For many therapists (and I am one of them) working in the present moment is one of the most important principles to creating change.
A few Distinctions.
Working in the present moment means, right now in this moment as we are sitting with one another. It means we are bringing focused attention to our experience in the here and now. It is NOT talking about what is going on at this present time in your life.
‘Talk Therapy’ refers to approaches where you talk about experiences in your life. The focus is on gaining an understanding and working through the feelings, defenses and behaviour related to those experiences. You are not experiencing these things because they are in the past, even something last week! There are a number of approaches that come under this category and many therapists work this way. These approaches can provide clients with an experience of being understood, listened to and validated. All valuable experiences and can create change over time. Talk therapy typically involves telling our stories and identifying the consequences of our experiences to our life.
When we are working in the present moment there is less emphasis on the telling of our stories, even though we are still talking. This is not to say that sharing what has happened to us is never done, as it can be important to lay the groundwork or context for some of the work or times that you need feedback. However, research and brain science tells us that we can maximize the effectiveness of therapy through working in the here and now. This is largely due to the way that the brain naturally processes information. Therapy is all about integration.
The importance of focusing on the present moment.
Brain/trauma research has highlighted the need to process traumatic experiences through the body and that new information is integrated through experiencing our physical awareness.
As Bessel Van Der Kolk says in his book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, ‘ In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.’
So there are two main aspects of why we work in the here and now
1) To release the past experience that is constricting us and causing tension.
2) To process new life-affirming experiences and create new updated meaning in our lives.
When we tell our story over and over without updating the experience with a present felt secure/safe connection we can re-traumatizing and keep you stuck in the old information.
Any change in our perspective, how we feel about ourselves and others, our motivation and energy and the meaning we create for our lives is created and changed through new information. We can not create new meaning unless we experience it in some way through the body. It is like someone telling you that something is exciting. You can hear the words, you can say the words, you can keep telling yourself the words but it is not believable until you embody it and feel the sensations of excitement and anticipation run through your body. So by working in the present moment we are continually encouraging connections to your unique experience and release the old survival fear that interferes with creating a new meaning for your life.
Very simply, we only ever experience the present moment. We can think about the past and anticipate the future. If we miss experiencing the present moment we are more likely to continue to respond to our life with old information and reactions.
Two common struggles clients have in working in the here and now.
I’m not feeling anything. This often occurs when we have learned to disconnect from our bodies. Do you feel numb and lacking in energy and aliveness? Then you have likely learned to cut off from your emotions and sensations. When we experience ongoing relational trauma where we have been ignored or aggressively intruded upon our feelings and needs are not safe. We need to not only make friends with our bodies but also become familiar with being here at all. Becoming familiar with sensations can take a while. You are practicing a new skill in and outside therapy. Beginning a mindfulness practice can be very helpful for this. Beginning by just noticing different parts of your body and finding the words for the sensations you feel. This process is a kind of melting away of the frozen tension that protects the person from being in their body.
I can’t focus on what is happening right now. This can in some ways be the opposite difficulty. You are feeling too much and you want to distract as much as possible. Common ways to do this might be to intellectualize, go into the stories of what happened, trying to figure things out with analyzing. If you often feel scattered and ungrounded that would need to be addressed first. Here we would learn skills of regulating the activity in your mind and body. Calming down the anxiety so you can tolerate what you notice in your body and mind. It is when we feel comfortable with the sensations, emotions, images that arise in the here and now that we can work through them and release the tension and emotional pain.
Telling your Story
As mentioned earlier working somatically doesn’t require us to talk about what has happened to us or give reports on the previous week’s activities every therapy session. However, I do understand the need to tell our stories to someone close to us and how healing that can be. An obvious example of this is for people who have experienced abuse as a child or adult that they felt they had to hide. These stories are the secrets we carry and with it carry intense shame. Telling someone, and often a therapist is the first person you tell this to, can begin to shift the shame and fear associated with that experience. A skilled therapist will know when you need to focus on your story and when you might be using it as a distraction.
The importance of working in the here and now is that these stories/experiences are driving your unconscious and automatic responses. Your body is the engine that drives these responses.
Coming home to the body gives you the means to move beyond the constraints of the past and experience the present as it is.