Reflections On The International Cognitive Analytical Therapy (ICATA) Conference

Recently, I had the pleasure of sharing the integrated approach from Yoga for Mental Health at the International Cognitive Analytical Therapy (ICATA) conference (Ferrara, Italy, June, 2019)

The presentation entitled “Relational awareness through somatic experiencing” was a collaboration with Caroline Dower – a movement therapist from the UK. Caroline uses somatic movement approaches with young people at Durham University with the aim of developing increased awareness of their bodies and stress. Yoga for Mental Health the group program developed by Christina Browning (therapeutic yoga teacher) and myself is similar as it uses somatic practices to improve mental health.

Our joint presentation introduced our different approaches to this work and then started a dialogue with other psychotherapists that are engaged in this space. After the talk an experiential yoga session was led by Roni Miteff to demonstrate the integration (as our Christina Browning was holding the fort back home).

Reflections from the conference were encouraging. There is an increased recognition from practitioners that they need to integrate somatic approaches with cognitive talking therapy.

Why? The field of psychology and psychotherapy has been heavily based on ‘talk therapy’. It focuses primarily on using a ‘top down’ approach to understanding ourselves by analysing our thoughts and feelings. Practitioners have become highly skilled at applying these interventions, but in doing so many recognise that they have forgotten their bodies. 

By focusing on ‘top down’ approaches we are at risk of reducing our human experiences to thoughts, feelings and words. We forget the significance of our bodies, senses and physical experiences. Psychotherapy and psychology ais now recognising the fundamental importance of the mind-body connection in shifting underlying unhelpful patterns, and there is a growing interest in integrating somatic approaches.

This means using breath and movement as a way to develop increased awareness of our experiences, bodies and patterns. These can be called ‘bottom up’ processes as they harness the power of regulating breath through diaphragmatic breathing practices that engage our parasympathetic nervous system, increasing our ability to respond positively to stress.

Movement practices also provide opportunities to regulate our physiological systems.

The Yoga for Mental Health program provides a workbook to participants. It includes theory and information about yoga practices and how they can improve mental health, and integrates this with the language and learnings from psychotherapy.

The workbook is an example of how practitioners can give clients additional information as they go through therapy, supporting them to integrate both top-down and bottom-up approaches. For more information on Yoga for Mental Health go to www.yogaformentalhealth.co

We were overwhelmed by the positive response from our international cohorts. Italian, Swedish, English, Indian and Irish colleagues all made contact at the conference and were interested in running similar programs in their mental health services.

We are heartened by this new space that therapists are moving towards. Engage in both approaches will surely improve therapy outcomes for all.

Some key pieces of literature to further support your understanding in this area are in the references below.

Weintraub, A. (2012). Yoga skills for therapists: Effective practices for mood management. WW Norton & Company.

Sullivan, M. B., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonaz, S., Noggle Taylor, J., & Porges, S. W. (2018). Yoga therapy and polyvagal theory: the convergence of traditional wisdom and contemporary neuroscience for self-regulation and resilience. Frontiers in human neuroscience12, 67.

Forfylow, A. L. (2011). Integrating yoga with psychotherapy: A complementary treatment for anxiety and depression. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy/Revue canadienne de counseling et de psychothérapie45(2)

Ways to Engage Breath to Manage your Stress

Our nervous system (autonomic nervous system) has two modes: the “flight or fight” response (when we are anxious, fearful, angry, or a bit stressed – sympathetic nervous system), and the “rest and digest” mode (when we are relaxed, unconcerned, and feel more at peace with things as they are – parasympathetic nervous system). As individuals and as a society, we are pretty much always in hyperdrive – the “flight or fight” response. Our individual and collective nervous systems are way out of balance. This is not ideal, as the “rest and digest” mode maintains a homeostasis, and relaxes and repairs the body’s systems. Bringing our body to a state of “rest and digest” through practices such as breath practices is important for our optimal mental and physical health

One of the simplest and quickest ways to manage stress and anxiety is to look towards managing our breath. Breath is the life-force that keeps us going and is also the key to managing our nervous system. Try breath practice to slow yourself down and manage your stress.

Notice your breath as you exhale. Shut your mouth when you do this exercise and focus on breathing through your nose. Notice how you exhale and count as you focus on the out breath. No need to focus on the inhale this will happen naturally.

Notice the number you count to as you breath out and on the next round try and slow your breathing down further stretching out the number so it takes longer. For example if you counted to 4 on the out breath, stretch it out and count to 5.

Notice that as you do this you become more calm and relaxed. Do this for a few rounds and then after you have expelled your breath notice the pause between the out breath and the in breath. See if you can count this here. Engage in a few more rounds, counting the out breath and starting the counting again at the pause spot before you breath in. See if you can extend this number in the next round.

It may look something like this

Exhale 4 counts, Pause 2 counts, Inhale,Pause.

Exhale 5 counts, Pause 3 counts, Inhale, Pause.

Exhale 5 counts, Pause 4 counts, Inhale, Pause. Try this for a few rounds.