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Working with the body in Therapy - The body keeps the score...

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves. One aspect of this is implicit memory, which can be understood as the influence of the past on the present without any explicit conscious recall being required. It includes rules for generalization and social interaction. Such memories are re-activated or triggered by here-and-now contextual cues. A current situation is responded to as if it were the same as one in the past.

Emotions appraise the situation in terms of expectations derived from past implicit memories, and then mobilise attention and action. Being implicit this most often happens without conscious awareness.

An emotional response is not separate from the event memories that occurred when that response was first experienced.

In therapy sessions we work towards therapeutic change by:

(1) Reactivating old memories so they are being experienced and felt but in a safe enough context so that they are not overwhelming.

(2) Engaging in new emotional experiences that are incorporated into these reactivated memories via the process of reconsolidation.

(3) Reinforcing the integrated memory structure by practicing new ways of behaving in, and experiencing, the world, in a variety of contexts.

In therapy we connect with all of our client's experience, including their body sensations. Tuning into this can give a greater understanding and being 'with' our clients, what Mick Cooper would refer to as 'embodied therapy.' This enhances relational depth and leads to a deeper connection.

'Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” Bessel van der Kolk Clients may lack articulate memories of their experiences, but their bodies may hold the stories for them – and we can work with this. Body sensations and impulses can act as the entry point to trauma memories, leading to processing and recovery which may not occur if the work stays with purely verbal exploration.

The latest research is that the body holds the trauma. To explain further the problem with trauma is the somatic effects, if you are scared you live in a scared body, if you are angry you live in an angry body etc etc

How do you help your body know I am safe now, I can relax. How does therapy help people to create bodies that feel safe or relaxed?

Stabilisation is an important first step in trauma work which involves establishing ways of physiologically grounding the client, both within the session and in their day-to-day life. This makes trauma work possible and also safer.

By checking in with the body and utilising grounding techniques we can try to ensure the the client is staying within their window of tolerance, not veering into hyper- or hypo- arousal.

For clients, being able to check in on their body sensations can make them more in tune with their emotional experiencing, making them better able to understand and meet their own needs.

Whether wanting to maintain our well-being through personal stressors mindfully checking in with the body can help us keep on top of self-care. We might realise we need a restful night or a night out with friends

Body-based self-care can also be incredibly soothing, nurturing the needs of our inner child. Self-hugs and arm stroking, with validating and calming words, can be emotionally regulating. This kind of physical self-soothing can be seen as self-parenting and alongside somatic techniques such as breathwork and grounding methods, provides a healthy way for clients to cope with challenging emotions.


Lane R., Ryan L., Nadel L., Greenberg L. (2015) Memory Reconsolidation, Emotional Arousal and the Process of Change. New insights from brain science Behavioural and Brain Science pp 1-19

Bessell van der Kolk (2015) The Body Keeps The Score, Penguin Classics

Mick Cooper


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