Important note: for survivors of severe trauma, it’s safer to explore felt sense practices with an experienced practitioner. Please take care of yourself.
Felt sense practices put you in touch with the felt experience of your body. Practices like Yoga, breathwork, massage, and the use of sound (making it or listening to it!) create a reverberation at a bodily level. Used mindfully, practices like these will increase the awareness of your body. Here, we will look at how we can connect to the felt sense to use it as a source of information.
Eugene Gendlin pioneered the felt sense through his research into why traditional psychotherapy worked for some but not others. He uncovered that people who were able to connect to their felt experience were more likely to experience long-lasting change and personal growth through psychotherapy.
The felt sense is sensation in the body that you're consciously aware of. It is the regulating oscillations of your internal systems, the language of your nervous system. The scientific name for felt sense is interoception, and it’s part of a bi-directional system between body and brain.
Interoception influences your thoughts, decision-making, perception, and behavior. It is also the basis of feeling.
When you start to use the felt sense therapeutically, it can be helpful to categorize sensation into housekeeping and experience-related shifts.
Housekeeping sensations include feeling hungry, too cold or too hot, or feeling your heart racing during a workout. These are sensations of process that keep your house in order. You could describe them as loud or obvious and they are related to the needs of the body.
Experience-related shifts are less likely to grab your attention. These sensations are the result of your moment-to-moment experience They might feel vague or translucent when you direct your attention towards them. For example, a strong sense of the front or back of your body, eye contact might feel uncomfortable, having an urge to swallow, muscle tension in the arms or legs, not being able to focus your attention, difficulty breathing and talking, or tightness in the shoulders. This layer of basic feeling precedes big, emotional experiences – often the ones that are tricky to manage. Becoming consciously aware of this layer of sensation can help you make different decisions and encourage a new way to interact with your experience.
Basic feeling has two fundamental aspects: valence and arousal.
Valance describes the feeling along a spectrum from pleasant to unpleasant. An example of each could be the pleasant feelings you experience relaxing with your favorite person after spending the day in nature or the unpleasant feeling of anticipating an appointment you don’t really want to go to.
Arousal describes the activation in your system. It’s the general feeling of energy in your body, like feeling exhausted after a long week or the excitement of going on a trip you’ve waiting for.
Being aware of how your valence and arousal (the two things that make up a basic feeling) shift depending on what you are doing, who you are with, and what you are thinking about is a good way to get to know the internal landscape of your felt sense. You might notice that identical sensations have different meanings depending on the context. Here is a visual you can use to explore your experience.
Meaning is the realm of the executive function of the brain and doesn’t live at the level of sensation. Very different experiences can provoke identical sensations. For example, both excitement and anxiousness produce a flushed face, racing heart, and shortness of breath, but they mean very different things depending on the context.
Sensation in the body is simply a source of information. It can tell you something about how your nervous system is at any given moment.
The sensation of breathing is a good place to start. What’s the quality of your breathing like right now? Is it short or deep? Are you breathing through your nose or mouth? Are your shoulders rising with your inhale? Is your belly expanding? Does it feel good? Could it feel better?
The impact of your breathing is bidirectional. You can notice how it is now, consciously influence it, and change the sensation that comes with it. There are many somatic techniques you can use to bring a different experience into your system.
You live in your body, so you can think of it as your house. You have likely seen your reflection before, and you have a strong representation in your mind’s eye of what you look like. Is your understanding of your internal landscape equal to your understanding of what you look like? Fully connecting to your felt experience brings you closer to yourself, and the full spectrum of human emotion.
Working with the felt sense requires unique attention that is an amalgamation of patience, gentleness, and curiosity. Curiosity is key because it drives our awareness.
Close your eyes for a moment, what are you aware of right now? Let your attention roam and notice what you land on. You might notice the sensations morphing and evolving.
Try it again with your eyes open. You might notice lots of 'noise' from your thoughts. That's okay. Working with the felt sense and getting to know our nervous system means we need a different kind of interaction with our thoughts.
This is essential.
Using the felt sense to explore challenging feelings or behaviors might not always be a pleasant experience. Sometimes, just talking about something that has caused you pain has the potential to upset you again. If you layer on the sensation aspect, the experience could be too intense.
So, to stay safe and avoid giving power to a difficult narrative, we need to be able to connect with the present moment. There are lots of ways to ground in the present, and you can find what works for you. One of my clients uses the strong scent of eucalyptus oil to bring her attention to the here and now. Another has a small wooden carving with a weight inside that fits neatly in his hand and gives him something concrete to focus on. Simply locating yourself in the space you are in and exploring your surroundings with your gaze can also be effective.
A resource could be anything, but it must have the power to regulate your nervous system. It could be a memory of a special day, a person who makes you happy, or even your pet! When you think of your resource, you want to feel a shift in your felt sense, that makes you feel good.
The felt sense offers information via sensation, and our thoughts offer information via their quality and content. Thoughts can be a useful indicator of where you are in your nervous system, you can think of them as a source of information. When you notice patterns of thoughts, you can start to steer them in a new direction. Here are a few examples of when thoughts used as a tool can be helpful.
At the top is sleep paralysis! For me, sleep paralysis usually begins with a nightmare that I wake up from without being able to move my body at all. There is an overwhelming sense that there is an intruder in the room. My heart is racing, I am overheating, and I and feel like I can’t breathe. I immediately go to my thought channel and start to list all the tasks I have to do tomorrow in my mind, or think about the lyrics of a song, times tables, or anything else that has me interacting with my thoughts. Pretty soon after this, I feel like I can move again, and my nervous system starts to regulate.
Next up is trying NOT to laugh in a situation where it would be inappropriate, like a funeral. I don’t know if it’s ever happened to you, but my urge to giggle is an anxious response for sure. It is hard to take a full breath, my throat feels tight, and a headache follows. I find it helpful to distract from sensation by making mental lists and naming what I see around me. Laughing is a way to release nervous energy, as is crying.
The meaning we apply to them and our conditioning sometimes hinders our ability to let those responses flow.
Exploring your felt sense in a therapeutic context helps to illuminate behaviors, beliefs, and feelings that might not be serving you.
I don’t believe one source of information is more important than the other; I do believe that all sources should be considered and explored. Treating sources of information as separate from one another is disjointed and not how they operate naturally. Instead, finding safety in the body, and connecting with the energy of vitality are skills for life.
I work with a range of people with different challenges, from anxiety disorders and PTSD to relationship and work-life struggles. I use scent, self-touch, movement, and breathwork to direct awareness inwards and explore where attention goes, and discover what feels helpful and supportive.
You can read more about my work at Keepitconscious.com, find me on IG @keep_it_conscious_, and schedule a 1-1 discovery call with me here. If you’re curious about the felt sense and want to explore it, come along to my online felt sense-inspired Yin Yoga workshop on April 26th.
Cultivating interoceptive awareness helps to renegotiate unhelpful responses to stress. Noticing the subtle sensations of difficult feelings sooner creates space to mindfully process them, and consciously choose how to respond. By slowing down and exploring this deeper layer of yourself, you make space for something else to emerge.
Emma Cully is a somatic practitioner, wellness consultant and therapeutic Yoga teacher. Emma helps her clients navigate their emotional experiences by working with the nervous system, integrating felt sense (interoception) and cognitive practices. This looks like interacting with the felt experience of emotion in a new way and creating space between thoughts and meaning. Exploring awareness by reaching past what is readily available in the moment, Emma helps her clients ‘map’ the features of nervous system states, revealing patterns of thought and behaviour, working towards elevating those which serve, and getting ‘underneath’ bigger emotional experiences before they become unmanageable. Please contact Emma through her website www.keepitconscious.com.
Follow Emma on Instagram: @keep_it_conscious_.