Psychotherapy and the Body Part 1

By JUDITH ASHTON


Everything you have ever seen, heard, touched, experienced, tasted, smelled,
 thought, or felt is still with you here in the present. You are the sum total of all
 your experiences and you carry all with you not just in your psyche but in your
 posture, your muscles, your expressions, your eyes, your breathing, totally, in the
actual physical structure of your body and in the way you use you use your vital energy. 
Indeed total recall of any past experience is possible, instantaneously given the
 correct bodily stimulus. How marvellous it would be there was a single key to 
this complex lock, but unfortunately this isn’t the case and it ‘s not that easy.

So if the body is the lock, what are the keys? The answer to this question, I 
believe, is energy and emotions. At the very beginning of psychoanalysis the crucial realisation of a relationship between psychic-illness and emotional energy was found. 
If energy could be discharged, then psychic-illness would not necessarily occur.

I trained as a Reichian psychotherapist after being in therapy myself, (I’d been in
 purely verbal analysis and it took me a long time to realise why I got crashing 
headaches after purely verbal sessions!) and many of the modern trends in
 psychotherapy and humanistic psychology owe a great deal to Wilhelm Reich whose 
theories are more widely respected now than in his own lifetime. According to 
Reich’s character analysis theories most people can be classified predominantly as one 
psychological type or another. These types according to Reich, are not only expressed 
through thought processes but also through bodily attitudes and posture.

Character and Muscle Armour

To prevent us from experiencing psychological pain or physical pain in the past we 
unconsciously created defenses on both psychological and physical levels. These
 defenses, necessary at the time, he calls ‘armour’. Psychological defenses he termed
 ‘character armour’ and physical defenses he called ‘muscle armour’, He says 
’character armour’ and ‘muscle armour’ are completely inseparable and identical, and 
the implication, according to Reich, is that “every muscular rigidity contains the 
history and meaning of its origin”. That is to say, that when the individuals inhibit 
strong emotion – fear, rage, anger etc. and the energetic cycle of charge and discharge
 which should have been completed and expressed, gets repressed, that energy gets
 locked up in the psyche and the muscle structure – we hold stress mentally and bodily.

“The reality of the musculature” says Reich, “is the somatic side of the process of
 repression and the basis for its continued existence. It is not necessary to deduce from
 dreams or associations the way in which the muscular armour developed – rather the armour itself is the form in which the infantile experience continues to exist as a harmful agent.” He goes on to say that in terms of treatment “character attitudes may
be dissolved by the dissolution of muscular armour and conversely muscular attitudes 
by the dissolution of character peculiarities,”

Reich used the word ‘vegetotherapy’ which means any way of mobilising the
 energy and the emotions through the physical body, that means encouraging and 
supporting the client to express their emotions whether it be encouragement through 
talking, bodily expression, touch, movement or massage.

This is my background and as a therapist I could now no more ignore the impulses
and needs of the body than fly.

Ways of Breathing

Now what could be more integral to the body than breathing? As Frederic Leboyer, pioneer of natural birth, says, “breathing is the fragile vessel that carries us 
from birth to death, everyone breathes, but there are many ways of breathing.
 Whether breathing is free or impaired makes all the difference; many people go 
through their life half-strangled, incapable of a real sigh, much less a real laugh. To 
live freely is to breathe freely. Not just with the shoulders or the chest but with the
 abdomen, with the sides and with the back. Just as no two people have the same face, 
there are no two identical patterns of breathing. Each human being breathes in their 
own way – badly usually”.

All of us can learn to breath harmoniously and one of the most powerful keys to unlock the body’s energy blocks is an awareness of breathing. I see the breathing as 
the emotional barometer and the release of the diaphragm as the gateway to the 
unconscious. To quote Reich again, “The inhibition of respiration is the physiological mechanism of suppression and repression of emotion…..the inhibition of respiration 
has biologically speaking the function of reducing the production of energy in the 
organism and thus of reducing their production of anxiety.

So, so long as the breathing is held the emotions air held and energy is dammed 
up. What better way to keep emotional control than to take a breath and keep “it” all
 inside. Reich says, “without exception patients relate that they went through periods
 in their childhood when they learned to suppress their hatred, anxiety or love by way
 of certain practices which influenced their vegetative functions (such as, holding their breath, tensing their abdominal muscles etc.)”. This obviously creates emotional and
 physical inner pressure and this state of affairs is being taken more and more seriously 
by the medical profession and alternative practitioners who acknowledge the
 psychological aspects of physical diseases. Indeed, some people would say that all 
illness is the result of blocked energy and I would tend to agree.

At a recent lecture here in Dublin Dr. Bernie Siegal spoke of his work with cancer
 patients and cited case after case when the body’s own energies were released. One
 case was of a young man with a massive brain tumour – under intense, parental 
pressure he had chosen to become a doctor rather do ‘his thing’ and become a 
violinist He was told he had one year to live. He abandoned medicine – took up the
 violin and now years later is healthy and happily playing in an orchestra. These stories are NOT unusual. So what can we learn about ourselves from these stories? As 
Paul Brady, the song writer, says, “Someone else’s dreams will get you nowhere.”

The natural state of the physical body is health and balance and too much of one 
thing or too much of another throws that out. Too much emotional passivity, 
conforming, caring about the expectations of others etc. is as damaging as too much
 aggression, blame etc. We need to get in touch with our own needs, our own bodies, 
our own individuality, our own paths, and this can be a painful process. In therapy, we 
cannot change the past, but we can ensure that old patterns need not imprison us in 
the future. Freud said that most people arc acting out patterns that were laid down 
before we were five, so we need to break out, unlock the mechanisms, move towards 
freedom, and understand the concepts of responsibility and choice in the present – 
grounded in reality, grounded in our bodies.

This journey doesn’t need to take forever – we don’t have forever. If the release of
 emotional pressure is accompanied by release of physical pressure, for example
 expressing the feelings bodily, the held energy can begin to rebalance and settle in its 
natural pathways.

The Value of Massage

An extremely valuable combination in terms of releasing pent up energy is 
expressive body work, massage and counselling. If a person is undergoing a 
therapeutic process and a lot of energy is being released over a short period of time, this rebalancing process can be inhibited. The body can get emotionally and
 physically exhausted by too much provocation and not enough harmonisation.
 The beauty and value here of sensitive massage as an integral part of
 psychotherapy cannot be underestimated. I have often seen that during deep
 relaxation, insight and integration leading to emotional clearance can occur. A lot of 
emotional discharge can release old energies but that does not necessarily mean
 clearance of old energy patterns. 
Massage and direct touch can also in many cases trigger emotional release by
 linking in to the muscular armouring we spoke of at the start of this article. Massage 
is a versatile healing tool, a means of expressing care, concern, love and respect for a 
body and mind which have experienced pain and it can be used to re-energise the 
patient.

I leave the final conclusion to Plato, “The cure of the part should not be 
attempted without treatment of the whole, also no attempt should be made to cure 
body without soul, and therefore if the head and body are to be well you must begin
 by curing the mind. This is the great event of our day in the treatment of the human 
body, that physicians separate the soul from the body”. (Written circa 300 B.C.)

To be continued…