I read the book Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine back in 2009 and then from October 2010 until December 2011 had sessions with an excellent Somatic Experiencing therapist to address symptoms of PTSD (Somatic Experiencing is the somatic therapy developed by Peter Levine).
A central component of Somatic Experiencing is the “felt sense.” The felt sense is the embodiment (bringing awareness inside the body) of one’s ever-changing sensory/energetic/emotional landscape. The felt sense moves our focus from actions and things happening outside us in the world to qualities of our present, internal experience (e.g. textures, colors, sensations). The felt sense was originally developed by Eugene Gendlin as part of the Focusing technique (step two of the Six Steps of Focusing ) (Focusing Institute).
The felt sense sounded simple when I first read about it, but as I progressed through the book I realized it is more profound than it first appeared.
Felt Sense Exercise
After being through something painful or horrific, being in the body can be very challenging. Many times we need to actively re-learn how to feel sensations in the body, in order to occupy the body again. Just having the willingness to stay present while sensing a few basic things is a positive step. The felt sense is a simple but powerful exercise for recovering from PTSD because it counters both dissociation and hypervigilance.
Develop the ability to be in tune with and describe your felt sense, the sensations occurring on subtle and overt levels in all areas of your body.
The only caution for this exercise is if you find a traumatized part of the body during the exercise, either put your awareness on a neutral or positive part instead, or be sure to do something to give resources to that part. For example say, “I love you, I am with you, I am here for you, I am present with you,” in effect using your awareness to extend an empathic connection with that part. Later we will discuss the Pendulation Exercise, which trains us how to handle these traumatized areas more comprehensively.
Sit or lie down in a quiet location where you can comfortably focus. Describe the sensations you notice in your body. Pay attention to more and more subtle sensations and use as many descriptive words you can think of.
Qualities of the Felt Sense:
- pressure – even, uneven, supportive feeling, crushed feeling, cutting off circulation
- air current – gentle, cool, warm, from right, from left, stimulating, rush, like a feather, like mist
- tension – solid, dense, warm, cold, inflamed, protective, constricting, angry, sad
- pain – ache, sharp, twinge, slight, stabbing
- tingling – pricks, vibration, tickling, numb
- itch – mild itch, angry itch, irritating itch, moving itch, subtle itch, small itch, large area of itching
- temperature – warm, hot, burning, cool, cold, clammy, chills, icy, frozen, like: hearth, oven, fire, sunshine, baked bread, snow, stone, shade
- size – small, large
- shape – flat, circle, blob, like a mountain
- weight – light, heavy
- motion – circular, erratic, straight line
- speed – fast, slow, still
- texture – rough, wood, stone, sandpaper, smooth, silk
- element – fire, air, earth, water, wood
- color – gray, blue, orange etc.
- mood/emotion sinking, pulling in, open, closed, uplifting, sunny day, dark cloud, roiling
- sound – buzzing, singing
- taste – sour, bitter, sweet
- smell – pungent, sweet, like rain, like leaves
- absence/nothingness – blank, empty
I know the above is a long list. One thing that can be helpful is to pick a handful, say 5 of them, and ask either or questions, for example, Does it feel more rough or more smooth? Is it slow or fast? Does it feel heavy or light?
The next post, about the “PATH to Internal Awareness” Exercise presents a very easy way to remember to do the felt sense. Even if I am lying down only for a few minutes, or sitting in the subway, I can think “Do PATH!” and then go through the steps.
Source of the Felt Sense Exercise: Book, Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.