a nervous shake, tightness in your chest or shoulders.

● Fight
○ Some emotion words to describe this feeling: angry, hostile, on edge, keyed up.
Possible somatic experiences: faster heart rate or breath, lightheadedness.

● Freezing
○ Some emotion words to describe this feeling: apathetic, depressed, sad.
○ Possible somatic experiences: hollowness in your stomach, loss of energy, an unexpected heaviness or weight in your body.

● Fawning
○ Some emotion words to describe this feeling: afraid, incongruent, holding back.
○ Possible somatic experiences: heightened sensitivity, tight feeling in your chest, headaches, trying to be small.

Our whole body pays close attention to whichever response gets away from danger the quickest. It holds on to that information and works to respond in a similar way to anything that reminds of that dangerous time. This can lead to our system becoming over-sensitive by activating and implementing those responses to things that are actually okay, inconsequential, or even things that are safe. Even in a therapy session just talking about an experience can activate that response.

This survival response is adaptive in the short term but over time can lead to challenges interpersonally and intrapersonally like constant worry, fear, hypervigilance, anxiety, depression… When we begin to notice and pay attention to that activation, we give ourselves the gift of being able to process, release, and reshape our experiences. This work teaches us that we can be safe for ourselves and in connection.

So where do you start with this?

It starts with developing emotional awareness and somatic awareness, or more simply put mind-body connection. It’s a big question and sometimes we don’t know how to answer it. And that’s okay. It takes time to develop this awareness. Some practices in session and out of session that can help with that are:

In a session:
1. Tell your therapist you aren’t sure how to do that and could use some guidance or some observations of what they see during a session

2. Slow down, start with your toes and check in with your body slowly moving from your toes to the top of your head.

3. Change “I don’t know” to “I’m not sure yet”

4. Name your emotion and explore your experience through statements like:
○ I feel _______ and I notice __________
○ I notice when my body feels this way ___________, I tend to experience these emotions _________

5. Create a few different lists: 1. People and things elicit a connected and safe feeling, 2. People and things that elicit a fight or flight feeling, 3. People and things that elicit a freeze or fawn feeling.

Out of session:
1. Practice a body scan a few times a week by slowing down your breathing and starting paying attention to how your toes feel and check in with your body slowly moving from your toes to the top of your head. 

2. Shake it out, ever notice animal shaking after play or fright, give it a try and see what you notice.

3. Practice 5-4-3-2-1, this is a technique to check into your physical self. To practice it you take a few deep breaths and then:

-Name 5 things you see

-Name 4 things you can feel

-Name 3 things you can hear

-Name 2 things you can smell

-Name 1 thing you can taste

4. Journal, practice naming a few of the emotions you felt throughout the day through one of or neither of the following structures:

-I felt __________(content) about ________ (getting my laundry done) because __________ (today was really busy) and I notice that _____________ (legs feel loose and that my jaw is sore from clenching my teeth)

-When I feel __________ (angry) my body feels  __________ (warm, tense, and full) 

-I notice when my body feels this way ___________, I tend to experience these emotions _________

5. Create a few different lists: 1. People and things elicit a connected and safe feeling, 2. People and things that elicit a fight or flight feeling, 3. People and things that elicit a freeze or fawn feeling. 

In the memetime, I mean meantime, be kind and patient with yourself. You learned these responses because you needed them at the time to be safe and learning new ways of processing and exploring emotions takes time, evolves over time, and looks messy in some joyous and liberating ways and in some grief laden and scary ways. Therapy is a process. So after reading this, I have one question: Where do you feel it in your body?

For me, I feel tightness in my shoulders and hips from sitting down and typing, a restlessness in my body for movement, a warm full-feeling in my midsection that I would say is contentedness with getting my thoughts down, a stretch in my cheeks from my amused “researching” memes, and grateful for the friends I’ll see later today.

Be well and be rad,