Body to Soul: A Talk on Self-Care with Carol Holguin
With Mother’s Day just behind us, I’ve been thinking about modern motherhood with all its stressors and sources of anxiety. Moms these days are so in need of self-care and rest and healing, but we often don’t know where to start with taking better care of ourselves. So, in honor of all the moms who are stretched too thin and somehow still giving from an empty well, I asked Carol Holguin (certified massage therapist, certified Trauma Touch Therapist, and my own mother) about the body-centered approach she created for coping with anxiety and trauma.
She calls it Body to Soul™. And it’s not just for moms! If you ever feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, this approach can help you build stress-resilience and give you tools for coping when things get tough. Our interview covers the basics of what Body to Soul™ is, why it works, and how you can implement parts of this approach to regain harmony in your own life.
Melanie Sweeney: You call your body-centered approach to dealing with anxiety and trauma a "body to soul" approach. Can you explain what that means and why centering the body first is such an essential component?
Carol Holguin: Have you ever tried reducing anxiety with "mind over matter" techniques? Trying to think your way out of overwhelm is like trying to jump on a merry-go-round while it is spinning super-fast.
The body's nervous system is a self-maintaining feedback loop. When the brain communicates a possible threat, it activates a series of responses to prepare the body to meet the threat (stress response), raising heart rate and respiration through a flood of adrenaline, creating alertness through a flood of cortisol, preparing the muscles to move through a flood of glucose. These reactions are physical, and they are automatic. Normally, as the threat passes, the reactions subside, returning the body to a natural, neutral state (relaxation response).
With on-going stress, your body never fully recovers, never fully returns to neutral, leaving you feeling hyper-vigilant, tense, and edgy (elevated heart rate and respiration). You’re more easily triggered because the stress response is already activated, so you may begin to feel anxious, irritable, and restless.
Body to soul focuses on activating the body's natural ability to heal through the relaxation response. A body (and mind) in overwhelm cannot function at its full potential. The part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) that houses higher reasoning, problem-solving, and the ability to be in the present while imagining future potential (creative thinking) gets hi-jacked by the primitive survival-focused Amygdala when under stress. So, to access your most creative thinking, you need to turn off the alert, return to neutral. My Body to soul approach gently leads you from stress to relaxation, activating the body's natural responses. The effects may be felt immediately, and practice of the techniques can have long-reaching effects on physical, mental, and creative health.
MS: Your history includes massage therapy, counseling, and Trauma Touch Therapy, but also coaching swimming, running spas, and more. How did your career/personal history inform the body-centered approach you've developed?
CH: I've always been fascinated by the body-mind connection. For me, it always comes back to the body. Coaching swimming gave me the understanding of how feel for the water – awareness of body mechanics, positioning, and making small adjustments to improve efficiency – may lead to greater efficiency and performance.
As a massage therapist, I help to relieve tension and educate my clients about posture, movement, and body awareness to prevent patterns of pain and tension from recurring. But these patterns develop over years and may hold emotional charge, or memory. Though the release of both physical and emotional patterns may lead to insight as well as physical relief, release is random, so the results are difficult to duplicate.
I returned to college in my forties to earn a counseling degree, to better support my clients in this process of changing patterns. What I found from counseling clients with chronic pain and psychiatric issues, was that in each case, the person had somehow disconnected from their body. In the case of chronic pain, the client may feel betrayed by her body, and therefore may try to numb out or detach. In the case of mental illness, stress has played a contributing factor, and may have been caused by prolonged or traumatic stress, leading to a breakdown of mental functioning.
Managing resort spas gave me an appreciation for the subtle nuances of self-care. Not just in the soothing environment – soft lighting, aromatherapy, dreamy music – but the treatment rituals of caring for the body, the service provider's presence, the flow from the outside world into relaxation and the slow ascent back to the outside world, renewal of that something inside that allows us to get up and engage with our world again.
My training and experience with Trauma Touch Therapy(TM) truly put it all together for me. If the body is not relaxed, the mind will not relax either. It is the neuroscience, the physical component of the nervous system, that holds the key to helping people return to a neutral, natural state. Pulling all of this together, I created a system that gives you tools and techniques to engage with your body in a simple way.
MS: There are many sources of pressure and anxiety in our everyday lives. I'm thinking specifically about the hyper-perfectionism of modern parenting, but there are also career obligations, financial stress, relationship intricacies, and the wider scope of socio-political issues to contend with, in addition to the usual "baggage" we accumulate through living. What kinds of issues or patterns can body to soul work address? Who can benefit from the techniques and coaching you offer?
CH: I believe this work can be beneficial to anyone who is seeking to de-stress, simplify, and live more authentically. Think of it this way, if you could release the anxiety of perfectionism, obligations, all the outside influences that tell you who and what and how to be, wouldn't life be more enjoyable? Some of the patterns that may be relieved through the techniques and coaching include:
- Negative or restrictive thinking
- Anxiety, restlessness, irritability
- Lack of motivation, drive, or direction
- Physical pain, tension, weakness or imbalance
- Sleep issues
MS: Your GRACE program lays a foundation for your group and personal coaching, kind of like a boot camp for the work that follows. Can you break down the components of GRACE and talk about the kinds of results this initial work can produce?
CH: GRACE is an acronym for Grounding, Relaxation, Awareness, Curiosity, and Expansion. It is the basis for engaging with the body consciously. Grounding shifts your focus gently from head space (thinking) into your body (physical presence). Using your breath and physical sensations present in your body, you begin to connect, to sink into, to deepen your footing in the present moment. When you are grounded, you are present to what is – your senses, your connection to the immediate environment, your sensations in your body – rather than future worries, or past regrets.
Relaxation is just that, the activation of the body's relaxation response. Your breathing slows, your heart slows, creating a sense of peace. Tension and alertness begin to subside, deepening the feeling of relaxation. Improved digestion and sleep are two of the most common immediate benefits from relaxation, but continued practice may lead to the prevention of stress-related illness, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure.
In the Awareness phase, we begin to notice, through sensation, how your body communicates with you. You explore your body's unique cues, alerts, and needs, helping you to feel better able to respond and prevent escalated reactions. You learn to sit with sensations, to follow the body's guidance, and to explore without judgment. This may lead to release of holding patterns or trauma. This is where we make subtle shifts that may have cascading effects on how we think and perceive the world.
Curiosity is the mindset we embrace. It opens, softens, and loosens our rigid thinking and allows us to begin to play and wonder again. We may begin to engage more curiosity in our relationships, our routines, or our thoughts about ourselves.
Expansion is the result of release. When restrictions are released, we may feel a sense of opportunity, of options that we were not aware of. When faced with a choice we may check in with which option helps us feel more expansive. This is a good indicator of direction for growth rather than protection.
GRACE is like a boot camp for on-going practice. Once you feel comfortable with the techniques, they become a natural part of your daily living. People often feel deeply relaxed, in body and mind, and hopeful after a Body to Soul™ Primer workshop. As part of my 10-week Coaching program, we practice the GRACE techniques to give a foundation for continued exploration. The comments I hear after the first few weeks are about sleeping better, naturally locating tension or stress in their body, and allowing their body to guide them in situations that used to trigger anxiety or panic.
MS: You've designed and taught a 10-week group Body to Soul™ class that includes components of self-care, creativity, and meaning-making. To me, it sounds like you are guiding participants through a transformational journey that follows a trajectory from the inner/personal to the outer/community. Can you talk about that journey and the goals or objectives of the class?
CH: My 10-week coaching program starts with GRACE techniques to give the foundation. From there we create a personal roadmap of our experiences, making meaning of and honoring the path we have walked. This module also helps us clarify our strengths, challenges, values, and dreams. We then create a personal self-care practice to address our imbalances and to build stress-resilience. I see self-care as support for our dreamed life. If we are acting on our own behalf towards building the life we truly desire and envision, we will naturally gravitate towards activities and environments that support those goals. The Creativity module expands on the self-care module as we begin to explore areas where we are attracted. We look at the creative cycle and places where we might get stuck. And for those who don't believe they have a creative bone in their body, this module usually sparks a new-found joy and excitement. The final module is living your legacy and engaging in the community. Legacy is your gift. It is what people are reminded of when you are not here. It is what you leave behind as a contribution to the world. We explore the concept of calling as it pertains to legacy, and we engage in the community in a shared project.
The process is transformative and enlightening. As a group, we create a community presence with each other, as supportive and compassionate witnesses to each other’s life. And I am awed by it, over and over!
MS: At Cushy, we talk a lot about community, creativity, and wellness, all of which seem to be essential cornerstones of your coaching. Do you have any tips or strategies for readers who may be struggling with anxiety, stress, lack of focus, or feelings of being out of harmony with their purpose/personal vision?
CH: Tips and strategies. Yes!
1. Read Bessel Van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score for the science of trauma and the basis for a "bottom-up" approach to healing trauma and stress.
2. Slooooooow down! Spend a few moments focusing on your breath. Notice where your body expands as you inhale. Notice the exhale. Elongate the exhale, exhaling fully. Notice the depth of your next inhalation. Repeat this process for 10 breath cycles, easing into a slower respiration gradually. Allow your body to soften and become heavier. This is a great start for learning to ground and relax and practice awareness.
3. When feeling agitated, look around you and begin to notice colors, textures, sounds, movements. Name them out loud. This exercise is enhanced when practiced outside in nature, as there is so much more to see.
4. During your next massage, or while soaking in the tub, check in with your body's sensations. Breathe into places that hold tension and notice the results.
5. Take an honest look at your life. Where are you feeling out of balance, or out of harmony? Especially in the areas of physical, mental/intellectual, emotional/spiritual, creative/work, financial, sexual, relationships. It's hard to make changes when you don't know where to start.
6. When making changes, start small. Small changes can have cascading effects when they are focused on creating alignment with balance, wholeness, and your gifts. I have a client who wanted to make changes in her diet and exercise. She said she started with seeing what she could ADD to her daily nutrition, rather than focusing on losing weight or removing things. She began by adding more water and adding at least one vegetable daily. Small steps create a sense of accomplishment and do-ability.
7. Look at your community and how you can share your gifts to fill a need. Do you have extra time on your hands that you could volunteer at a shelter? Do you have outgrown clothes, toys, books that might be donated to a school or hospital? Is there a community garden where you might take a gardening class to help create a more nurturing environment, or a vegetable garden at home to nurture your family? Can you teach a class, or create a program that fills a need? Your gifts and talents are a precious component to changing the world. Explore, collaborate, and see what happens!
MS: Right now you work primarily in person with clients. Do you have any resources or upcoming classes/retreats for those who want to do this work, including those who aren't local to you?
CH: Yes! For a free introduction to some grounding, relaxing and awareness-building exercises, take my Body to Soul™ 7-Day Challenge.
I am working on an online Body to Soul™ Coaching Program. I expect to launch June 1st.
In addition, I offer weekend retreats for an intensive immersion experience. And my Body to Soul™ Primer is a 4-hour workshop focusing on the GRACE process only. I am currently looking at different locations for workshops and retreats and am open to suggestions.
I have an amazing 8-day retreat planned for Florence, Italy, for March 2019. We will spend time in the morning exploring the concepts and practice, then go into Florence for a cooking lesson, art lesson, museum and historical tour, spa treatments, and a perfume-making tour and workshop – activating relaxation, creativity, and community in one of the most beautiful places in the world!
I offer local in-person groups in Irvine, CA. The next will be starting June 2nd, and I offer both in-person or skype/phone call individual coaching. Anyone interested can see my website for more information.
Carol Holguin is a certified Massage Therapist (CAMTC 49218) and Certified Trauma Touch Therapist™ (TTT 15205). She lives in Irvine, California, with her partner in life and travel. She has visions of creating a more compassionate and light-hearted world, body to soul. Please visit https://carolholguin.com for more information.