What does the body have to do with Psychotherapy?

A short introduction to Body Psychotherapy

“In the beginning it was being, and only later was it thinking.
And for us now as we come into the world and develop,
we still begin with being, and only later, do we think.
We are and then we think and we think only inasmuch as we are.”

A. Damasio

In the experience as well as in the imagination of most of us, a counseling session takes place through talking. We usually seek psychotherapy when our soul is bleeding and our life becomes difficult -if not painful – in a way that compromises our degree of satisfaction, our sense of freedom, and our capacity to positively relate with others. During counseling, we communicate emotions, feelings, dreams, and memories to our counselor who listens, interprets, connects the dots, and helps us to make meanings of all this. This process happens through the use of verbal language. We use words to let our inner world unfold before the psychotherapist who – in turn – uses words as a healing medicine. From this perspective the same definition of Body Psychotherapy sounds like an oxymoron, almost a contradiction in terms.

So, what does the body have to do with Psychotherapy?

I have been asked this same question very often. It usually comes up at the beginning of my work with a new client, when I invite her to pay attention, for example, to what is happening inside her body while she is telling me something, no matter what she is talking about.

The question itself is an outcome of a cultural bias, which is deeply rooted in the Western world. It is the idea that our subjective experience – our sense of being and existing – corresponds to our capacity to think. We believe that we are inasmuch as we think.

The body – be it objectified, tattooed, valued, denied, trained, etc. – is for many of us little more than a nice support for the head. The way we commonly phrase our relationship to it is really interesting. We don’t say that we ARE a body. In fact, we say that WE HAVE a body. We HAVE two legs, two arms, and one head. We would never state that we ARE two legs, two arms, and one head. We describe physical pain and disease as something that we own or which inhabits us. We say that we have headache, back pain, tooth pain, dermatitis. We rightly want to get rid of the discomfort as soon as possible. Towards this end, we hold a kind of attitude that most often delegates to doctors and chemical treatments the whole responsibility for our own recovery. We rarely take the chance to slow down, feel, and investigate what is really happening to us, and why.

However, science is recently correcting this vision. Neurobiology is showing us that the Cartesian Cogito Ergo Sum – on which Western philosophy at the middle of the XVII century built a clear separation between psyche and soma – is actually a huge mistake[1]. We now know that the sense of Self, emotions, feelings and even the most exquisite intellectual functions – such as cognition or decision-making– are embodied processes. They partly happen under the threshold of our awareness through an intricate and unceasing flow of communication between the body and the brain. Body plays a major role in determining who we are, how we feel, and how we think.

These new scientific understandings encourage us to rethink the way we treat people. They clearly show the limitations intrinsic to those models of interventions, which use verbal language as the only way to investigate the complexity of the mind of our clients. We don’t have to stop talking. But words need to become just one of the pathways we use, beside other multimodal tools, meant to investigate the embodied felt-sense of our patients’ experience. This is why Body Psychotherapy.

Compared to traditional talk therapies, Body Psychotherapy constantly – even if not exclusively – focuses on the body as an object of investigation and intervention. Its basic principle is the body/mind unity. Body Psychotherapy assumes that the body IS the WHOLE person.

A session of Body Psychotherapy may start with the client talking about any of her experiences as well as describing a physical sensation, painful or not. We may start from the body to get to the mind, or from the mind to get to the body. This interface between the somatic and psychic dimension is our most meaningful source of information.

First and most accessible goal of the therapeutic work is to help the client re-gain the capacity to “feel” the impact that emotions, thoughts or experiences have on her body. This basic competence – which often gets lost during the growth – promotes itself a new sense of centeredness and awareness in relation to ourselves and to our external reality.

Body Psychotherapy views the body as a bridge towards the unconscious.  In its 80 years of life, Body Psychotherapy has developed a specific know-how to work in all those situations in which the body “knows” but the mind cannot explicitly remember. Neuroscientists are recently explaining to in the body are stored – at the level of implicit emotional/procedural memory – the very first experiences of our life. The body holds the imprinting of our early and formative interactions with the reality we come into.  Those interactions will contribute to determine our way of being into the world from that moment onwards. Through studying physical tensions, as well as facial expressions, ways of moving, patterns of behavior Body Psychotherapy digs its accessing route towards what we are without being aware of it. Our own “style” speaks about us beyond our own consciousness. If we pay attention to the way it whispers, our unique way of being will tell us the journey through which we became the person we are today.

Body Psychotherapy may or may not use physical contact: the hand of the therapist on the client’s hand, a touch on a shoulder, a light pressure on the neck, etc. When contact happens, it is always previously contracted with the patient. Its purpose is to better study the client’s organization of the experience or to support her during meaningful therapeutic processes.

Finally, Body Psychotherapy promotes healing EXPERIENCES, which aim to address and involve all dimensions of the patients. For this reason, although as in any other form of therapy there is no discount for the pain – it can be very creative, activating, joyful and extremely poetic.

[1] Descartes’ Error is the title of a fundamental book written in 1994 by the neurologist Antanio Damasio. The book is one of the first and most significant contribution to the process of reflecting and overcoming  the mind/body dualism.

© Valentina Iadeluca, December 2017