Focusing with Small Physical Ailments

By Barbara McGavin

This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of The Focusing Connection.

I have been using Focusing with colds, eczema, insect bites and other small physical ailments. I know that these are not big things in the world of physical ailments; however, I tend to be pretty healthy. I have wondered for a long time why it was necessary to distinguish between different kinds of body sensations (as in, “This is a felt sense that will open and this is just indigestion or a bruise.”). So I decided that I would treat all body sensations as possible felt senses until nothing happened. I use Inner Relationship Focusing in which we relate to our experiencing as if it is somebody with intelligence, emotions, reason, wisdom. So when I start to feel a cold coming on – I get a scratchy tickly raw feeling in the back of my throat – I turn to it as if it someone wanting my attention. I greet it (sometimes I even say hello to it) and start to sense it in all its particulars. I feel it in as much detail as I can, describing it for a little while. The description at this point is in words like: scratchy, up near the back almost into my nose, prickly, etc.

Although the description is important, the bit that seems to be magical – ie. if this happens the symptom tends to disappear very quickly (within minutes usually) – is when I can feel the emotional quality that this brings with it. And that requires my sensing empathically for how it is feeling. This is very different from sensing how I am feeling about it. I may be feeling irritated or worried that I am getting a cold – but it may be feeling worn out or sad or angry about something. I must stress that I am not trying to find meaning here – I am sensing into that place and noticing what comes as I sit with it and keep it company. The key really does seem to be when I get the emotional feeling within the body sensation. Things move so fast when that happens.

Another little vignette: When I was in Maryland a couple of years ago we were in a shady and beautiful grove of trees – and I wound up getting bit by mosquitoes and who knows what. I haven’t lived in a country where I get bitten enough to have any kind of natural immunity for twenty years. The last time mosquitoes got me about a year ago, I had those huge white weals all over me and they itched for days. The bites started itching and I decided to see whether Focusing with them would do anything. So I sensed into them and I could feel that in and behind the itchy place there was a feeling of intense irritation. It was like my body was screaming “get these off me!” I felt that and really acknowledged how irritated my skin felt from these bites. It felt like the histamine reaction was an attempt to do that. About five minutes later I looked down and the little red marks that had started to form had disappeared – and there was no itching.

There was only one fairly major kind of physical injury that I have had that I used this with – a badly sprained ankle (the doctor said that I would not be able to walk on it at all for about two weeks). I kept Focusing company with it in the same way that I have described. I sensed that it felt really vulnerable and wanted me to be very gentle with it. The image that I got was of a crying child that needed comfort and care. I asked it what kind of care it needed and tried to give it what it asked for. I was walking on it within about four or five days and it was virtually completely OK within about three weeks.

If I have been working very hard during the day and not listening to my body enough, by the evening I sometimes have overstretched myself and feel like I have hit a brick wall. When that happens I sometimes stop and simply feel the tired – how that lives in my body right now. I may take five minutes to do that. Instead of trying to soothe myself in all the various ways that could be possible, I just surrender to it for that time. I close my eyes and feel in detail where it is in my body, how it feels, and I am open to any meanings that may come but at that point I don’t do anything other tha acknowledge it as it is and let it know I am open. Usually after about five minutes I feel considerably refreshed. I then sense whether it is okay to go on or whether I need to stop for the day.

As I have been playing around with this approach to “physical symptoms” over the past few years, something deeper and more important has occurred than just having a way of respectfully interceding when an cold begins. It is really about dissolving the split between “sentient body” and “mechanical body.” This impacts on my life at the deepest levels. It would be easy to use this as a technique for healing physical symptoms and miss what is important here. The point is not about relieving physical symptoms; that is a benefit but it is a side-effect. I do this to be whole and to strengthen within myself the experience of sentient embodiment. This is so contrary to how our culture views and treats the body. I need a multitude of experiences to counteract that so that I know in my bones this different truth. So every time I experience something which could be seen as just a physical symptom, I now turn to it as a sentient someone trying to get my attention for some good reason.

Barbara McGavin may be reached at 43 Oriel Grove, Southdown, Bath BA2 1JE England. E-mail: