The Body

The Body: It's Where We Live

Erika Tsoukanelis, LCSW, Center Faculty and Lead Trainer

How do we want to show up for our clients as we journey with them, nervous system to nervous system, heart to heart? 

What can we let go of and what can we embrace to make that possible?

It’s Where We Live: The Importance of the Body in EMDR Therapy

That clench in the jaw, the flip in the stomach, the tension in the throat, hands moving into fists, warmth building in the cheeks. Warmth building in the heart, a drop in the shoulders, tingles down the arms, the unfurling of the spine. The letting go and release. 

These are all parts of living in a body, and they all show up during EMDR reprocessing. And we like that, we welcome that. Sensations arise because they are encoded in memory, or in response to the demands of reprocessing, or as a welcome result of the resolution of traumatic material. 

Unprocessed, maladaptive information gets trapped uncomfortably in the body, and positive adaptive information coming online is paired with a body that is free and calm. EMDR therapy is a mind-body modality. Healing doesn’t just happen in the mind; it happens throughout the physical body as well, and that, as Deany Laliotis says, is the place where we live.


We are a society that values the intellect and rational over the somatic and intuitive. Although we know that there are more neurotransmitters in the gut than in the brain, we are still told, “Use your head.” Gut or intuitive feelings may still be treated with skepticism. The body is dumb, and the intellect is supreme. So, why listen at all?

There follows a drive to medicate or mute more uncomfortable sensations in the body without curiosity about their true sources. In fact, 38% of men and 45% of women self-medicate at least once a day (Niznik Behavioral Health). Discomfort is considered the foe rather than a message from the system about what is present or lacking or needed. There can be a black-and-white view of difficult feelings or illness in the body: these things are either truly physical or “all in your head.” This leads to a fear of discomfort and a shame about whether certain bodily experiences are legitimate or fabricated. We grow confused or overwhelmed by what we feel. It's not surprising we would rather find a way to make the discomfort just go away.

Our traumatized clients have an even more complex and problematic time in their own skins. 

They may have been scared or lonely as children, their young nervous systems left alone to deal with the intense physicality of such strong emotions. That tension in the shoulders or twist in the belly becomes frightening, associated long after the trauma has ended with danger and abandonment. 

If they ever did feel the rush of joy moving through their small bodies, and soon thereafter they were shocked again by witnessing or enduring abuse, that pleasant sensation is then also associated with hardship and avoided in the future. If their bodies were injured or violated by perpetrators, the hurt body and the sensation associated with that hurt become sources of shame. It does not feel like the perpetrator is at fault, but that the flesh itself is to blame. 

And when the shocks of abuse and neglect continue, one after the other, the nervous system learns to click off entirely. The numbness and blankness of dissociation becomes habitual, which then ripples forward into their adulthoods so that sensation of any sort may be followed by shutdown of the whole apparatus. 

All of this can make it challenging for clients to feel into and through painful or confusing sensations encoded in memory, or to notice with openness the discomfort that comes with the demands of reprocessing, or even to tolerate the positive feelings of adaptive information coming online. We know that a target memory is resolved when the SUD is 0, meaning the body is quiet, and the PC is entirely true, not just on an intellectual level, but upon scanning the body, through to the core. Helping our clients bridge into this place by witnessing them move through cycles of activation and deactivation takes gentleness, patience, and a strong center.

As EMDR therapists, we are human too, and therefore not immune to cultural messaging or the impact of our own bodies’ histories. When our clients report strong sensations, our own unresolved traumas may get stirred, along with the defenses and coping strategies we have developed to cope with our own pain over the years. We may grow uneasy if our clients are filled with sensation during reprocessing, feeling an urge to rush in and soothe them rather stay with them through it all in the service of resolution. Attempting to shut off our own felt sense does not do the trick either, as it will hinder our clients’ capacities to go where they need to go. We must be in it with them; they will sense if we pull away. Our internal state and their internal state are linked, nervous system speaking to nervous system as we sit together. 


So how do we attend to ourselves as EMDR therapists in ways that foster our capacity to help our clients feel and track their somatic experiences, lean into discomfort, then let go and lean into the pleasant sensations that come with healing?

Tend to our blocks. With proper support, the self of the EMDR therapist continues to evolve. Paying attention to what triggers us in the therapy room and to the emotional ebbs and flows of our personal lives is key. In these moments, we are offered precious information about what lies within still to be healed. 

With an attitude of humility—recognizing that we are all works in progress—we remain curious about what is left to clear from our own memory networks, as well as what we wish to build in the future, personally and professionally. 

Tend to our nervous systems. We must carve out time to rest and restore. We must learn to trust the body. When we trust it, we listen to it. It will tell us when to be still and when to move. 

Perhaps we are inspired to have bodywork done. Perhaps we are drawn to contemplative practices or mindful movement when we listen, and in engaging in these things we can learn to listen evermore closely to the wisdom in our bones. Even walking and feeling into the heat of our muscles, the pulse of our heart and the rush of our breath can quiet our minds and help us get to know the language our nervous systems speaks when we take this time to dip into the wonder of our own embodiment. 

Routinely checking in and scanning our bodies strengthens us. Breathing through the ups and downs of our days and lives widens our nervous system’s window of tolerance for the good and the bad, through the storms and into the tranquility. This is what we want for our clients, and a gift we can give to ourselves.

Be curious about what the body has to say during therapy sessions. The sensations in our bodies may contain important information about our clients’ inner unfolding as they reprocess memories: a queasiness in our stomach may echo the same in theirs, a breathlessness may be in sync with their struggle to find air. 

This leads us to prompt our clients. We respectfully ask, “Would it be okay to notice what you’re feeling in your body right now?” As they take the chance to listen inside, we make room for their courage. We assure them that all their sensations are part of being in a body, that they all have a beginning, middle and end, and that we are with them all along the way. Or we allow them to notice a familiar numbness, their old way of handling feeling overwhelmed. We invite them to consider that this is how they may have felt at the time of the trauma. 

Throughout, having done our own work, we access a release or calm in our physicality, signaling to the client through our linked states that the danger they are remembering has passed. Now they are safe. Dual awareness occurs spontaneously and wordlessly. We remain steady and centered as they allow all that is unprocessed to move through them, as they move toward the ease of resolution. At last, we are with them as they allow the experience of having been mentally, emotionally, and physically unburdened by the past. There is relief and laughter and an embodied hope. 

In the end, we can only go with our clients as far as we ourselves have traveled. As embodied therapists, we welcome our clients to be where they live, alive within their own flesh, acknowledging the body as their one true home.