Bioenergetics

Man practicing stress relieving bionenergetics therapy

Bioenergetics

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Definition

Bioenergetics is a healing method that is rooted in the concept that there exists a deep connection between our body and mind so strong that they are one and the same. Bioenergetics has roots in the psychoanalytic tradition as pioneered by Sigmund Freud, but the true pioneer of bioenergetics was a student of Freud, Wilhelm Reich.

Therefore bioenergetics also carries the name Reichian body-oriented psychotherapy. Reich noticed that there seems to be a connection between trauma from our childhood and physical ailments.

Revolution of Bioenergetics

If Wilhelm Reich is the pioneer, then the man who truly developed bioenergetics into its modern form is his disciple Alexander Lowen. Lowen was an American lawyer who met Reich in 1940. He underwent Reichian style therapy for a few years and began learning his methods himself, eventually developing his own style, which he termed bioenergetics.

Lowen long had an interest in the body, movement, and exercise, even studying a method of body relaxation called Jacobson Relaxation and Eurythmics, a method of musical expression through body movement, with a focus on combining the mind and body.

Eventually, he formed his own health organization, The Institute of Bioenergetic Analysis in 1956 with two other followers of Reich, John Pierrakos and William Walling.

Portrait of Alexander Lowen
American physician & Psychotherapist
(1910-2008)
Life is not a mixture of matter and energy but energy in matter, bound in such a way that dissociation is impossible so long as the living process continues.

The Far-Reaching Dangers of Stress of Trauma

According to their theories, our body physically manifests our mental problems in different ways. Trained therapists are then able to recognize these patterns and use them to help give deeper insights into the workings of and problems of the psyche. Therapists also look at one’s relationship patterns to help form a full picture of their various selves.

Ultimately, we are all reaching for a state of complete, all-encompassing fulfilment and this is reached through a path. Deviating from this path results in “ailments”. Typically, these are emotional or mental in nature. The therapy primarily focuses on things one would visit a traditional psychotherapist for: post-traumatic stress, anxiety, stress, or depression, but because of the physical aspect, it can also help with back, neck, or shoulder pain.

One article lists the example that a childhood trauma can result in a deep-set fear response that can follow a person for their life. Negative emotions from our childhood actually causes muscles to tighten as a defence mechanism. Sufferers physically hold certain protective postures such as making themselves look small. Emotionally, they’ll become reserved and protective of their emotional state, which has strong repercussions on their interpersonal relationships.

Basically, every emotion has a physical manifestation and bioenergetics is one way to help.

What to Expect in Bioenergetic Therapy

Bioenergetic therapists also believe that our bodies make unconscious reactions to certain stimuli and these are likely the result of the body’s memory. Certain people make us close up or cause our muscles to tighten. Conversely, some people will make us open up. The memory can also manifest itself by helping us make decisions, the “gut feeling” reaction to things.

Bioenergetic therapy is similar to traditional psychoanalysis, but it integrates body work into the process, making it a much more holistic approach to health than pure forms of psychotherapy. A bioenergetic therapist will try to unearth the emotional root of the patients’ problems.

The ultimate goal is for the patient to be self-reliant, to reach a point where they can deal with their own issues without the help of a therapist. The patient is taught through movement and sometimes touch to be self-aware of their own postures, movements, and breathing and how these reinforce problems, not just exist as manifestations of them. By physically adjusting the patients to the proper position, it helps release the trauma that is stored in the muscles.

This bioenergetic therapy focuses especially on forming a bond between the therapist and the patient. In a way, the therapist aims to reach a level of emotional resonance with the patient where they can almost feel what they are feeling. It helps build chemistry that coaxes the patient to open up and lower their emotional and body defences.

Bioenergetic therapists are particularly concerned with attachment theory, which says that the way our needs were met before the age of three can deeply influence aspects of our relationship strategies as an adult.

According to Reich’s theories, which are often still espoused by modern therapists, our experiences will be expressed in a mixture of five major character archetypes, each with its own posture: the Unwanted Child, The Needy Child, The Endurer, The Controller Leader, and The Perfectionist. The bioenergetic therapist will try to examine their attachment strategy and personality type and either utilize it to help them develop healthier ones.

Five major character archetypes according to Wilhelm Reich’s theories
Wilhelm Reich categorised five primary character types which are formed at various stages of childhood from birth to puberty.

Some of the exercises practiced in this form of therapy can resemble yoga or Pilates and the results are similar. However, bioenergetic exercises do not have the purpose of improving one’s fitness, but instead helps generate energy flow. Some may argue that there is some congruency between bioenergetics and a lot of the energy models used by Ayurvedic medicine and other energy-based healing methods. That these points of muscle tension are manifestations of blocked vital energy.

One example of a common bioenergetic exercise is “the arch”, where the patient slowly lets the weight of their head pull them forward and down in a stretch similar to a forward bend in yoga. Another is “the bow” where the patient stretches their self upright, reaching their hands up and back so their spine takes a bow-like shape.

Like yoga, there is also a focus on proper breathing techniques.

Efficacy

Many of Reich’s ideas were quite far out from the mainstream thinking of psychotherapy. By the time that he had passed away in prison, he had been ridiculed as a whole and had even written books about space aliens. This latter point does not discredit his earlier work, especially that with bioenergetics, but many use this as ironic evidence that this guru of mental health was far from healthy in his own head, and his postulations seem to be made with no regard for actual science.

Evidence in Support of Bioenergetic Therapy

In general, bioenergetics lies under the body psychotherapy or body oriented psychotherapy (BOP) umbrella which includes dance therapy, massage therapy, and yoga. It’s a huge field. It is widely practiced in Europe and Britain and some universities even offer degrees in “somatic psychology”.

Despite this, it remains relatively underrepresented in mainstream psychological research. Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to specifically define, though many of the methods overlap.

Another stumbling block to studying bioenergetics and BOP is that it is very hard to design effective clinical studies, so much of the evidence is case-based, with all the biases that such papers include.

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Traditional psychotherapy is pretty well accepted as effective in treating a variety of mental disorders and integrating movement into the practice has shown some positive effects. In general, BOP seems to be effective in the treatment of disorders related to body image, especially bulimia. It did not seem to help with anorexia nervosa though.

One study specifically tested bioenergetics in treating sufferers of chronic somatoform disorder, where one experiences pain and other physical symptoms with no clear medical cause. It was done with a comparison to general aerobic exercises and found that patients showed a lower level of reported depression and repression of anger. Through bioenergetics, they also showed an improvement in their levels of social insecurity.

There seems to be little debate on whether traumatic events in one’s childhood, such as abuse and neglect, can have a severe, long-lasting effect on one’s physical and mental health. These traumas may have some connection to the development of personality. For example, there has been shown a connection between trauma and engaging in risky behaviour as adults. Plus, it has also been shown that there is a connection to the use of drugs and alcohol.

Toxic stress in another well reported result of devastating childhood trauma. It has been shown that excessive exposure to extremely stressful events can have a very negative effect on one’s health. There are links to unhealthy emotional relationships and can cause other mental disorders such as depression, not to mention physical problems such as heart disease or diabetes. This is not necessarily a death sentence for sufferers.

According to some studies, meditation and other relaxation techniques, massage, and the forming of positive relationships can help reduce its effects, which is in line with some of the ideas being espoused by bioenergetic healers. Neither of the two aforementioned points exactly match their claims, but it does show that there is a scientific basis to aspects of bioenergetics.

Man practicing stress relieving bionenergetics
Bioenergetics is often used to treat mental disorders.

In general, bioenergetics seems to be gaining traction in the treatment of mental disorders. Hopefully, there will be more in depth research on the efficacy of the studies. At the very least, incorporating stretches and other stress-relieving movements will do no harm. And if these methods give patients relaxation and some relief from their pain, there seems to be little argument against at least trying bioenergetics.

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