It’s a common theme these days:
I have everything I need and things are generally okay, but I have an ongoing sense of unease… Something is missing or preventing me from fully experiencing life… I want to feel that there is meaning in my life… I want to contribute to the world but I don’t know how.
This may be just a nagging sense that things could be better. You may wonder if a different job or some other change would help. Or, it could be something more that is impacting your ability to connect with others and have healthy relationships. Perhaps it is affecting your work, your physical health, or your ability to function effectively on a daily basis. However it manifests, the solution may lie in understanding the mind/body connection – how emotions, beliefs, and thoughts we hold onto (without even being aware of them) affect us. By paying attention to physical sensations, we can understand their connection to our emotional state and discover what action is required.
“People have the innate capacity to understand what is healthy. The answers to our questions are available and become easier to hear as we develop the skill of listening. This means listening to your own experience,” says Karin Bustamante, a therapist at the Maria Droste Counseling Center who specializes in body-centered therapies for treating anxiety and depression, and for overcoming trauma. Karin’s goal is to help people live their best life.
Often we have difficulty explaining our unease. It becomes normal. We develop strategies over a lifetime to deal with things that make us uncomfortable, such as ignoring how we feel about something and creating beliefs around what is happening. Sometimes, we don’t even realize that we are anxious, depressed or afraid. “A client may start off with a story about what is happening. Then I’ll say, ‘Okay, you’ve told me what you think about it. Now I want to know how you feel’,” says Karin.
She helps people identify their emotions and then connect those emotions to physical sensations or actions. (For example, when something makes you anxious you may wring your hands or tap your foot, or you may have headaches or an upset stomach.) The next step is to begin to identify and work with the things that aren’t serving you.
“Although the approach is simple, it is not necessarily an easy path. We often confront truths that are difficult for us to admit, like bad decisions or compromises we have made to our integrity,” says Karin. “And if the unease is connected to a trauma, it can be painful, for instance, to recognize how our childhood experience has impacted our ability to connect with others.”
Through this type of therapy, Karin helps people find concrete ways to experience mindfulness in daily living and gain acceptance. As a result, they begin to make new, more positive choices.
Here are some examples. The stories below represent actual experiences, but not actual people and circumstances.
Andrew came to Karin to understand the constant vague uneasiness he felt. He couldn’t point to anything specific that was causing a problem. He had a good marriage. His children were grown and doing well. Still, there was an underlying sense that life could be better and he wondered what was holding him back.
He started talking about his mother, who was aging and beginning to require more care. He talked about how he responds to seeing his mom, and discovered that he felt angry. Through the process of working with Karin, he connected his anger to events 20 years earlier. Andrew remarried when his oldest daughter, Jamie, was a teenager. Living in a blended family presented some challenges. Jamie started acting out, and even got in a physical fight with her stepmom.
Even after all this time, for Andrew, seeing his mom and stifling his anger brings up memories of watching that fight. It becomes clear that there is still a lot of emotion attached to those memories that stems from his fundamental rejection of anger. Are you entitled to have anger toward your family?
During the 2-3 sessions with Karin, Andrew acknowledged the anger he felt toward his mother. Karin created a safe space for him to look at this idea. From there, he was able to find ways to feel his anger in a safe way and then listen to himself and discover how to address this topic more directly with his family — for example, by initiating a difficult conversation with his wife.
Tania had always been successful in business. She can point to ways her childhood influenced her ability to excel at work, but she is less clear about her inability to navigate intimate relationships. Now in her 40s, she’s never been married. She wants to understand why she can’t just relax around people in social settings. She knows she becomes tense in relationships, particularly when her expectations are not met, and that she has difficulty communicating on a personal level. She wants to be intimate, but can’t do it.
Karin helps her connect her physical experience to her emotional experience by bringing her attention to what is happening in the present moment. For example, Karin might point out that while Tania is talking she touches her hair. Eventually Tania is able to connect certain feelings with certain behaviors or actions – what happens to the body when beliefs or emotions arise. Karin also encourages her to pay attention to her breath.
Using practices like yoga nidra, a type of meditation, Tania is developing acceptance of who she is, and is achieving that relaxation she so desires. She is able to be less tense and more playful around men. When she is out with a man, she notices the negative voice in her head that is analyzing everything he says and is looking for a reason to push him away. Instead of focusing on that voice, she now can ask herself, “What else is possible?” and allow for a different outcome. She is able to stay in the moment and focus on what is actually happening instead of on her interpretation of what is happening.
Diane, in her late 40s, didn’t understand why she kept creating the same negative patterns in relationships. Working with Karin, she realized a connection to another area of her life: work.
Diane had been at the same company in the same position for 20 years. Her area was at the center of activity in the office, and over the years, she had seen many people come and go, including her bosses. As a result, she never felt safe at work because she was often adjusting to new people. Things were great when she had good bosses, and difficult when she had bad bosses. She was often on full alert, not just at work, but also in other aspects of her life. In this state of hyper vigilance, it was difficult to take in new information and accurately assess a situation.
Diane avoided confrontation, particularly with her boss. She was so caught up in not dealing with her anxiety or stress that she avoided interactions with her boss. As a result, she never got noticed and missed out on promotions, continuing in the same position for many years.
For most of us, our emotions ebb and flow throughout the day in response to changing circumstances. Diane was unable to make those natural shifts. She was on constant alert and could not feel that natural ebb and flow of life. Her work with Karin started with contrasting hyper vigilance and relaxation. She was helped by learning to actively relax and by making time to practice daily so that she could reap the benefits of sleep and lower blood pressure.
These stories are merely examples of common experiences. Emotions and reactions surrounding everyday life affect us all, and often the most destructive or burdensome effects are incredibly hard to recognize. We tend to press on without realizing that we are dragging a great weight. In some cases, the impact might be fairly minor. It could manifest simply, like being easily annoyed under certain circumstances. But all too often, unspoken anxieties and past traumas have pervasive and very real physical and psychological impacts on us. Those impacts might be keenly felt in any aspect of our lives, from family to finances.
The ability to recognize our feelings and reactions on a moment by moment basis is crucial to living life on our own terms. By recognizing how we are feeling, we also begin to understand why we feel and act the way we do. That knowledge provides more than an interesting ‘ah ha’ moment; it gives us the power to shed that invisible weight, to see our circumstances differently, and flourish in ways that were previously impossible. For you, flourishing might mean that you can finally feel at ease in a social situation. It might mean that you have the confidence to suggest improvements at work and be recognized for your efforts. It might mean that you can drive on the freeway without your neck and shoulders tightening into painful knots.
All of that improvement starts with self-awareness. You have the ability, though it’s often lain dormant for years. A therapist can guide you as you awaken that ability and move beyond unspoken fears and past traumas. They provide that new point of view that keeps you from overlooking your reactions and feelings.