Body Psychotherapy: Understanding the Body’s Response to Emotion

A man-shaped silhouette is made out of trees.Human beings are fascinating bio-psycho-social organisms. What makes up a person? Traditional psychotherapy works toward congruence in a person’s thinking, emotions, and actions/reactions. There are many therapeutic techniques that have been developed over time to explore and improve these aspects of our life. We do exist on several levels simultaneously, but are we limited to thoughts, emotions, and actions? If we look at life and the human experience, we see that there are five basic levels on which we function. These levels include the intellect and thought, emotions and actions, and the physical realm—the level of the body. Many people also acknowledge something larger, something beyond ourselves and the seen world, that contributes to our life force. For some people, the spiritual realm is considered an additional level of existence.

Therefore, a person is a psychosomatic unity (psyche plus soma, meaning physical) that exists on all five levels. Body-oriented therapy (Somatic approaches, core energetics, core evolution, bioenergetics, biodynamics) understands that the body is profoundly affected by our life experiences, and the body, in turn, affects our future.

A person is a psychosomatic unity on five levels of existence. These five levels are interrelated; though they are separate and function independently, they also work together. They are informed by one another and, together, they make up the whole person. They are formed by and affected by many forces such as genetics, culture, family history, and personal experience—especially early life experiences that occur when we are the most vulnerable. Additionally, our experience on these five levels are being co-created all of the time. They can be influenced and changed. This is what gives therapy the potential to be fruitful. Body psychotherapy works on all of these levels in order to have a strong chance for long-term benefits. Many body-oriented therapies also take into consideration the developmental stage at which a person is impacted. They aim to discover how one’s experiences lead to their present request for help.

Our awareness, the skill we have to make sense of and use the information that comes to us, is a large part of what is impacted in therapy. Because the five levels of existence are intrinsically related, each one is a gateway to the others. Let’s look at the level of emotion and see how it relates to the other levels. Emotions are experienced in our bodies, we perceive our emotion through the movement of energy in the body resulting in physical sensations. Emotions actually have a physiological component to them. Think of the language we use to depict emotion. We state we have “butterflies in our stomach” or that someone is a “pain in the neck.” We really actually feel the sensation of pain in our heart muscle over love gone astray when we are “heartbroken.” These physical cues can help us to become aware of our emotional life if we are out of touch.

Emotions are exactly this: energy in motion. The function of energy is to accomplish work. Think about a young child’s capacity to allow emotion. One minute a child is playing happily, and when something frustrating or hurtful happens, he or she expresses frustration or tears (if the child is in a safe environment). In just a short while, after the energy has moved, the child goes right on playing. Given the opportunity, we are constantly learning and using information from the emotion. Emotions are generated from a stimulus. The work of expressing emotions is to move the energy, created by the reaction, to the stimulus outside the body. From there, other levels of our being become aware of the experience. From this learning, a belief will develop that leads to action. For example, if the child became frustrated or hurt by a particular game, he or she is more likely to choose a different game the next time. Thus, pain in the body (say the cat scratched him/her) affects the emotion (wahhh!), which affects the thoughts (bad toy!), and affects his or her actions (avoid that game). Here, we can see the interconnectedness of all of the levels of existence.

All of our experiences are recorded in the body as images. When an experience is not fully processed on all five of the levels, blocks may occur and lead to distortions of perception on one level or each of the levels. This, in turn, leads to incongruence in our lives, either between the levels or between the person’s perception of the present moment. Body psychotherapy is a fluid way of working between the levels to identify and release old images, attitudes, and experiences held in our system that affect our life choices and patterns. Body psychotherapy opens and energizes the system and allows people to have new experiences and to make substantial changes in their lives.

© Copyright 2009 by Aylee Welch, LICSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Arthur

    October 17th, 2009 at 2:11 AM

    Its no doubt that our physical and psychological ‘units’ are inter-related and have to work in perfect tandem for us to be fine. If any one of the units malfunctions, we will experience problems in almost all of the units.

  • Derek

    October 18th, 2009 at 12:40 PM

    There are many people who have a difficult time with processing things beyond the tangible here and now. I happen to be one of those people.

  • Aylee Welch, LICSW

    October 19th, 2009 at 8:36 AM

    So Derek I am wondering, does that make this approach seem more accessible to you or less appealing?

  • Rachel

    October 19th, 2009 at 10:28 AM

    The body is a complex combination of a lot of things that are not quite obvious to us. It consists of various layers that function together and any problem with any one layer is bound to have effect on the others. Maintaining peace and tranquility in life, staying away from conflict and tension and helping others does enough to maintain each of the layers and life will be a much better experience to live:)

  • Dr. Erica Goodstone

    October 22nd, 2009 at 9:01 PM

    Our bodies don’t lie and they provide us with answers to most of our concerns, if we truly listen. So many people think there is a split between mind and body, falsely believing that their thoughts don’t affect their body or that their body is just not cooperating with their desires – but it always is.

  • Aylee Welch, LICSW

    October 26th, 2009 at 8:05 AM

    Yes and now with the new research in neurobiology we are understanding that the “mind” is not just in the brain but in the entire system. It really supports slowing down the process and paying attention to what is happening on every level and letting them all “weigh in” in order to assimilate an experience.

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