Finding Words for our Neurobiological Responses: Establishing the Foundations of Emotional Connection in Group, an interview with Spring Workshop Leader Joseph Acosta by Amelia Canally

AC: This is an exciting topic, Joseph! Let’s say I joined you on an elevator and we have a quick 30 seconds for you to explain this workshop to me.  Let’s hear it.

JA: In the first segment of the workshop, we will look at the evolutionary history of the human nervous system. In the second segment, we will look at the early development of the right brain, particularly from 0-2 years. This period is crucial for the development of attachment and self-regulation. We will look at our everyday natural neurological responses that don’t necessarily become conscious.

AC: When I think of putting words to this unconscious process, I wonder if movements or actions also play a role?

JA: Well, if we put words to it then we might not have the need to use actions. For instance, if I know that my fingers just got cold or I feel pressure in my chest or I’m getting impulsive and have tingling all over my body—if I can language the process, it gives me some fundamental implicit information about my experience in the moment. And that’s the foundation for us to figure out what we are feeling.

AC: I see, tuning into the language of the nervous system is sensation-based?

JA: Yes, that’s right. There is richness in the language of the body.

AC: What motivated you to study this topic?

JA: Well, I have two reasons, one professional and the other more personal.  For many years, I’ve been interested in safety; what makes something safe, specifically in a clinical environment.  What does safety mean in the therapy room? What’s safe for the client at 2 pm is not the same as the client at 3 pm or 4 pm. As

I am mostly interested in what my clients need to feel emotionally safe enough to engage with other people.

a result, I became very interested in what safety means. Neurobiology informs us that some parts of feeling safe are cooked into our nervous system. While physical safety is an important foundation, I am mostly interested in what my clients need to feel emotionally safe enough to engage with other people.

AC: Which has me thinking about group – How do you manage different safety needs within a group of, say, 8 people?

JA: That’s exactly right. I study safety as it applies to all of my clients!

As far as safety in groups is concerned, I encourage my group members to bring material into group when they are ready to do so. Allan Schore writes about working at the (tolerable) edges of safety in both hyper- and hypo-aroused emotional states. This is what I aim for in my groups.

JA: Back to my other more personal reason for the interest in this topic–I grew up in a world with a pervasive amount of fear and most of that fear was unconscious and not verbalized.  This underlying, unconscious fear shaped my entire world. I went to religious military schools where fear and discipline were intertwined, and I experienced a tremendous amount of fear in my home environment as well. I’ve always had very intense body reactions and it wasn’t until I found a good therapist that I could understand these intense sensations as normal reactions to my environment.

AC: Is it too personal to ask about theses body sensations? What are they like?

JA: I get very strong reactions. For example, I experience waves of sensations in my gut or intense fluctuations of experience or pressure in my upper chest. I worked with a therapist who was trained as a dance therapist, and our work helped me find words to better understand these strong sensations within my body.

AC: Yes, I see how the body speaks the language of sensations, and if we can tap into these shifts we get a deeper sense of knowing our experience. What keeps us from putting words to these sensations?

JA: We aren’t trained in languaging these internal responses. For example, growing up, I never heard people discuss their internal sensations; my world was what Iain McGilchrist would call left brained – very logical, thought based and rational. I was taught to ignore everything else. I was trained out of body awareness. Stephen Porges, creator of polyvagal theory, would say that we don’t have words to describe our internal experiences.  How do we describe what happens within our bodies? We have very few words in our modern day language.

AC: It reminds me of the questions “how do we know what we know?” If a client tells me they are scared, I might wonder how do they know they’re scared?  

I’ve always had very intense body reactions and it wasn’t until I found a good therapist that I could understand these intense sensations as normal reactions to my environment.  

JA: Right, I know I’m scared because my heart is beating, I’m sweating or I’m having difficulty breathing. And that means I’m scared. This is exactly what we will focus on in the workshop.

AC: I love this focus on the body. And I can tell you’re really excited and passionate about this topic. I read on your bio that you love to dance. What kind of dance?

JA: Mostly bachata and salsa.

AC: Partner dancing! Well, from one dancer to another, I’m curious how you use this knowledge and experience when you’re on the dance floor with a partner?

JA: It’s remarkable. It’s parallel to group therapy in a way because the more rooted I am in my own body with presence and connection to sensations, the more I can attune to the other and that makes dancing so much better! Whether two people are dancing on the dance floor or relating emotionally in group therapy – it’s the same! If people are in sync it is so powerful. You can feel the connection.

AC: What can people do to prepare for the afternoon?

JA: I ask people to come prepared to notice your own sensations. That is it. I want to cover this material in an accessible and practical way so that group therapists can leave with concrete group leadership skills.

AC: Sign me up! Thank you so much, Joseph, for your time and enthusiasm. I so look forward to the workshop in May!

Amelia Canally, LCSW, CGP has been working in private practice and agency settings as an individual, couple and group therapist since 2000.  She enjoys the ongoing learning and evolution within a private practice and the vitality and flexibility that come with the work.  She is married with three kids and has called Austin home since 1998.

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