Depression: Accessing Felt Senses

By: Peter Cappon, MA, LLPC

With depression, many people report feeling numb or empty for long stretches of time.  It can feel hopeless and isolating when it seems as though our emotions are too far away from our own reach.   Bessel van der Kolk, a leading voice in this area explains, “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”  The good news is that there are many ways that we can address this problem. In and outside the context of psychotherapy, one activity that can help us access our emotions is spending time focusing our attention on and sitting with our nonverbal experience-- our felt senses.

I believe a sizeable percentage of our core relational wounds begin at young ages within our lifespans when we do not yet have words formed, let alone complicated and nuanced words for our most deeply felt emotions and senses.  In adulthood, it can be difficult to understand our inner turmoil using only our thoughts and words if we didn’t have any words at our disposal at the beginning of the conflict. This can be similarly challenging if we were merely too young to intricately verbalize our complex thoughts or if we didn’t have the support of a caregiver to help us make sense of our experience.

Voicing our thoughts, verbally sharing our experiences with other people, and gaining a more nuanced lexicon to help make sense of ourselves are crucial for the therapeutic process.  However, it is sometimes also necessary to tend to our nonverbal experience, our felt senses, and inner stirrings, without being too quick to name them. What is stirring beneath the surface of our words sometimes gets passed over by the need to have ourselves figured out enough to present them to other people.  Needing to be presentable can get in the way of feeling alive in the moment.

It is normal to feel scared or intimidated by the thought of venturing toward our inner stirrings in the presence of another person.  However, this process can often be powerful, unique, and beautiful. Sometimes after a period of sitting and checking in with oneself and their emotions, clients who report often feeling emotionally numb then open their eyes and feel hardly any different, or simply report back a glimmer of emotion or feeling in their bodies.  Other times clients find themselves stepping into deep emotions, grief, meaningful imagery, or a self-accepting deep sigh. These moments often lead to varying degrees of more freedom, meaning, deeper relational connection, and feeling more bought into their own lives.

Accessing emotions, feelings, and felt senses in the presence of another person requires a trusted relationship, which can be hard work earning in its own right.  For this reason, finding a great fit with a therapist is a sensible first step. If you feel numb, hopeless, alone, or isolated it is possible to take steps forward.  Wherever you find yourself, there are most likely people in your city who are able to help you move toward more connection, freedom, meaning, and integration into your own life and your own self.  It can be a slow process, and is pretty hard work sometimes. But fortunately healing and growth are possible. I believe spending time tuning into the nonverbal felt senses of your experience is one piece to that puzzle and the therapeutic journey.