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MIND & BODY

Healing senses

New approaches to psychotherapy stress that the treatment process should go beyond traditional talk sessions and consider the physical state of our bodies

September 29, 2012|Lily Dayton
  • A free weekly mindfulness meditation convenes in the theater at the Hammer Museum, led by Diana Winston.
A free weekly mindfulness meditation convenes in the theater at the Hammer… (Katie Falkenberg, For the…)

When you think of psychotherapy, the first image that comes to mind might be one of a distressed patient lying on a couch, talking, while a desk-bound therapist takes notes. But while traditional talk therapy can help people struggling with depression, anxiety and the stresses of daily life, the latest research on the brain and the mind-body connection has sparked a proliferation of approaches that may reach deeper levels of emotional healing than talking alone.

"Talk therapy is actually a little removed," says Dr. Martin Rossman, clinical professor at UC San Francisco Medical School. "A story might relate some of our disturbing experiences, but it can distance us from real emotions and somatic [body] feelings."

Talking takes place in the cognitive, or "thinking," part of the brain, and our thoughts are often the problem, adds Wolf Mehling, a physician at UCSF's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. To help combat negative or obsessive thinking, many new therapeutic approaches focus on letting go of thoughts and becoming anchored into bodily sensations.

Though alternative treatments will probably never replace traditional talk therapy, new psychotherapeutic approaches can be used in conjunction with talk therapy to help people achieve optimal mental health, says Don Hanlon Johnson, professor of somatic psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

The bottom line, says Johnson, is that "we need all the help we can get. If you look at the entire population, what helps one person doesn't always help another. So we need many avenues to psychological, physical and spiritual well-being."

Alternative treatments run the gamut from techniques that are championed by mainstream mental health professionals to practices that are more in the "fringe" realm of meridian-tapping and energy work. Here is a glimpse into four of the more widely accepted nontraditional approaches, each with an element of mind-body awareness:

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Mindfulness practice

What it is: Rooted in Buddhist meditation techniques, mindfulness practice has become accepted among many Western mental health professionals as a powerful psychological tool. The practice is usually taught in a group, in which people learn to focus on their breath and body sensations in moment-to-moment awareness.

How it can help: Studies have demonstrated that it can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety and that it may help prevent depression relapse. It's also been shown to reduce feelings of stress and loneliness, help manage chronic pain and increase success rates of addiction recovery.

What the experts say: "Focusing on the present moment eliminates ruminating thoughts based on past experiences or anxiety about the future," says Mehling. "You allow yourself to get space between the perception and your interpretation. It helps you to distinguish thoughts from reality." This process can also help with impulse control, Johnson says.

"Many problems are rooted in the fact that we're dissociated and unaware of our bodily response to things. People aren't aware of harmful impulses until they get out of hand. So mindfulness practice is about teaching people to slow down and notice when impulses arise."

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Guided imagery

What it is: Guided imagery is a mind-body technique that teaches people to use their imaginations to achieve a relaxed, focused state. Under the guidance of a therapist or CD, listeners use their senses to evoke positive, safe, relaxing images.

How it can help: The idea is that the body and mind will respond to images as if they are reality. If you imagine sucking on a lemon, chances are your mouth will water as if you are actually tasting a lemon. Much in the same way, people respond to comforting or relaxing images by experiencing feelings of increased well-being.

Research has shown that people who practice guided imagery have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and an overall decrease in depression, anxiety and fatigue. Guided imagery may also help motivate people to make positive life changes, such as losing weight or starting an exercise routine.

What the experts say: "The ability of imagery to connect with emotions -- the way an experience actually feels in the body -- is what makes it such a great therapeutic tool," says Rossman, who explains that images can be powerful catalysts for psychological change because they are formed in the more primal, emotional parts of the brain. He adds, "Imagery is the natural language of the unconscious mind -- and it's the unconscious mind that we need to deal with in deep psychotherapy."

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Somatic experiencing

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