Body psychotherapy, a branch of therapy that focuses on the interactions between the body and the mind, is founded on the principle of the body and mind working in functional unity. Drawing from several branches of science and psychology, this approach to treatment is a versatile therapy that can be utilized in both individual and group therapy approaches.
Body psychotherapy incorporates touch, breathing, and movement techniques to address a wide range of mental and physical health concerns that may lead people to seek therapy.
Grounded in psychoanalysis, body psychotherapy was developed by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a longtime student of Sigmund Freud. He channeled his interest in the interplay between body and mind into the establishment of a set of body-oriented psychotherapeutic concepts and techniques. He noticed that certain life experiences manifested themselves in characteristic ways and, adopting the term "character armor" to refer to these physical and emotional manifestations, Reich developed a range of techniques that addressed both the body and the mind for the purpose of treatment. This work, which Reich termed character analysis, laid the foundation for the practice of “vegetotherapy,"which is now typically referred to as body psychotherapy.
Wilhelm Reich’s vegetotherapy approach was rejected by the field of psychoanalysis, and his concept of therapeutic touch was considered controversial. Reich published Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933 and in 1936 was excluded from the International Society of Psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, Reich’s ideas inspired the development of several branches of body psychotherapy, including bioenergetic analysis, biosynthesis, and Hakomi, to name a few.
Today, body psychotherapy is practiced in many forms by therapists around the world. Associations such as the European Association of Body Psychotherapy (EABP) and the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (USABP) oversee the field of body psychotherapy and offer training to interested professionals.
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Body psychotherapy, which is considered a branch of somatic psychology, is based on the concept that people experience the world not only through their thoughts and emotions but also simultaneously through their bodies.
This approach to treatment is considered to be more experiential than traditional forms of therapy. Among its influences are Gestalt psychology, dance therapy, art therapy, family systems, biology, neurology, and Far Eastern philosophy.
Essential Concepts of Body Psychotherapy
- Bodymind: Perhaps the most foundational concept of body psychotherapy, the bodymind represents the embodied integration of thoughts, feelings, and physical bodily experiences and sensations. All parts of a person can be accessed at various points in treatment in order to effectively and holistically address concerns.
- Armoring and Character: Armoring is a concept developed by Reich. He believed people developed systems of bodily “armor,” or muscle tension/rigidity, in order to protect themselves from emotional and physical pain. These sets of armor contribute to the development of a person’s “character," according to Reich and his followers, who developed five character types to use during assessment.
- Energy: The concept of energy is central to the application of body psychotherapy. Energy stored in and released from the body plays an important role in how people carry themselves, experience and heal from pain, and interact with the world. Things like energy flow and release, muscle pulsation and contraction, and energy charge and discharge are all things body psychotherapists pay attention to throughout treatment.
- Body Memory: This is the controversial premise that memories can actually be stored within the body. Body psychotherapists believe that because of this, some memories cannot be processed through talk therapy, but that these traumatic memories and problematic tension can often be released through bodywork and other physical techniques.
- Trauma: Body psychotherapy’s concept of trauma aligns with that of body memory, proposing that traumatic experiences can create energy build-up, or blockages, that lead to physical and mental health concerns.
When a person begins body psychotherapy, the first session might follow a format similar to a talk therapy session. The therapist will typically first conduct assessments to gather information about presenting concerns, interpersonal relationships, and the person’s experiences with loss, trauma, and abuse. The therapist will also utilize body reading, an assessment technique that helps identify how a person’s body might be communicating crucial information.
Once the presenting concerns have been identified and the goals for treatment established, the therapist will employ various techniques designed to bring about a heightened awareness of both the body and mind. These chosen techniques are tailored to meet each person’s unique set of needs based upon the presenting mental health concerns, observations of the body, and the person’s capacity for insight and awareness.
- Centering: The therapist helps the person look inward and stabilize from the inside out.
- Grounding: The therapist asks the person in therapy to attune themselves to the flow of energy from their body to the ground. Stretching, vibration, and breathing exercises are taught to the person in treatment in order to help them experience a sense of connection to this flow of energy.
- Contact and Bodywork: The therapist uses therapeutic touch to call attention to body tension, encourage relaxation, or support the person's work in adjusting to safe touch. This practice might include techniques that range from a reassuring hand on the shoulder to biodynamic massage. Bodywork can also come in the form of dance/movement therapy interventions.
- Breathwork: Based on the assumption that people sometimes stop breathing when they want to block feelings, breathwork techniques support people in reconnecting with their breath to bring about balance and relaxation.
A number of mental health professionals throughout the world offer body psychotherapy and similar forms of treatment. In the United States, the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy maintains the standards for the application and use of body psychotherapy. Professionals who want to add body psychotherapy to their practice can choose from several programs that offer specialized training in body psychotherapy models. Programs are available at:
- Institute of Core Energetics
- International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis
- Hakomi Institute
- Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute
Master’s degree programs are also offered at certain higher education institutions around the United States. These include:
- MA in Counseling Psychology/Somatic Concentration at the California Institute of Integral Studies
- MA/PhD degree program in Depth Psychology with Emphasis in Somatics Studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute
- Master of Science program in Counseling with a Concentration in Somatic Psychology at Prescott College
Because body psychotherapy involves intimate work dealing with touch and movement, it is recommended that potential participants make certain the person helping them is a trained professional.
This holistic approach to treatment works to address concerns of the mind and body as one. Proponents of the approach believe that many issues impacting emotional well-being result from continuous repression of traumatic or harmful memories, which are held in the body. These effects may then be experienced through as physical concerns—headaches, insomnia, fatigue, chronic pain—through what is known as somatization. They might also have an impact on daily function, affecting a person's relationships, intimacy, or mood.
People who have experienced trauma or abuse may find that body psychotherapy helps them find an alternative approach to working through the negative impact and lingering effects of these occurrences. This therapy may also be beneficial to people who are attempting to recover from substance abuse or addiction or who have experienced a significant loss.
Recent research has also found body psychotherapy to be one potential method of treating anxiety. A study published in 2009 demonstrated greater improvement in participants who received affect-focused body psychotherapy than in those who received the standard treatment. Some researchers believe body psychotherapy may work well for anxiety-related issues because anxiety is experienced both physically and emotionally, and the physical and emotional work conducted in body psychotherapy can help people relieve the tension they experience as a result of their anxiety.
Since its early dismissal by the field of psychoanalysis, the field of body psychotherapy has come a long way in terms of its recognition as a viable therapy for the treatment of mental health conditions. As a whole, the field has been motivated to uphold ethical standards, facilitate empirical research, and further establish itself as an evidence-based practice. However, more scientific evidence is needed to lend greater support to the efficacy of body psychotherapy.
In addition, the use of touch is still controversial: people in therapy who have difficulty with appropriate boundaries and/or safe forms of touch might be at risk for harm. Therapists also risk using touch to meet their own needs rather than the needs of those in therapy.
Because body psychotherapy by its nature is designed to retrieve early emotional experiences and trauma, the potential for retraumatization or damaging regression does exist. Working with experienced, certified clinicians can protect against potential risks, in body psychotherapy or any other form of mental health treatment.
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- Levy Berg, A., Sandell, R., & Sandahl, C. (2009). Affect-focused body psychotherapy in patients with generalized anxiety disorder: Evaluation of an integrative method. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 19(1), 67-85.
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- Thielen, M. (2013, August 5). Body psychotherapy for anxiety disorders. International Body Psychotherapy Journal, 13(2), 44-60. Retrieved from http://usabp.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/IBPJ-volume-13-No2Fall2014.pdf
- Totton, N. (2003). Body psychotherapy: An introduction. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.
- What is body psychotherapy? (2005). Retrieved from http://www.bodypsychotherapist.co.uk/body-psychotherapy.htm