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Home arrow Articles arrow A Matter of Mind and Body

A Matter of Mind and Body Print E-mail

By Heather Ellis



IN TOUCH: Jeff Barlow and Lyndel Dean - a Yoga teacher who has trained in somatic psychotherapy

As we move through life, whether it is a frenzied scramble for 'more' or a leisurely stroll, it is easy to view the body as a vehicle - a mere conveyance for our thoughts and minds.

But what happens to all those thoughts and memories - some uplifting, some negative? All, according to somatic (body) psychotherapists, are signals absorbed and remembered not just by the mind, but also by the body.

In the situation where we bombard ourselves with a constant stream of negative thoughts, the result is an unhappiness that often manifests as ill health, said Jeff Barlow, a Melbourne-based somatic psychotherapist and the training director for the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy.

However, instead of 'putting up' with these negative feelings or masking their unhappiness with alcohol, drugs or anti-depressants such as Prozac, some people are seeking change through somatic psychotherapy.

This little known field of psychotherapy that offers significant benefits to our health and wellbeing encourages us to see the mind and the body as being inextricably interconnected.

"It is the awareness that your body is not just a vehicle but is as much a part of you as your mind," Jeff said. "Our bodies are the source of sensation, feelings and emotions and could actually be more significant in how we form ourselves as human beings than our minds."

By using a combination of verbal counselling, psychotherapy and body methods such as breathing, relaxation and expressive movement, a somatic psychotherapist can help a client come to terms with their emotional pain and/or to move forward with strength and confidence in their life.

"We often believe that the way we feel about life and about ourselves is just a matter of changing our mind or our thought patterns, but personal change has to be deeply connected to our bodies through making changes in our neuro-physiology," Jeff added.

Jeff, who first introduced somatic psychotherapy to Australia from Europe in 1983 and soon after founded the professional Australian Association of Somatic Psychotherapists, said most people see their bodies as a 'given' - a result of our genetic make-up.

"But our bodies are not only formed by our genes. Significantly, our bodies are also formed by the experiences and the relationships we are exposed to," he said.

"These relationships start with our parents when as a child we may be exposed to behaviours, emotions and attitudes, which undermine our self-confidence and self-esteem. This view of ourselves can be carried through into our future relationships from school friends through to work colleagues and our partners."

The result is that our neurobiology forms around these experiences and somatic psychotherapy can help change our neurobiological patterns, he said. "But to do so, we need to develop an awareness of our thought patterns and the associated tensions and emotions felt in the body," he added.

Somatic psychotherapy has its origins dating back to 1923 when Sigmund Freud recognised the importance of the body in psychoanalysis. But it was Freud's student Wilhelm Reich who researched the concept further and founded somatic (body) psychotherapy. He believed as children we develop defences as a way of avoiding painful emotions. He called these defences "muscular armouring" - a muscle tension state which as we grow, blocks the body's natural flow of experience and energy. Reich found that talk or counselling alone was not enough to bring back the energy flow but touch through pressure to a particular muscle could assist in releasing the emotional blockages.

Dr Gwen Francis, a College graduate and one of a small but growing number of Australian medical practitioners who have studied somatic psychotherapy, is convinced the mind/body connection plays a leading role in our physical health.

"I have always had a strong belief about the connection between our mind and our wellbeing and our health and disease," Dr Francis said.

A general practitioner since 1969, and now also a teacher of somatic psychotherapy, Dr Francis said her GP experience placed her in an ideal position to see the limitations of what general medicine and psychiatry had to offer in treating some patients.

"This is especially relevant to those with emotional and relationship distress, those struggling to make something of their lives and those struggling with alcohol or drug abuse," she said.

Dr Francis said it was through her practice that she had become aware of the serious impact that trauma, loss and abuse had on people's physical and mental wellbeing both developmentally and throughout their life.

"I actually developed an awareness that certain people did not get better with routine medications and counselling and when I looked at these people they had actually suffered quite significant traumas at sometime in their lives," she said. "And what I had to offer medically did not solve their problem very well at all."

Dr Francis said she found these traumatised people amongst those suffering chronic pain syndromes, some of the chronic fatigue syndromes, intractable drug or alcohol abuse and personality disorders.

With adding somatic psychotherapy to her work, Dr Francis said she was able to include dealing with people's feelings [both past stored and present ones], in a very empathic way and also to work with their bodies where appropriate. She believes that the body holds and expresses people's psyche, including the traumas they have been through.

"The body gives you a lot of information through posture, movement, breathing and skin colour and this may reveal inner distress that the individual may be unable to express verbally.

"And using this information appropriately can assist a patient to connect with his feelings and body as part of the process of recovery," she said.

Dr Francis has found that this integrated approach has created more calmness, aliveness and well-being for her patients. After using somatic psychotherapy and getting good results with treating patients, Dr Francis said she now wanted to demonstrate to the medical profession the importance of working with the body beyond just its physiology.

"Doctors are trained in the body and what goes wrong with the body but we are not really trained to look at the body as an expression of our psyche and that is the difference because the body holds so much of our psyche," she said.

Somatic psychotherapy makes this connection and treats people holistically, said Jeff Barlow.

"We can all easily take control of our health and wellbeing just by developing an awareness of this connection to our bodies, especially with breathing and habitual tension states," Jeff said.

"This is an important first step to understanding the physical and emotional tensions we harbour, often for years, in our bodies - tensions resulting in all manner of symptoms."

In this way there are some similarities, he said, between somatic psychotherapy and Yoga and Shiatsu, as both can put us in touch with accessing these tension states.

Yoga teacher and former somatic psychotherapy student, Lyndel Dean, said Yoga, through focusing on the breath directs our awareness to sensations felt in specific areas of the body. This in turn helps increase the flow of energy, dissipates anxiety and calms the autonomic nervous system.

"When I first started teaching Yoga twelve years ago, I noticed that some of the asanas (postures) often triggered an emotional response, creating in some people, a strong need to talk about their experience.

"Because there was no instruction or explanation available about the emotions when I first began learning Yoga, when these arose, I either avoided the feelings or avoided Yoga altogether." said Lyndel.

Now with her knowledge of somatic psychotherapy, Lyndel said she was capable of supporting the students who came to her when their emotions were triggered.

"As a result, both the student and myself can gain some understanding. Discovering that there is actually a therapy called somatic psychotherapy which includes the body, has helped me personally and professionally," she said.

"The theory of somatic psychotherapy becomes more easily understandable when you consider that there is a constant communication going on with every cell in our bodies.

"In a basic way, you can see how it all makes sense," she added. Melbourne third year student Marisa Ranieri, a qualified Shiatsu practitioner since 1993, said she immediately found a link between the Yin Yang focus of Shiatsu and the mind-body theories of somatic psychotherapy. Marisa said during a 90 minute Shiatsu treatment, while working on different organs or parts of the body, some clients would open up emotionally. But without counselling training she was not skilled at responding verbally. "I wanted to know how do I deal with this, how could I help,"

Marisa said her training in Shiatsu had taught her that different emotions are harboured in different organs, but the training did not provide skills in verbalising the emotions that people experienced as a result of the treatment. Marisa said people can hide their feelings by what they say and it may be difficult to spot what is going on. However, any chronic muscular constrictions in the body may point to long held and unexpressed emotions and this can allow the somatic psychotherapist an access to the life issues that are currently important to the person, she said.

"A general message conveyed by the body can be observed by a person's posture, for example, hunched shoulders portraying the carrying of a heavy burden," Marisa said. "But this may not be the same as what is being communicated verbally."

While Marisa's Shiatsu training allows her to pick up, with her hands, the physical tensions in a person's body, her recent training in somatic psychotherapy means she is now able to discuss the associated emotions. But somatic psychotherapy, unlike Yoga and Shiatsu, also pays significant attention to relationship patterns, said Jeff Barlow.

A lot of the problems we have in life, Jeff explains, originate in difficult relationships. "The way to resolve these problems is to understand our relationships with other people and the tensions around these relationships where we either run away from the people close to us, verbally attack them or don't listen to them."

Melbourne sisters, Kim and Ann-Marie Robinson work as residential youth carers for teenagers and children from homes surrounded by crime, drugs and violence.

Ann-Marie said as residential carers they had completed a certificate course in youth, child and family studies but found it had little relevance in helping them understand how to react to the gauntlet of intense emotions expressed by their clients - emotions mostly developed out of their relationships with parents and other family members.

Both have been studying somatic psychotherapy for two years and say they are now better equipped to read body language and the triggers to violent and destructive behaviour.

"The children and teenagers take out all their anger on you but with this training, I can now recognise and understand what is happening and respond in a more appropriate way,'' Kim said.

Jeff said he became interested in somatic psychotherapy in 1975 while studying in London. "I had been involved with a number of personal development groups and had many experiences that convinced me that working with the habitual tension states in the body was a significant key to making long term change to behavioural patterns," he said.

It was a belief that saw Jeff formally study somatic psychotherapy in the UK and Europe for the next six years. "It has been a study which has now engaged me for 28 years," he added.