When I started researching embodied psychotherapy, I found there were many names associated with it such as: somatic, body orientated, holistic, psychosomatic, body psychotherapy. What do they all mean? The core principle of them all was how the mind and body are connected and how to incorporate the body into therapeutic treatments. For the remainder of this essay I will be referring to them as embodied psychotherapies.
Embodied psychotherapy was pioneered by Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst, who was interested in somatic experiences, disturbances and sexuality. In his first major paper and book, Character Analysis, he explained muscular defenses. He theorized ‘body armor’ of a person’s character as being both the repressed emotions and embodied tensions that make up a survival strategy for childhood conflicts. (Young, 2008, Schneider, Pierson, Bugental &Aanstoos, n.d.). In the early 20th century, the dominant view was atomistic. Associationism was popular within psychology (Wundt, V Helmholtz), the idea that you can boil things down to simple components in order to understand something. Gestalt theorists disagreed (Wertheimer, Koffka,Kohler), they believed you won’t understand human beings until you prioritise the ‘whole’ and only then can the ‘parts’ be defined. Before Reich, dualism was a dominant view; the mind and the body were seen as distinct separate entities.However, ‘body and mind came together for Reich and character analysis opened the way to a psycho-corporal approach’ ("The Reichian Therapy process – Body Psychotherapy", 2020).Other theorists went on to develop many branches of embodied psychotherapies that have been professionally distinguished such as: Bio-energetic Analysis, Biodynamic Psychotherapy/Massage, Somatic Experiencing (SE). Bio-energetic Analysis was founded by Alexander Lowen, a neo-reichian and psychotherapist, which focuses on energetic understanding whereas SE (Levine,2010) emphasises guiding the client’s attention to interoceptive, kinaesthetic,and proprioceptive experience (Payne, Levine & Crane-Godreau, 2015). Much of the work of theorists on body psychotherapy was influenced by Reich.
Embodied Psychotherapies use an integrative holistic psychological approach to treat trauma.
Using the idea that soma and psyche are inseparable and therefore cognitive,emotional, spiritual and bodily experience must be actively included in therapeutic work. As a result, the past emotional and traumatic events effect the central nervous system and can cause changes in the body and even in body language resulting in altered facial expression and posture as well as physical pain (Payne,Levine & Crane-Godreau, 2020). Embodied psychotherapists believe by paying attention to the movements of the body is a form of expressing and communicating trauma without talking. Someone with psychological issues may also have physical issues such as; muscle tension, digestive issues, sexual dysfunctions, hormonal issues. Practitioners can help people become more aware of these bodily sensations and learn to use therapeutic techniques to release any tension the body is holding. Such interventions can include mediation, breath exercises, massage, dance, yoga.
There has been strong evidence to suggest embodied psychotherapies are effective in treatments. One study done on military veterans with PTSD investigated the efficacy of a trauma sensitive yoga program.This research concentrated on neuropsychological aspects such as attention,working memory, verbal learning memory. Results showed a reduction in PTSD symptoms, 40% showed reductions in symptoms of depression indicating yoga can reduce physiological and anxiety symptoms of PTSD. Another study found yoga and arts-based methods promoted resilience and positive development amongst young people affected by trauma (Mayer, 2019). This shows that including the body is a successful method to treat trauma. Furthermore, a journal found physical exercise such as dance therapy produces long term beneficial effects on people with Parkinson disease (Mak, Wong-Yu, Shen & Chung, 2017)proving embodied psychotherapies are much more effective than talking therapies. Although talking therapies have seen short term effectiveness, in the long run the efficacy decreases (Pybis, Saxon, Hill & Barkham, 2017), it found 53% of participants with depression didn’t make a reliable and clinically significant improvement in their symptoms after a course of counselling. SE have had better long-term effects including increased resilience, increased experiences of well-being.
Findings have shown embodied psychotherapies can be a better alternative form of therapy especially when it comes to PTSD treatment. Although more research in this area of psychotherapy is needed.
Fahima Begum is a second year student of Psychology at Brunel University London
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Young, C. (2008). The history and development of Body-Psychotherapy:The American legacy of Reich. Body, Movement And Dance In Psychotherapy, 3(1),5-18. doi: 10.1080/17432970701717783
Schneider, K., Pierson, J., Bugental, J., &Aanstoos, C. The handbook of humanistic psychology.
The Reichian Therapy process – BodyPsychotherapy. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, fromhttps://www.bodypsychotherapy.info/en/reichian-therapy-process/
Payne, P., Levine, P., & Crane-Godreau, M.(2020). Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as coreelements of trauma therapy. Retrieved 19 August 2020, from
Mak, M., Wong-Yu, I., Shen, X., & Chung, C. (2017).Long-term effects of exercise and physical therapy in people with Parkinsondisease. Nature Reviews Neurology, 13(11), 689-703.doi: 10.1038/nrneurol.2017.128
Pybis, J., Saxon, D., Hill, A., & Barkham, M. (2017). Thecomparative effectiveness and efficiency of cognitive behaviour therapy andgeneric counselling in the treatment of depression: evidence from the 2nd UKNational Audit of psychological therapies. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1).doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1370-7