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Psychotherapy and the Body Part 1


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…

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