Topic: Mindfulness in intimate relationships

ERP 146 – How To Use The Mind-Body Connection To Improve Your Relationship, With Dr. Suzanne Midori Hanna

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is #146, How To Use The Mind-Body Connection To Improve Your Relationship, With Dr. Suzanne Midori Hanna. I’m so excited to share today’s guest; I feel that she is giving us a sneak peek, a reveal of what’s going on behind the therapeutic process in working with couples, helping them achieve healing and transformation in their relationship.

Before we get started, I just want to invite you to join me as we all center into the intention of this podcast. That is to improve our skillfulness and to improve the quality of our relationship. We are all on the path of seeking, and that seeking can be seeking authenticity, seeking healing, seeking expansion, and that really we all understand that relationship provides a really special, unique opportunity to connect in a deep way, but also to grow ourselves, as it will reflect a mirror; our partner will often present challenges to us at times that show a mirror to perhaps an area that we have not yet looked at or we have not developed in ourselves. That mirror, that signal will often feel difficult… Instead of reacting, the encouragement on this show  is to look at it with more consciousness and awareness to transform and heal.

If you have a question that you would like me to address in an upcoming podcast, you can reach me on my website. That’s You can find me on the  Contact page, all the ways to reach me there. Let’s get started with today’s episode.


Dr. Jessica Higgins: Susanne Midori Hanna, Ph.D. is a clinician, instructor, and author in couple and family therapy. Her work in medical family therapy has led to an ongoing interest in mind-body issues, mental health, and the neurobiology of cutting-edge couple and family therapy. She is the author of The Practice of Family Therapy: Key Elements Across Models, fifth edition and The Transparent Brain in Couple and Family Therapy: Mindful Integrations with Neuroscience.

Suzanne, I am so privileged to have you on the show and to say yes to doing this interview. I know you do a tremendous amount of training and educating, facilitating working with clients, and research, so I just feel so grateful to have an expert in the field of mindfulness sharing wisdom on our show today.

Dr. Susanne M. Hanna: Well, thank you, Jessica. It’s great to be with you. I’m certainly passionate about this topic, and I’m always looking for more ways to help couples have what they really want with each other.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Wonderful. I’m curious for you being an expert in the field of mindfulness, how did you get interested in the topic and how did you start?

Dr. Susanne M. Hanna: Well, I have this motto – it’s a cliché – never say never, because in my earlier practice days people would talk about, say, physiological monitoring… John Gottman, who’s a leader in our field – gosh, 25 years ago he was asking people to take deep breaths, and even having them take their pulse in some couples sessions… And I remember seeing a workshop of his and thinking “Oh, that would never be me. I wouldn’t do that. I’m a talk therapist, and I do this other stuff…”, so never say never, because as time went on, 5 years, 7 years, I’ve found myself in the medical family therapy world where I was working with a lot of primary care patients, and we had many people coming in with trauma, will all kinds of mind/body issues, whether it’s fibromyalgia or those kinds of things, chronic auto-immune diseases, and I began to see that all of my regular talk therapy was not necessarily going to help them, say, with a gunshot wound, or with some other pretty dramatic physical problems.

So I got interested, because I just was learning what I didn’t know. I find it just a wonderful thing when we can take and say to ourselves, “You know, I don’t know anything about this. I really need to look at this as an opportunity for growth.” So knowing what I didn’t know, I began seeing a way to learn more about all of this stuff.

So it really came first from trauma, but quickly I began to see that the couples that I work with and the marriages that I wanna try to help – they all are sprinkled with various degrees of trauma, so to speak… And if we use an expanded definition of that, it can be anything from people just kind of pushing each other’s buttons; well, that leads to these emotional triggers, who then kind of take on a life of their own… And I really had not paid much attention to the body’s role, those triggers. I thought about more as just kind of a consciousness kind of a thing that I would help people with. However, as life has gotten more complicated in our society and we have all kinds of people that have encountered a lot of different challenges that are mind/body, whether it’s our veterans and their marriages, or other people who have had unfortunate childhood and adult experiences, wounds of various types, plus just the regular conflict that married folks sometimes encounter with each other… There are these wounds that reach the point of having a physiological component.

So I just dived into all of this and began seeing that this was a whole other world that I wanted to incorporate into my regular practice of marriage and family therapy… And I’ve sort of then just not looked back, because the more I explore it, the more I see that this is really the way that both mental health and marriage and family therapy is going in the future. I think what you’re doing with these podcasts and the way that we now are putting the mind and the body together to solve problems really is changing the whole landscape of our service delivery system.

So that’s how I got into it, and now I think about the topic of mindfulness in general and how many directions we can go with that, and so I’ve began to for myself think “Okay, where do I fit into this huge landscape of mindfulness?” There’s clinic trials on mindfulness, everything from medical students and how their performance improves from eight weeks of mindfulness… There’s some early research that Jon Kabat-Zinn was a part of way back about 20 years ago where they actually did these pre and post brain scans; I’m a visual learner, and so just being able to picture this, I really got excited. They found that the eight weeks of mindfulness changed the density in these parts of the brain – one part is called the insula, that  has to do with helping us calm down… That they could actually see the changes after eight weeks.

So on a simple level, whatever I do with a couple now and whatever I encourage them to do, I’m always asking myself, “What can I do to help them do this for eight weeks?” If we can just get an eight-week window of repetition, they too would show up on a brain scan as having some increase in density.

I kind of go with this eight-week rule now, and what can I do about that — but it also got me really excited to see that we can educate our couples and have them visualize some of this stuff, so that it’s more than just a therapist saying “Oh, it would be a good idea if you did this for eight weeks”, but I’ve had some really nice experiences where… I actually have a power point that I show some people – I’m gonna be posting that, by the way, on the web. I’ll provide our audience with the link to that.

With one couple, once they heard about this and started understanding what was going on with them from a physiology point of view, then they really were very open to setting up this eight-week window where they would then be committed to a certain routine for eight weeks. That’s just kind of a superficial piece of that, but that then, as time has gone on, I’ve thought to myself and looked “Where does my practice of mindfulness fit in this larger area?” and I have to say that there is something that Pat Ogden calls “mindfulness of sensation.”

I first learned about it from Peter Levine’s work and through some training in Peter Levine’s work… The crux of it is we have the ability to be mindful of our bodily sensations. Yes, we can be mindful around a guided image that’s a pleasant, safe place, we can be mindful around a mantra – and I actually have some people do that; I’ll give some examples of this in a minute… But I think where I start now is asking people to become mindful of their body, mindful of sensations; people who know yoga, this is like a no-brainer for them, because that’s a lot of what yoga is – combining mindfulness with these sensations in the body, and being able to stay focused just on that.

For myself, I’ve found that my own practice of mindfulness – it somehow just fits for me to be able to kind of get in tune with my body overall, and get centered, and then kind of work out the kinks.

So that’s where I start, as mindfulness of sensation, and what my body can tell me. Say, when I’ve had people who have these marital difficulties, that’s the first thing that I do now – have them sit in the office together, get centered; I go through a process of having them just sit  and begin to do a scan of their body, and where they might feel a sensation.

Different people, obviously — it’s kind of like a little Geiger counter… Your mind becomes a mental laser beam is what I call it. This mental laser beam has power. And it isn’t just an analogy. I’ve actually now become a true believer after getting some training where I had a muscle spasm in my shoulder. I used to have a standard way that I would deal with that muscle spasm. During my trauma training that I did with Peter Levine’s group I began experimenting with just focusing my mind on that part of my body, and believe it or not, I could focus on my shoulder, on the spasm, on how it felt, and if I kept that mental laser beam there, the spasm would go away.

So I have my couples do that now, where I want them – and especially from a health perspective too, I want them to start not only becoming aware of their own bodily sensations… And we all do this anyway – if we’re hungry, if we need to relieve ourselves and go to the bathroom… There’s all kinds of ways that the human body is set up to send our conscious mind messages… But some of the more subtle stuff is where we get into both then these marital triggers and health problems in general.

The marital triggers – where are you feeling it right now in your body? When your partner pushes your button, where are you feeling that? What’s your sensation? Can you put your mind and focus your mind on that sensation for a minute? Let’s see what we learn.

There’s also a spirit of discovery and exploration that I want to introduce early on in the process, so that people aren’t just stuck complaining about each other, or stuck in their own emotional spasm, so to speak… Because whatever is going on in our minds, it is also going on somewhere in our bodies.

Those years ago, when I said “Oh no, that wouldn’t be me” when I saw Gottman doing this, it was because I didn’t have a frame for realizing that in fact changing our body can change our mind, using the body as one more avenue for how we can promote growth and change, and we’ve stayed so cognitive in the provision of mental health and couple therapy that I just think it’s time to start giving the body its just dues.

So that’s the mindfulness of sensation that I like to start with. Now, that leads often to mindfulness of emotion. There’s a form of couple therapy that’s been — it’s really the most researched model of couple therapy in the world, emotion focused couple therapy, that was developed by Dr. Susan Johnson and Leslie Greenberg up in Canada.

The emotion part of mindfulness for me is now looking at primary emotions – the emotions of attachment and survival. From this mindfulness sensation, very often then people can start getting in touch with what emotion comes up. So “Okay, my partner has pushed my button, he’s done it again. He makes me so mad when he starts to storm off and tell me that I’m all wet, and then I just go into a rage inside…” So what’s the sensation when you go into that rage, and where would you be feeling that rage? And for everybody it’s going to be different, the part of the body that really has that sensation.

Well, out of that sensation often then is the primary emotion. So  “Oh yes, I get enraged”, but that’s not necessarily a primary emotion; how is that related to the longing that you have for being with another person? Those attachment emotions are usually emotions of fear or abandonment, joy… Those emotions that come about from being connected. We might be fearing abandonment, or angry that our partner isn’t providing us with the security and the safe haven that we long for, and what the emotion focused therapy does is talk more about these emotions that every human being has, and the universal needs that we have for attachment. That isn’t just babies who need their diaper changed, all of us adults need and want a safe haven.

Now the attachment research and medical research is showing when you have a good marriage, you live longer; when you have a bad marriage, things go south with your health. So relationships, again, can take such a toll on us that we need to be attending to these attachment emotions. However, we don’t have much of a language for that, so then our bodies play that out. That’s why I start with the body – what’s the sensation? – and as we identify the sensation, there’s an invitation to just stay with it. Even though it may be a negative – it doesn’t feel good, it’s an uncomfortable sensation – let’s just stay with it and see what we learn.

If you can stay with, say, that spasm in your shoulder – or I had one gentleman whose neck would just get so stiff… Alright, focus your mind on your neck right there and let’s just see what happens if you keep your mind focused on it. The somatic experience in parts of that would be to help them keep their mind focused on it – what does it feel like? Does it have a color, or texture?

This is with his wife sitting there, and she’s gonna have her turn too, where then I’ll have a chance to work with her on wherever she might be getting triggered. In the process then, as he focuses on his neck, is there any particular word that might come out of that neck? I used to think of this as just simply an interesting technique… I don’t anymore. I actually mean it literally, because I’ve had it happen to myself, like with the shoulder spasm – words came out of my shoulder, and by that I mean once a person says “Are there any words, anything at all, a message coming out of your shoulder?”
For this gentleman, “Is there anything you think your neck is saying? What might it be saying? Are there any words that come to mind?” Now, people don’t always have words that come to mind, but quite often they do. In one case, a gentleman said “You know, I just need to get back to being who I used to be”, and that was his thought that came up.

Now, part of the trigger between him and his wife had been that she said “You know, you used to be so much fun, you used to be my best friend. What happened? We would joke together and laugh together… What is wrong now?” And certainly, there was a lot going on in their marriage that represented his transformation, but when I had them stop and start getting in tune with their body, it was pretty wonderful how the body does speak.

So then I went from that with him — we latched on to those words and we anchored them in the body. Again, this is all mindfulness of sensation, but it now includes emotion and intention. So when he said “You know, I need to get back to being that person that I used to be…” then I asked him to hold that thought and stick with that thought, and would he be willing to do some meditation each day over that thought. So it’s the wisdom of his body, I don’t have to come up with anything… All I have to do is try to be a tour guide, and sort of a coach, like the good work that you do, just helping him stick with this.

That’s a lot of the work that I’m doing these days – slowing the process down and helping people then not gloss over it. In talk therapy, he might have said that, I might have responded to it, “Oh, tell me more about that” and we might have explored it at the conscious level, and we were able to do that, but not before I also encouraged him and helped him consider putting that into practice with his body, where he then is going to meditate over that statement and allow his body to just embrace that statement again and take some breaths, see what your body feels like when you repeat that statement, and let your mind really take that in, and let your body take that in… So he began to do that.

This slowing down process – that’s the other piece that mindfulness has taught me – we really have so much that we can learn from our bodies if we will slow ourselves down and get to know ourselves through our body. Quite frankly, this just wasn’t a part of my life 20 years ago. I was just going at breakneck speed, and I didn’t have a way of shutting off the world and starting to just think about and listen to myself and to my body, which then enables me to listen more effectively to my partner… But listening to ourselves then certainly includes this mindfulness of sensation and listening to our body.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes. What I love, love, love about what you’re breaking down for us in this process is a path towards turning towards our experience, that may involve some discomfort and pain, but also gives a sense of wisdom and understanding at a very deep, holistic level, because we’re talking about the nervous system, we’re talking about a whole working model of attachment. And like you said earlier, Suzanne, if we’re caught up in protest and complaint, and taking issue with our significant other, we’re likely spinning in an endless, vicious cycle.

So what you’re really directing people to is this ability to have an inner turning towards that allows for the deeper level of understanding and the vulnerability even perhaps… You identified so succinctly not only the sensation that gives insight and awareness to what’s going on, but also the attachment, emotional experience, and the deep longing that often times we’re not fully conscious of. Like you said, if we’re going at light speed, we’re often distracted by the context, or the situation, and we’re not really giving the credence to this inner processing, to just start slowing down, and the mindfulness really gives a direct path… It’s almost like the elixir that allows for transformation.

Dr. Susanne M. Hanna: Yes, well said. And see, there is that caveat which is yes, it may be uncomfortable. People don’t necessarily have a good relationship with their bodies, and so there can be this discomfort… And even just a sense of “Why am I doing this? I’ve never done this before. This is all a bunch of sort of busy stuff, somebody’s [unintelligible 00:25:47.20] That’s why I like to try to provide enough education and explanation, so that my clients can start to see this as the beginning of a new lifestyle for them… Not just a band-aid in therapy, but sort of how we’ve learned to deal with weight management and things like that, that it needs to be a lifestyle change, not just simply a diet for X number of weeks.

The same way I think with mindfulness, with the marital struggles that we have, the struggles for intimacy and attachment that we have – those don’t get solved, in my opinion, from just simply four or five weeks of deciding to do something different, and then we’ll go back to our old routine. If it isn’t something that can be built in as a regular part of a new lifestyle, then we’re probably gonna go back to all of our old kinds of things, not to our greater good overall.

These little things then — I’ve had people come back to me some years later… I had a client the other day that I hadn’t spoken with for a couple of years, and she said “You know what, Dr. Hanna, I never forgot some of those things, and I couldn’t do them all right then, but now I’m in a place where I’m starting to do those on a regular basis.” With her, it was actually helping her do some mindfulness around what I believe are kind of the precursors to attachment, and that is love and safety. We can’t really have a secure base or be fully attached, connected to our partners unless we have a personal sense of love and safety.

Some of that obviously comes out of my background now working with trauma, but what’s wonderful about that is love and safety is something we can give ourselves… So I may do that also with couples that are really — maybe the best example is with infidelity; the couples who have been able to overcome their sense of betrayal and their sense of guilt from infidelity are those couples who take a long view of how to heal this, and a lot of times then both of them, I’ll start them out with this idea “I deserve love and safety.” There’s a lot of people that don’t believe that about themselves, for various reasons, and because of their personal demons they’ve never thought about it, number one, and number two, if you ask “Do you believe that you deserve love and safety?”, many people are just speechless.

So that’s the point – let’s plant some seeds about how every human who’s born on this earth deserves love and safety.


I hope you have enjoyed this interview with Dr. Suzanne Midori Hanna. I feel that she is truly giving us insight into a therapeutic process that genuinely shifts dynamics in a powerful way.  I hope you will stay tuned for the next episode to continue the conversation with Dr. Suzanne Midori Hanna.

If you would like access to the links she’s mentioned in today’s episode, you can find that on click on Podcast, and you can find the most recent episodes at the top. Today’s episode, again, is #146, How To Use The Mind-Body Connection To Improve Your Relationship, With Dr. Suzanne Midori Hanna.

If you have a question or are interested in getting more support, again, feel free to reach out to me via email, [email protected]. You can also find me on my website, which again is, click on Contact, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Until next time, I hope you take great care.


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