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By Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
“The domain of core self seems to be where psychology crosses paths with brains and bodies.”
-Roger Russell, 2004
The concept of unifying mind and body to foster healing dates back 2500 years as a cornerstone of Buddhist practice. By the 1970’s, Moshe Feldenkrais had envisioned and created a method designed to facilitate healing, self-regulation, and the emergence of self by inducing neurological change and reintegrating the central nervous system through sensory input to brain, body and the embodied mind, achieved through movement with attention. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, neuropsychological research and brain imaging technologies had provided conclusive evidence that integrative brain development occurs throughout our lives, the result of integrative and mindful cognitive, behavioral, and sensory connections made within, and between brain and body, and through integrative connections sustained between brains in human relationship.
Eating disorders are disorders of Self and sensing
Eating disorders and co-occurring body image distortions represent the loss of integrity of the core self and with that, the inability to sense the self accurately, to regulate the self effectively, and to functionally adapt to change. Disconnection from self can be observed in the anorexic’s inaccurate sensing of the body-self as fat and out of control; in the disregulated sensing of hunger and satiety cues; and in cutting behaviors or other extreme forms of self-abuse which represent the patient’s efforts to reconnect with an alienated body. Eating disorder recovery essentially lies in the re-integration of the core self, resulting in a newly developed sensation of wholeness. Sheila Reindl, author of Sensing the Self: Women’s Recovery from Bulimia states, “What emerges as the core experience of [eating disorder] recovery is the process of developing a sense of self, where the word ‘sense’ is as important as the word ‘self.’”
Self-image and mind-body unity
According to Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, “We act according to the image that we create of ourselves.” He used the terms “self image” and “body image” interchangeably, asserting that there is no valid distinction to be made between the mind and body. He explains that one’s self image changes from action to action, and that “The improvement of self-image [through attention to self-sensing] increases the number and range of possible actions.”
Self development is grounded in attention to kinesthetic experience
According to Feldenkrais, the functional, kinesthetic nature of his method stimulates change with poignant immediacy only where there is concentration on each part of the action itself, on what was felt during the action, on the total body-image and the effect of the action on the body image. The neuropsychologist Daniel Siegel describes such a focus of attention as the “specificity scalpel into the brain to re-carve neuro-circuits,” capable of changing the architecture of the brain through growing its integrative and regulatory fibers and modifying synaptic connections.
Feldenkrais Method and Psychotherapy
Eating disorders strip their victims of the internal resources and resiliency required to accomplish the tasks of recovery. Eating disordered individuals are forced to face the challenges of healing deprived of the tools and ego strengths they need to access and use themselves optimally in achieving these goals. Through Feldenkrais’ individual and group learning venues, respectively titled Functional Integration® and Awareness through Movement®, students of the method engage in the act of “learning how to learn” by directing attention to sensing patterns in movement, thereby facilitating self-discovery and inviting curiosity, exploration, and options for differentiating and assembling new, remediated patterns. Anat Baniel, a leading authority on implementing ways to access the brain to overcome pain and limitation, describes the brain as “a self-regulating mechanism that needs to learn how to self-regulate.”
The process of psychotherapy and the Feldenkrais Method similarly evoke and integrate neuronal connections through mindful thought and behavior, each reinforcing the other’s function in re-creating a healthy sense of self. Movement with attention stimulates autonomous shifting out of old habits and into useful new ones, not only by creating and re-creating an image of self and achievement, but through learning a tolerance for uncertainty, and affirming that human beings can change from dysfunctional to functional patterns, becoming more aligned with their intention.
In conjunction with the multi-disciplinary eating disorder treatment team, somatic educational input provides invaluable grist for learning within the treatment process “from the inside out.” Eating disorder clinicians reinforce sensory learning and promote neurological change by facilitating the student’s self-questioning: “What was it like for you to explore inside of yourself? to experience the sensation of transitioning into the unknown? to stay with that feeling, and to sustain that contact with your self? When and where might you have experienced similar feelings or sensations before? Is there a place in your body where you can go to feel safe? What’s it like to have newly discovered so many options in initiating change?”
Scientific and anecdotal research with eating disordered individuals
A controlled study of bulimic in-patients in Germany evidenced positive treatment outcomes for bulimics who engaged in Awareness through Movement classes. These included “an overall reduction of anxiety, increased contentment with problematic zones of their body, more spontaneous, open and self-confident behaviors, a felt sense of self, decreasing feelings of helplessness, and a general process of maturation of the whole personality. Some patients reported a reduction or cessation of purging behaviors.” (Visit http://www.empoweredparents.com/1treatment/treatment_02.htm for the full article.)
As a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner and certified Anat Baniel practitioner, as well as a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders for the past four decades, I have pioneered professionally in combining the work of the Feldenkrais Method and Banielsm with relationship-based cognitive-behavioral psychotherapeutic practice, facilitating timely and sustained recovery outcomes. Eating disordered patients engaged in adjunct somatic treatment report a new-found emerging sense of self-awareness, self-control, self-determination, and self-regulation. Some report feeling “more comfortable in their own skin” and more able “to feel themselves as a whole being” rather than as an assemblage of disparate and shameful body parts. One bulimic patient who had been a long-term recovering addict and who lived a life dictated by compulsions observed, “If I can create changes in mood and body sensations so readily through this work, there is no reason to believe I can’t make changes in other areas of my life, as well.”
Feldenkrais spoke of emotional maturity as “emotional flexibility” or “emotional integration,” qualities that are antithetical to the existence of an eating disorder and clearly synonymous with eating disorder recovery.
Abigail Natenshon is a psychotherapist and GCFP in Highland Park, Illinois. The author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: a Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers and Doing What Works: an Integrative System for the Treatment of Eating Disorders from Diagnosis to Recovery. She hosts three web sites:
Photo of apple by natdani