Mindfulness and Mind-Body Approaches

Artwork by Cathy Malchiodi PhD

Mind-body and somatic approaches to trauma recovery go by many names-- somatic psychology, somatic experiencing®, body-centered therapies, stress reduction and relaxation methods, and many others. Each seeks to help traumatized individuals "feel better" by working with and mediating how traumatic events impact both mind and body.


Arts therapies help to access the "felt sense" of traumatic experiences; the "felt sense" refers to how the body feels trauma reactions and how it responds to reminders of uncomfortable events or memories. Art expression, dance/movement, music and sound, and dramatic enactment are part of the spectrum of approaches to help individuals communicate and learn from the felt sense of traumatic events. This can be essential for many individuals because trauma reactions and memories may be encoded as sensory memories in lower parts of the brain rather than language. When purposively applied as part of trauma intervention, arts therapies can help regulate the body's responses to trauma by providing self-soothing, stress-reducing and relaxing experiences that address the overactive sympathetic nervous system. This is particularly important for individuals of all ages whose trauma reactions include hyperarousal, anxiety, fear and excessive anger.

Artwork by Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Somatic Experiencing® is an approach to resolving trauma developed by Peter Levine, PhD. Levine noted that highly stressed animals recover from traumatic situations, particularly life-threatening ones, by the completion of the "fight or flight" response; they do not retain any trauma symptoms. Humans have the capacity to also complete the fight-or-flight response, but often this healthy response is halted by higher brain functions [the thinking brain] or social pressures to not express feelings or weakness. This undischarged energy is held in the body and often turns up in physical symptoms, including anxiety or panic or headaches, pain, gastrointestinal problems, etc. Multiple traumatic events that remain unresolved can compound these responses over time.

The overall goal of somatic experiencing is to direct awareness to more positive, healing states, "pendulating" between these states and trauma-related states. This is accomplished through introducing tolerable, small doses of trauma-related states -- a process Levine calls "titration." As the person's capacity expands, titrations and pendulation can help the individual experience relief that eventually becomes long lasting and promotes integration and recovery (for more information, visit www.traumahealing.com). 



Mindfulness is the art of paying attention to the details of the present moment. When a person is engaged in the process of creating--whether through words, music, art, or movement--without getting caught up in where it might be leading, it is a form of mindfulness.


There is growing evidence-based research that mindfulness practices combined with creative interventions such as art therapy [also known as mindfulness-based art therapy or MBAT] are transformative experiences in the lives of people with cancer. In brief, there is a significant decrease in symptoms of distress and improvements in health-related quality of life, two key elements in the treatment of psychosocial aspects of recovery, aspects translatable to life and health in general.


Most of all, creativity as a form of mindfulness brings the present moment into focus and contains the possibility for all things, including the liberation from the world of suffering.


From The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society/click image for website.
From The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society/click image for website.

Art Therapy and Mindfulness Practice by Cathy Malchiodi, PhD


Making art can help us become mindful in the moment, just like when one learns to be present in moment through the practice of mindfulness meditation. In art therapy, we often speak of that moment in art making when "flow" occurs-- an experience of losing oneself in the experience, but at the same time being present and engaged in the process. Being in the flow state can help you become more relaxed and begin to observe yourself in new ways. Art expression itself is a way of creating something new from what you already have, but may not have fully recognized within yourself.


For some people, engaging in an art form [whether it is visual art, music-making, dance or movement] helps to quiet the mind and body. In a sense, it is form of relaxation, but it also more than that. Just as in mindfulness meditation, creative expression can help you slow down and experience the present moment-- and in being more present, you can begin to respond to challenges rather than simply react to them.


One of my favorite authors on the topic of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn who has used very simple approaches to helping people practice mindfulness meditation, including every day activities like mindful walking and eating. The other is Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Peace is Every Step, who says “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” In the same vein, sometimes your art is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile is the source of your art-- and the source of your own well-being. [Illustration in this section: From colleagues at The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society: The Tree© illustrates some of the contemplative practices that have been developed over the past few thousand years.]

Artwork by Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Links to Somatic, Mindfulness and Sensory Integration Approaches


Somatic Trauma Therapy is the website of colleague Babette Rothschild, author of the Body Remembers; it offers some foundational information about how the body responds to trauma and resources to address body memories.


Hakomi Institute teaches the Hakomi method  that has been taught and practiced for the past 28 years worldwide. It combines body-oriented techniques with verbal interventions supported by unique guiding principles. These principles (body-mind integration, mindfulness, non-violence and organcity) create a gentle and respectful frame for the unfolding of the intricate body-mind process. See http://www.hakomicalifornia.org/index.shtml.


Focusing and Expressive Arts Institute offers training in Focusing-Oriented Arts Therapies (FOATs) which is a creative synthesis of Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing with art/expressive arts therapy. It is based on over thirty years of clinical work and was developed by Laury Rappaport, Ph.D, ATR-BC, REAT. The FEAI seeks to bring these approaches into the world in order to increase mindful awareness, compassion, kindness, and listening; access innate wisdom and creative intelligence; promote peaceful conflict resolution, enhance relationships, and build community.


Somatic Experiencing® is the home of the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute, a non-profit, educational and research organization dedicated to the worldwide healing and prevention of trauma. They provide professional training in Somatic Experiencing® and outreach to under served populations and victims of violence, war and natural disasters; good place to start to read up on Peter Levine's work. See http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/.


Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society  has pioneered the integration of mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness-based approaches in mainstream medicine and healthcare through patient care, research, academic medical and professional education, and into the broader society through diverse outreach and public service initiatives. Good place to start learning about the evidence-based practice of mindfulness and work of Jon Kabat Zinn and Saki Santorelli.


The Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute (SPI)  is an educational organization dedicated to the study and teaching of a somatic approach to clinical psychotherapy practice. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a body-oriented talking therapy that integrates verbal techniques with body-centered interventions in the treatment of trauma, attachment, and developmental issues. See http://www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org/about.html.