Therapy in 3D: Lessons from Body Psychotherapy

By Goodrich-Dunn, Barbara | Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Therapy in 3D: Lessons from Body Psychotherapy


Goodrich-Dunn, Barbara, Psychotherapy Networker


Therapy in 3D

Lessons from body psychotherapy

by Barbara Goodrich-Dunn

For many therapists, the world of somatic psychotherapy still has the somewhat exotic and bewildering quality of an undiscovered country, despite the fact that it's been around now for more than 80 years. In fact, while there are a wide range of approaches to somatic psychotherapy (see sidebar page 42), all with their own terminology and specialized methods, they all share the same core assumption: the body is inseparable from our feelings of ourselves and our experience of others. From a body-psychotherapy perspective, even talk therapists are still "feeling" their clients' bodies and emotions just below their conscious awareness.

So what makes the body psychotherapist's work any different from that of a more traditional talk therapist? The body psychotherapist is far more likely to make the ways clients move, stand, hold themselves, and breathe as important in the assessment of who they are and what they need as what they say about themselves. Beyond that, body psychotherapy typically involves bringing clients' bodies into their treatment in some way, usually through breathing, movement, vocalizing, or touch.

As therapists, we may not be aware of exactly how much our bodies are sensors of our clients' underlying reality and communicators of our own. I remember 30 years ago in my own training as a body psychotherapist the day that we were studying how emotional patterns underlie people's postures. At one point my teacher said to me, "You're really shy, aren't you? But you come across as aloof."

I was shocked. I didn't feel aloof; quite the opposite, I was desperate to connect.

"You look as though you're looking down your nose at people," she told me. Then she showed me. She cocked her head back and looked down at me from under her glasses. Suddenly, I got it. It was something I'd been doing all my life, mostly to look calm. But when I saw her "looking above it all," I saw why people might not approach me. From that moment, my head came down and I learned to look people in the eye in a different way. The seemingly simple matter of changing the angle of my head not only changed how people saw me, but how I saw them. By making level eye contact, I was able to actually make the connection I so wanted to make, rather than observing someone from "above." I seemed friendlier to other people, and other people seemed friendlier to me.

By focusing me on the immediate, physical dimensions of my experience, my trainer opened up new doors for me. This tiny, somatic intervention had gigantic effects. Heightening awareness of your own body experience, even in small ways, can be enormously beneficial. What follows explores just a bit of what body psychotherapy might have to teach talk therapists, even if they may think they have no interest whatsoever in applying any specialized somatic techniques in their practice.

Breathing

Our ancient ancestors understood that our psychological experience is rooted in breathing. Both psyche and spirit have their origins in the Greek and Latin words for breath. These early cultures intuitively knew that, from birth, the way we breathe is a major part of how we manage our experience of sensation and emotion. Some times subtly, sometimes quite dramatically, changes in breathing patterns are one of the principal ways that our internal ecology adapts to the sudden demands of external situations. We breathe in distinctive ways when we feel fear, panic, excitement, sexuality, pleasure, love, anticipation, anger, and sadness. Think about the sharp intake of breath when we feel awe ("It took my breath away"), or the shallow, rapid breathing of fear ("I was breathless with fear"), or the feeling of suffocation when someone is too close to us ("I can't breathe around him").

This fundamental component in our biological design also gives psychotherapists a powerful tool for helping clients with their emotional, physical, energetic, and mental states. …

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