Body-Based Therapy: An Effective Path to Healing
Body-based therapy, also known as somatic therapy, is a holistic, whole body wellness, approach that recognizes the intricate connection between the mind and the body. It is a therapeutic modality that aims to promote overall wellness by addressing physical, emotional, and psychological challenges through the body.
Yesterday, my three year old grandson fell of a small retaining wall in my garden. He skinned his knee and wailed in pain. I instinctively picked him up, held him close to my body, and soothed his injured mind. Within a few minutes, he was ready to take off and resume his play. While his specific injury was on his knee, the entire episode impacted his mind. He felt fear along with the pain. His body reacted with a stress response, his breathing became shallow and rapid and his heart rate increased. My little guy didn’t need a band-aid, or an explanation. He needed to beheld close, feel his papa’s calm rhythmic breathing and reassuring voice.
Oddly, the pain of a skinned knee still hurt but once the alarm and fear of the fall dissipated the pain itself was not enough to end his drive to play. The simple remedy of soothing a child’s mind has flourished in human society throughout the ages as countless mothers have helped their children recover from the minor bumps and bruises of life. Body-based therapies rely on some of the same principles that make a hug an effective treatment for a skinned knee.
Body-based therapy are treatment styles that focus on the connection of mind and body that utilize both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing.
Accumulating and Stored Trauma and Stress
Like a child’s skinned knee, most of life’s physical and emotional hurts quickly pass. Our body responds to the unfavorable stimulus, reacts through adaptation, and we return to a homeostatic balance. However, repeated or substantial trauma and chronic stress can overwhelm normal healing functions, leaving residues of accumulating damage in our bodies.
Bessel van der Kolk explains, “trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body” (van der Kolk, 2015). Basically, experience reorganizes the functions of the body through adaptation. The more significant the experience, the more significant the alterations. However, van der Kolk adds, “for real change to take place, the body needs to learn the danger has passed.” Unfortunately for many, the underlying felt sense that the trauma and stress remains, whether because they live in realistic fear of a harsh environment or the intrusion of a faulty perception of an ever-present danger, prevents a healthy stress response and the healing return to normal functioning.
Unprocessed trauma, and chronic stress accumulate damaging the body and mind.
Stress is a biological function of the body. Events trigger stress to motivate action. Basically, stress is a three part occurrence. We perceive an external stimuli, interpret it as threatening, and the body reacts, preparing to defend through various physiological and behavioral adjustments. These changes occur because the body releases cortisol into the blood stream. However, the heightening levels of cortisol is a temporary state. For health, the body must return to its normal physiological functioning.
Gabor Maté explains “we need to mount a stress response in order to preserve internal stability.” External elements can disrupt our balance and threaten our existence. We respond to protect our delicate internal balance. He continues, “the essence of threat is a destabilization of the body’s homeostasis, the relatively narrow range of physiological conditions within which the organism can survive and function. To facilitate fight or escape, blood needs to be diverted from the internal organs to the muscles, and the heart needs to pump faster. The brain needs to focus on the threat, forgetting about hunger or sexual drive. Stored energy supplies need to be mobilized, in the form of sugar molecules. The immune cells must be activated. Adrenaline, cortisol and the other stress substances fulfill those tasks.
When stress accumulates, and the body stays in this heighten state of preparation to fight against threat, the cortisol begins to damage organs, hormonal balance, and adrenal glands. Our mind and emotions, intricately linked to our body, exaggerate perceptions as our story telling mind tries to make sense of the sensations of the body. These thoughts, in turn, impact the state of our body.
Mark G. Williams, Jon Kabat-Zinn, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and John D. Teasdale wrote that “once the body reacts in this way to negative thoughts and images, it feeds back to the mind the information that we are threatened or upset. Research has shown the state of our body affects the state of our minds without having any awareness of it” (Williams, et al., 2012, pp. 25-26).
Lawrence Heller suggests that when our stress response is frustrated, failing to resolve the threat, the failure interacts with our body states. He wrote, “the life force is the energy that fuels healthy aggression, strength, self-expression, separation/individuation, fight-flight, passion, and sexuality. When the core expressions of the life force are not supported, when they are inadequately responded to or blocked from expression, sympathetic activation in the nervous system increases” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, Kindle location: 276).
Heller adds, “as rage, anger, and then healthy aggression are progressively integrated, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms recede. As the developmentally unmet core needs are recognized, connection to the life force is progressively strengthened” (Kindle location: 297). Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., director of the Foundation for Human Enrichment, adds, “where flight and fight escape have been (or are perceived to be) unlikely, the nervous system reorganizes to tonic immobility” (Levine, 2003).
Notably, all these reaction to life are experienced through the entirety of the body. We feel life through various changes and adaptions in body chemistry. Since living life is a bodily experience, it makes sense that therapy should treat the whole body and not just the mind.
Understanding Body-Based Therapy
At its core, body-based therapy understands that the body carries unresolved trauma, stress, and emotional experiences. These experiences can manifest in physical tension, chronic pain, or other psychosomatic symptoms. By engaging in body-focused techniques, individuals can access, release, and resolve these stored trauma’s, ultimately enhancing their overall well-being.
Three Avenues of Treatment
Van der Kolk suggests that there are three avenues for treating emotional maladies:
- Top-down, by talking about what is going on inside of our minds, logically recalling and working through past memories of trauma
- Taking medication to shut down inappropriate alarm reactions (stress responses)
- Bottom-up by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).
Of course, the bottom up method is referring to the body based therapies. Psychotherapy is top down, using the mind to settle the body. Body based therapies using the mind to settle the mind. Sometimes, an integrated approach, using all three avenues of treatment is best.
Levine wrote that “in addition t recognizing the importance of cognitive factors, systematic study of bodily reactions and sensate experience is not only important, it is essential.” He explains that “appreciating the role of bodily experience illuminates the complex web called ‘anxiety’ and connects many threads in understanding and modifying its physiological and experiential basis” (Levine, 2003).
The Body and Wellness
Bessel van der Kolk, MD explains that “trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive” (van der Kolk, 2015). Accumulating trauma and anxiety in our bodies impact our aliveness, interrupting normal flows of life energy and successful adapting to environmental cues. Our bodies failure to appropriately respond to life invites maladaptive behaviors that further harm our wellness.
Linda Grabbe and Elaine Miller-Kara wrote, “the sense of self may be lost in acute trauma or never fully developed in developmental trauma, but under the gentle guidance of a skilled therapist, the intentional awareness of internal sensations may be learned, leading to enhanced self-regulation and access to positive internal resources.” They conclude, “these can be a portal to healing from trauma, a richer sense of being, improved personal relationships, and better control of emotions” (Grabbe & Miller-Kara, 2018).
The Principles of Body-Based Therapy
Somatic therapy incorporates various principles and techniques to support the healing process. “Here are some fundamental aspects of this therapeutic approach:
- Embodiment: Body-based therapy emphasizes the importance of being present in the body and developing a deeper awareness of bodily sensations, movements, and emotions. It encourages individuals to explore their bodily experiences to gain insight into their emotional states. Williams et. al. explain, “the experience of inhabiting the body with full awareness without succumbing to the pull of our thoughts about the body can lead to a profoundly liberating change in our relationship to our bodies—and to life more generally” (Williams, 2012, p. 103).
- Breathwork: Conscious breathing techniques play a pivotal role in body-based therapy. Deep belly breaths and specific breathing patterns help regulate the nervous system, reduce stress, and promote relaxation. Breathwork allows individuals to connect with their bodies and release tension held in the muscles.
- Somatic Movement: Somatic movement practices, such as yoga, tai chi, or dance, are frequently utilized in body-based therapy. These practices aim to increase body awareness, improve flexibility, release physical tension, and promote emotional expression. Somatic movement invites individuals to explore new ways of moving and experiencing their bodies.
- Touch and Bodywork: Body-based therapists may incorporate touch and bodywork techniques to facilitate healing. Gentle touch, massage, or specific bodywork modalities like Rolfing or craniosacral therapy can help release physical and emotional tensions held within the body.
- Mindfulness and Mind-Body Connection: Body-based therapy encourages individuals to cultivate mindfulness and develop a deeper understanding of the mind-body connection. By integrating the mind and body, individuals can gain insight into their emotional patterns and learn to respond to stressors in a healthier way.
Benefits of Body-Based Therapy
Body-based therapy offers a wide range of benefits for individuals seeking holistic healing. Some potential advantages include:
- Stress Reduction: By releasing physical tension and promoting relaxation, body-based therapy helps reduce stress and anxiety levels.
- Emotional Release: Through body-focused techniques, individuals can access and release unresolved emotions and traumatic experiences stored in the body.
- Improved Self-Awareness: Body-based therapy enhances self-awareness by fostering a deeper connection to bodily sensations, emotions, and patterns of behavior.
- Pain Management: Body-based therapy can be beneficial for individuals experiencing chronic pain, as it helps alleviate physical tension and promotes natural pain management.
- Post-Traumatic Growth: By addressing and healing past traumas, body-based therapy can aid in personal growth, resilience, and the development of healthier coping strategies.
Popular Body Based Therapies
Body based therapies include:
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy
- Yoga, Tai-Chi, Reiki (any exercise combined with mindfulness)
- Awareness Through Movement
- Somatic Therapy
- Massage and Acupressure
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
- Somatic Experiencing
- Trauma Resiliency Model
Body-based therapy provides a holistic approach to healing that recognizes the essential connection between the mind and the body. By incorporating techniques that target physical, emotional, and psychological well-being, this therapeutic modality offers individuals an opportunity to access their inner resources and promote holistic wellness. Whether it is through embodiment practices, breathwork, somatic movement, or touch-based therapies, body-based therapy can be a transformative journey towards self-discovery, healing, and personal growth.
Remember, if you are considering body-based therapy, it is important to seek guidance from a qualified body-based therapist to ensure a safe and personalized experience.
Grabbe, Linda; Miller-Karas, Elaine (2018). The Trauma Resiliency Model: A “Bottom-Up” Intervention for Trauma Psychotherapy. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 24(1), 76-84. DOI: 10.1177/1078390317745133
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Levine, Peter A. (2003). Panic, Biology, and Reason: Giving the Body Its Due. The United States Association for Body Psychotherapy. Volume 2.
Maté, Gabor (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Williams, Mark G.; Kabat-Zinn, Jon; Teasdale, John; Segal, Zindel, and Teasdale, John D. (2012). The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. The Guilford Press; Paperback.