The Felt Sense, Interpretation and Mindfulness in Reflexology

Foot massageThe bodily felt sense is a significant phenomenon associated with person-centred counselling and body-oriented psychotherapy.  It is essentially the observation of ones own sensory and visceral experiences.

Visceral: Adjective

1.  Relating to the viscera: the visceral nervous system.

2.  Relating to deep inward feelings, rather than intellect.

The felt sense is experienced in the physical body and has been defined as a pre-verbal sense of ‘something‘ – an inner knowledge or awareness – not yet consciously verbalised.  The felt sense can sometimes represent an old wound or hurt, recognition of a present situation, or even a future insight or idea.

The Felt Sense in Counselling

Within a counselling context part of the talking therapists role is to help the client – through means of visualisation, focusing techniques and verbal exchanges – to better access their bodily felt sense – and attempt to bring forth a more defined awareness.

“This experience of discovering within oneself present attitudes and emotions which have been viscerally and physiologically experienced, but have never been recognised in consciousness, constitutes one of the deepest and most significant phenomena of therapy.” (Rogers, 1951)

The Felt Sense in Reflexology

Within a reflexology context it is quite possible a similar phenomenon is occurring quite spontaneously – simply as a result of the rapid focus of attention brought to the clients physical body responses – through the medium of touch and pressure.

“The way in which the reflexologist works, offering body reflections in conjunction with reflexology techniques, and the way the counsellor works using contact reflections, constitutes an allocation of the client’s attention – primarily to their physical responses to their environment and to treatment, and subsequently to areas of emotional response.” (Uphoff, 1999) 

In order to better understand this phenomenon, and how it might be manifesting within a reflexology context – let us now consider the fairly typical client who attends  for reflexology with painful, swollen or stagnated lung or diaphragm reflexes.

The Lung and TCM 

The lung essentially supports the heart and circulation.  TCM philosophy states lung energy can become depleted as a result of deep stress and over-thinking.

Anxiety – caused by persistent stress causes deeper injury to lung energy – both shallow and irregular breathing are therefore considered to be a symptom of anxiety.

Anxiety can also cause problems in the fu organ associated with the lung – the large intestine (for example, over-anxious individuals can be prone to ulcerative colitis and IBS).

imageZang-Fu Organ Associations

  • Zang Organ – Lung
  • Fu Organ – Large Intestine
  • Sensory Organ – Nose/Skin
  • Emotions – Anxiety, Grief, Overthinking (Cognitive Activity), Deep Stress
  • Active Time – 3-5 am (Lung) 5-7am (Large intestine)

The Lung and Diaphram in Reflexology

Chris Stormer (2007) writes about the general reflex area:

“The balls of the feet take on the bulk of the body, as well as some of the more hefty emotions, whilst at the same time, revealing the amount of self esteem that comes from feelings towards oneself and others.”

The diaphragm reflex (abdominal brain), also situated in the general area, draws our attention further to a strong connection between intense emotional states and the wider digestive system.

“The solar plexus is a highly emotional part of the body, connected to the element of air, which physically, emotionally and spiritually links the soul to its surroundings.  This is why any interaction through the breath or speech, can have such a profound effect on it and the digestive tract.” (Stormer, 2007)

The Effect of the Fight or Flight Response

The aim of the fight or flight response is to keep us safe, and it is a vital part of our most basic human survival mechanisms. The mind and fear trigger the fight or flight response, in reaction to what the mind experiences as both real and perceived danger.

“Fear and anxiety are our natural states of being, assisting us in our survival.  Even though we are less often victims of physical attacks ‘by wild beasts’ as our forefathers, our body has only two modes of existing: the fight or flight response.  Our whole organism cannot accurately differentiate between real fears and imagined ones.” (Collard, 2013)

imageWhen danger is perceived, the hypothalamus activates two systems – the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system.  The fight or flight response is characterised by:

  • The involvement of the sympathetic nervous system ensures the body speeds up – ready to take action.   Both the respiratory and heart rate increases and the blood pressure rises, whilst signals are sent to the muscles readying them to be alert.
  • The stress hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) are released into the bloodstream by the adrenal gland.
  • The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) into the pituitary gland, activating the adrenal-cortical system.  The pituitary gland in turn secretes the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which moves through the bloodstream, arriving at the adrenal cortex where it activates the release of other hormones that help the body prepare to deal with the threat
  • Non-essential systems like digestion are shut down.  Blood is redistributed away from the digestive tract and sent instead to the muscles and limbs – thus providing extra energy and fuel.

Impacting Through Interpretation

So now we have collated three individual interpretations (including a clinical definition) – each one clear in suggesting that intense, repetitive – and perhaps even deep seated historical emotions and feelings – have the potential to directly impact the lung (respiratory rate), and the digestive system.  How though might the professional practitioner best utilise this philosophical and clinical information safely with reflexology clients?

Reflection in the Therapy Room

The key to the safe use of interpretation in the reflexology room lies in developing the skill of reflection.  A reflection is neither a question or a statement of fact, but rather a simple, clear acknowledgment of what the listener can see, hear, feel, or may be aware of.  Let us now consider a possible scenario in which we might come to utilise such reflective responses:

Client: ‘That bit feels sore. What is it?’

Therapist: ‘This area represents the lungs in reflexology.’

Client: ‘Does that mean I have something wrong with my lungs?’

Therapist: ‘No, not at all.  Sometimes this area displays as sensitive or gritty when an individual is prone to frequent respiratory conditions, and sometimes it can display when a person is dealing with a lot of stress.  According to TCM the lungs are linked to over thinking and a busy mind – and also to more historic grief or feelings of sadness.

Client:  ‘That sounds a bit like me.  I tend to think quite a lot.  My mind never seems to slow down.’

Therapist: ‘According to TCM, when unbalanced, lung energy can wake a person between 3-5am, when the meridian is most active.’

Client: ‘That’s me! I often wake at 4am and can’t get back to sleep.’

Therapist:  Close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath and bring your attention to your chest and abdominal area. What does that area feel like to you just now?’

Client:  ‘It feels quite tight and ….. heavy.’

imageThe clients final interpretation of tight and heavy is a direct representation of their own felt sense.  This reflective response example demonstrates clearly that the therapist makes no attempt to interpret on behalf of the client, but rather simply offers the information for the clients own consideration.

Interacting empathically (from within the clients own frame of reference) and reflectively helps to ensure the therapist does not unwittingly steal power within the therapeutic relationship.

There is no requirement to make any further emotional interpretation, or to attempt to add more detail to what has already been identified or offered by the client.  Within a reflexology context it is important not to try and delve too far into a clients emotional background, or to try and unravel a particular psychology – no matter how tempting it may be. Practitioners can certainly choose to expand on any further relevant philosophical or clinical information, but must remain mindful of leaving any interpretation to the client.

In a relational reflexology encounter focus should be towards attempting to encourage the clients attention back to their present unique phenomenological experiencing – and any associated bodily felt sense.

Calming The Stormy Mind

In today’s modern busy world it has become increasingly common for individuals to become detached from their innate physiological felt sense, and their ability to read the internal signals their body sends.

The pressures of modern life, with our determination to do well and achieve and our personal inner drives to find acceptance and a perfect piece of happiness, have unfortunately resulted in an increasing level of disassociation from our true emotional states.

“A great deal of our daily brain activity is left-brain activation: thinking, planning, evaluating and so on.  It is surprising we are not lopsided considering how much we ‘think and therefore feel we are (Descartes, French philosopher) and how little time we spend truly connected to one of our feeling senses in the right brain. (Collard, 2013)

Certainly our corporate, profit driven, busy societies encourage us not to present ourselves as weak, fearful, or indecisive. Instead we are encouraged to plough on regardless of our stress, or levels of personal exhaustion.  We are in fact the only creatures on this planet who do not stop to snooze in the mid-day sun, and take in the view – instead we are busy meeting deadlines and trying to avoid the boss.  Being cognitively smart and high functioning however does not mean our emotions do not count.

“The result of a lifestyle that is 100 percent different from how people lived for thousands of years is a lack of peace, lack of enjoyment and a number of destructive emotions that lead to psychosomatic disease.”  (Collard, 2013)

Clients who have experienced long term disappointment, anxiety, sadness and chronic illness, can often develop a deep inner world in which they retreat to dwell, or to further consider their difficult situation.  Frustration stemming from feelings of powerlessness, sadness, pain, and even a lack of hope, can lead to further anxiety and negative automatic thinking patterns developing.

The promotion of any activity capable of encouraging more focused, attentive, relaxation states can therefore prove beneficial.  Better connecting to our inner felt sense can help us to acknowledge our emotional reactions – giving voice to them – thus potentially reducing the effect of chronic stress before it begins to cascade further inwards.

To combat instances of over-thinking outside of the confines of the weekly reflexology sessions, it can be helpful to encourage clients to introduce more instances of focused relaxation and mindful recognition of the bodily felt sense.  When utilised regularly activities such guided visualisation, regular gentle exercise, and even steeping the feet in a warm water bath – can all promote more relaxed right brained feeling states – helping to quieten the busy mind, and bring the attention back to the here and now.  Additionally the increasingly popular concept of mindfulness can prove helpful to many reflexology clients.

imageUnderstanding Mindfulness

Mindfulness might be described as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, and in the present moment.  Developing mindfulness practices can sometimes help clients to overcome and combat negative automatic thinking, which can lead to further states of physiological stress and anxiety.

The roots of mindfulness are linked most closely to Buddhist philosophy. Today, mindfulness is recommended as a therapeutic intervention by the Department of Health (UK) and by the guidelines set down by NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) as being capable of impacting both health and well-being positively.

Mindfulness practices can include meditation, awareness of breath and body, listening to music or even walking.  Mindfulness can be a positive tool for stress management because the principles are easily learned, can be used at virtually any time, and can quickly yield positive results.

Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness

  • Increased instances of calm and relaxation
  • Higher levels of energy and enthusiasm for living
  • Increased self-confidence and self-acceptance
  • Reduced possibility of experiencing stress, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, addiction or low immune efficiency
  • Increased self-compassion and compassion for others and the planet

Focused towards becoming more attentive to the bodily felt sense, mindfulness interventions can help to calm and quiet the busy human mind.  There are many paths which promote mindfulness.

Just Be!

Mindfulness can be incorporated into just about every aspect of our lives – from cleaning our teeth – to walking the dog or taking a stroll.  How many people drive along the same road to work each day, but miss the beauty of the changing seasons?  How many people eat, but never taste their food?  How many hear their friends, family or work colleagues, but never really listen?  Mindfulness is concerned with becoming more attentive to the environment in which we reside – and our sensory reactions to it.  Mindfulness is in essence about paying more attention!

Meditation

Meditation can bring many benefits and has been one of the most popular and traditional ways to achieve a state of mindfulness for centuries. Meditation often becomes easier with practice, but it need not be difficult for beginners. Simply encourage your client to find a comfortable place free of distractions, and begin to quiet their mind. Focusing initially on a flickering candle flame, or guided meditation can be useful for beginners.

Mindful Deep Breathing

imageMindfulness can be as simple as breathing. One of the easiest ways to experience a state of mindfulness is to focus on the breath itself.  Breathing from the belly rather than the chest, and trying to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.  Focusing on the sound and rhythm of the breath, especially when upset, can have a calming effect, and help us to remain grounded in the present moment.  It is impossible to think too much when the focus of the mind is on the breath!

Music

Clients might benefit from listening to soothing slow-tempo new-age or classical music. Focusing on the sound and vibration of the notes and perhaps any feelings the music brings to the surface can help keep clients connected in the experience. If other thoughts creep into the head, clients might simply acknowledge them, gently bringing the attention back to the current moment and the music.

Observing Thoughts

Many anxious people find it difficult to stop the rapid stream of thoughts running through their mind, and the idea of trying to sit quietly and meditate – holding off the onslaught of narrative can actually cause more stress.  If this sounds like your client, the mindfulness exercise of observing thoughts might be more suited to them.  Rather than working against the narrative running in the head, clients can sit back and simply ‘observe’ their thoughts. As clients begin to observe, they may find the mind naturally quieting, and the inner narrative becoming less prominent.

Journaling

Some clients might find journaling a helpful way of processing their thoughts. Often just acknowledging the way we feel – by writing it down – can help to reduce the intensity of any associated thought or related anxiety.

Summary

Understanding why some of our wider therapeutic interactions and recommendations might be impacting our reflexology clients is important – not only in encouraging our own professional development – but also to better ensure we are more able to engage with our clients ethically, empathically and congruently.

The reflexology practitioner who thinks they know best on how to accurately interpret a client – is a potentially dangerous and unethical practitioner.  It is vitally important to remember – the only true expert in the clients unique life and experiencing – is the client.  The role of the professional reflexologist, particularly when attempting to deal with emotional content, is simply to touch, educate and inform clients using their therapist’s bank of knowledge.  Practitioners who engage in this manner are far more able to promote increased client self awareness, feelings of autonomy and self-directed change.

The inclusion of reflective responses – particularly when used to help clients become more familiar with their own bodily felt sense – can often prove to be quite transformative.  Clients can become aware – sometimes for the first time in many years – exactly where their emotional stress is physiologically located – and through the incorporation of mindfulness principles – can begin to take steps towards becoming more conscious of – and connected to – their own everyday felt sense responses.

Connected human beings are often happier and healthier human beings.

That is mind, body, spirit!

References:

Collard, P. (2013). Journey into Mindfulness.  London: Gaia Books

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-Centred Therapy. London: Constable.

Stormer, C. (2007). The Language of the Feet.  Oxen: Hodder Education

Uphoff-Chmiielnik, A. (1999). An exploration into touch in search of a rationale for its use within and as an adjunct to psychotherapy, with an empasis on a person-centred model; or Beware – Here There Be Tiggers! Unpublished MA Dissertation, City University London.

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